Monday, May 09, 2005

Prudence & the Doctrine of Sin

I must make a confession. I really enjoy reading David Brooks. His amateur anthropology of the American situation is perceptive and engaging. His breezy writing style disarms readers. He is a compelling essayist because he loves his subject matter. That being said, Brooks has his shortcomings. He is better suited to the medium of the essay. His books read like a string of essays, not all of the same quality. He also has a tendency of simplification. He sees modern American life as self-contradictory (for example, he celebrates the rise of the bourgeois bohemians), and then celebrates the synthesis.

In a recent column for the New York Times, Brooks appears at his best and not-so-best. Writing about the continuing American debate between the religious and secular, he lifts up the example of Abraham Lincoln.

“…Lincoln was neither a scoffer nor a guy who could talk directly to God. Instead, he wrestled with faith, longing to be more religious, but never getting there.”
Brooks sees Lincoln as the solution to our cultural divide. We need to acknowledge the great power of religion, yet we shouldn’t be too quick to embrace it.

“Today, a lot of us are stuck in Lincoln's land. We reject the bland relativism of the militant secularists. We reject the smug ignorance of, say, a Robert Kuttner, who recently argued that the culture war is a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism. But neither can we share the conviction of the orthodox believers, like the new pope, who find maximum freedom in obedience to eternal truth. We're a little nervous about the perfectionism that often infects evangelical politics, the rush to crash through procedural checks and balances in order to reach the point of maximum moral correctness.”
I agree with Brooks that Lincoln’s devotion to “prudence” would benefit Christians in politics. Pat Robertson’s desire to deny Muslims appointments as judges solely based upon their faith is a wonderful case in point. Some conservatives are concerned that some judges are being filibustered based upon their religious beliefs rather than how they would judge. In contrast, Robertson’s words implies that religious tests are okay as long as they don’t apply to conservative Christians. “Prudence” would dictate that Robertson’s position is blatantly unfair.

However, I disagree with David Brooks that “prudence” is found only outside of orthodox religious belief. Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, has understood that humanity has been corrupted by sin. As a result, all human activity, including our good works, are tainted. The good intentions of political reformers are not enough. The “rush to crash through procedural checks and balances” is not mandated by the Christian religion. The doctrine of humanity’s sinfulness should give Christians the healthy dose of skepticism that Brooks desires.

Brooks is right to be critical of some evangelical Christians in the public square, but in the process, he has slandered many more.

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