November 29, 2022

Does a religiously diverse nation need a common story?

Author David Brooks reflects on the changing demographics of America and its impact on the spiritual understanding of a generation.

In This Episode...

As a record number of young people grow up with little connection to formal religion, New York Times columnist and best-selling author David Brooks reflects with Eboo on how religious narratives shape our lives and impact the spiritual and moral ambitions of a generation. 

About David Brooks

Best-selling author David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times, a commentator on “The PBS Newshour,” and a frequent analyst on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic, and op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal. His most recent book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” was published in 2019.

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Does a religiously diverse nation need a common story?


Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America podcast and I’m Eboo Patel.


Eboo Patel: The first article I read by David Brooks was a cover story in “The Atlantic” called “The Organization Kid.” I was a graduate student at Oxford University at the time and I thought to myself reading that piece, “Boy, this guy has captured a generation,” or a particular segment of it, the segment of strivers, which I probably was a part of, and did not feel particularly flattered by that article. It was incisive, it was the truth and David had gotten it. I’ve read just about everything David Brooks has written since and that’s pretty much my reaction to everything he says – “This is not entirely flattering but David’s captured it, he got it, there’s something incisive and truthful here. I think that’s the measure of a writer.” 

David Brooks and I struck up a friendship a few years ago and that’s because some years back, he started writing about religion, its impact on character, the character of individuals, the character of nations, that’s what we do here at Interfaith America, deeply interested in how religion impacts the meaning in our lives, and how we interact with each other. I was really happy to sit down with David Brooks and explore some of those questions in this podcast. I wondered, in his decades of commenting on our social condition, and his years of writing about religion, what’s he learning about us, and himself? 

David Brooks: We live our life forward, but understand it backwards or as somebody once said, “The owl of Minerva flies at dusk, the owl of wisdom comes later, when you’re looking back.” I would say looking back on my writing career, and maybe my life, it’s a quest for greater depth. I think I was naturally born as a reasonably shallow person. I remember thinking in my 20s that I was happy to be shallow. I saw all these people suffering around me and I was like, “Yes, I’m good. I don’t need that.” If you look at my writing, I’ve tended to write about American zeitgeist but hopefully from one level down at each step. 

My first book, which came out in 2000, was called “Bobo’s in Paradise,” and it’s about consumerism. Then I wrote a book called “On Paradise Drive,” which was about real estate, basically development patterns. Then, I wrote a book called “The Social Animal” which is about emotion. I wrote that book in order to teach myself about emotion because I wasn’t the most emotional guy on the face of the earth. My friends joked at me writing a book about emotion was like Gandhi writing a book without gluttony, it was just like something I had to work on. 

Patel: You tell this great story of a bat in the baseball stadium landing at your feet and you’re like, “Ah, I got a bat.” You didn’t cheer. You’re like, “Ah, I got–” the temperament stayed the same, right? 

Brooks: Yes, and I wanted to feel more emotion and then I got what I wanted in excess. I went through a rough period in my life in the early 2010s and it was a period of loneliness, it was a period of divorce, it was a period of spiritual searching, and spiritual wandering. It really mattered to me that I guess the urges that really came to the fore were transcendent urges, the urge for sanctification to feel that I really think, as Viktor Frankl famously said, we have a drive for meaning, we can’t survive unless we have a sense that our life has meaning that we’re aligned to some transcendent good. I was searching for that transcendent good and it was often a tumultuous, and raw search. 

If you saw me in 2013, 2014, you saw a guy in the middle of a lot of rawness. People would even respond to my newspaper columns, which I thought were very shallow and about politics like, “What the heck is wrong with that guy?” I think my searching took me to theologians. I think I’d always known that there was even before I had any faith at all, I’d known that if you read Viktor Frankl or if you read Reinhold Niebuhr or if you read Abraham Joshua Heschel, they’re dealing with reality on a deeper moral and spiritual level and I, like a lot of people, was morally and spiritually innumerate, meaning if you didn’t know anything about science and math, we would say you’re innumerate. If you don’t know anything about how spiritual formation happens, there’s a big gap in your life and you just stumble around satisfying lesser desires. I just, in those periods, found this intense hunger to understand what the meaning and purpose in my life was to align myself with the transcendent good. 

Patel: Part of what strikes me about that early 2010s writing is you’re creating a zeitgeist. I don’t know if you feel like taking responsibility for that, it sounds like this is out of thin air but a wide group of people become interested in religiously infused meaning, because of the way you write about it. Are you aware of that at the time, like you’re generating something and not just pointing to something? 

Brooks: Yes, I’m not sure. I consider myself an average man with above-average communication skills and so I think when I’m going through something, a lot of people are going through it at the same time. I just would notice I wrote a book called “Road to Character,” which held up moral exemplars, Samuel Johnson, Philip Randolph, Dorothy Day. I noticed when I would begin to speak about those people and how the one thing they had in common, they were all kind of pathetic at age 20 but they were amazing at age 70 and I wanted to know how they did that. 

When I would speak to people, there was a quality of silence in those audiences that was different than anything I’d ever heard before. There was an intensity of listening because somehow the question – you know, we’re writers just working on our own crap in public – and there was a mass hunger that I think a lot of the people were going through at the same time. I would not say I was reshaping the culture because that book, “Road to Character” was really about humility, and it came out in 2015 and then 2016 happens and the rise of Donald Trump. I wouldn’t say humility really took off. 

Patel: That is an excellent point. It was a significant feeling but a minority of the electorate, maybe we can put it that way. 

Brooks: Maybe the way to put it is America’s over-politicized and under-moralized. We spend too much time talking about politics, not enough moral growth, character formation, finding a purpose in life, telling stories about ourselves and each other, then make each other feel understood. 

Patel: I remember you saying at some point, you write a politics column and it does its thing in “The New York Times,” you write a column on character, morality, religion, meaning, and it’s like the most emailed column of the week and clearly, you are tapping into something. You’re also, I think, helping to create something, but it’s worth noting. One of the other areas of this I want to press with you, David, is you say in a kind of your typically modest way, “I’m illiterate in this.” To be really blunt, it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels like there is a resurrection. This is part of my faith journey so maybe I’m projecting it upon you but I grew up with the Ismaili Muslim tradition in my house, it’s kind of in my bones, my mom whispers, Ya Aliah Muhammad, the Ismaili Shia mantra before going to bed, and I’m kind of dismissive of it or whatever. When I hit my own patch that you’re describing in your life, those things come back to me, it’s a resurrection. I’m curious if you experience your interest in the spiritual, the religious, et cetera as a resurrection, or really as an illiteracy in which you are then going back and starting from the ABCs. 

Brooks: Now that you put it that way, I do think that more as a resurrection. I sense that when I’m teaching, I teach college and sometimes I pour more into the kids than they’re able to receive just because they haven’t had that much life experience but I’m hoping I’m planting seeds that will then come back to them when life demands it. I would say that happened to me. I grew up in Lower Manhattan. I went to this school called Grace Church School and every morning, we sat in this beautiful chapel and it was an old, gothic, stained glass windows, the whole deal, and I was haunted by a sense of transcendence even when I was a kid, like something was beautiful in the spiritual sense about that atmosphere. Then I went to the University of Chicago where we read all these deep books, Hegel, Nietzsche, I read Thucydides 8 million times and once you’ve tasted the wine, the bug juice doesn’t satisfy. 

I do think these things were planted at me. There’s a way, at least I, but I think a lot of people get emotionally and spiritually sealed up in the process of building a career, in the process of trying to show how much you matter, a lot of that stuff dims and then life starts happening to you and suddenly you need the resources and that’s when the seeds bloom. Just as you said, I think the things that were planted in me by my family, by my school, by the University of Chicago, they were dormant for a while, and then bloomed. 

Patel: This is a familiar tale. Rainn Wilson writes about this in his book, “The Bassoon King,” and I think it’s kind of hilarious that I’m putting you and Rainn Wilson into the same paragraph. He’s got this really powerful Baháʼí story where he grows up at Baháʼí family, his dad actually moves to the Chicagoland area to work at Baháʼí temple. He goes to New Trier, which is this hyper, academically rigorous high school in terms of just excellence across the board, he gets into acting, he gets involved in all kinds of stuff he shouldn’t get involved in, drugs and stuff in the ’80s and then he wakes up and he realizes, “Oh, yes, I’m a Baháʼí. Here’s how Baháʼís behave in the world. The seed is there for him to go back and tend and Anne Lamott writes about why she requires her son Sam to go to church. 

Here’s where I want to want to juxtapose this when I talked to Krista Tippett she said, this is the first generation of American kids who were not raised with any religion. She says this and she notes, so there is something of a purity to their search and then she pauses and in that pause is a lament. I want to just put that to you the story of I return to the seeds that were planted to those days in Grace Cathedral School with the stained glass windows. I had something to return to and to tend that seed. I’m curious your comment, concern, attitude towards a generation or two raised without anything to return to in that regard. 

Brooks: I’ve been teaching at Yale for 20 years and Yale’s a really peculiar place and not representative of America. What I have noticed, which I think is semi-representative, is when I first started teaching there to be religious was embarrassing. It was like you had acne. Then over the course of the 20 aughts and the 2010s, it became somewhat cool, somewhat of a sense, “Oh, this person has spiritual depth.” Then with Trump and especially White evangelicals it became a disgraceful again. I do think the generation that I’m now teaching as you say, don’t have any baggage about religion. 

Twenty years ago and certainly my age group, a lot of people especially Catholics or evangelicals, had a lot of baggage and they saw faith through the way it had wounded them. Now, when many fewer people grow up in religious homes, they don’t have baggage and so as Krista said, they approached things with just a curiosity. I have a friend who’s a white evangelical who taught at the University of Chicago recently and he said the kids would come to him at night just to talk about religion. They were just curious. The downside is a lack of awareness or familiarity with religious concepts like words like grace, redemption, you used resurrection, that’s a really resonant term. It has a whole history to it. 

If you don’t understand sin, redemption, grace it’s hard to understand what’s going on morally inside because those words are the words we use to describe inner degradation or sanctification. Even to think of that process, C.S. Lewis says, every little decision you make has an effect to either make the piece inside of you that makes decisions a little more holy or a little less holy. Without that concept of holiness, it’s hard to really understand what the hell he’s talking about. 

I see a very spiritually and morally ambitious generation, but which have not been given the vocabulary to understand how this whole process works. Therefore, I think one of the things that we have to try to do is transmit those as they were transmitted to us and transmitted to rising generations. That’s one of the reasons I teach. 

Patel: You and I are word people, we’re concept people and you have this, I’m going to call it a confession in your writing where you say, “Look, some people go to schul, some people go to church, I write.” It is a spiritual practice and an expression. I deeply resonate with that. Religion is a lot more than that. One of the things religion is, is just things in your bones it’s just the ritual. It’s just the things you say so my closest childhood friend’s wife just suddenly died and it is the most tragic thing and I knew what to do. I knew the prayers to say, and I’ve known them since I was a child and I didn’t have to think. 

My boys who argue with me about everything did not argue with me when I said, “We are going to say the Ismaili Muslim prayers for somebody who was dying.” You come and you do the chants. To learn a vocabulary and I’m somebody who re-embraced faith in my 20s in really in intellectual form, that’s what I am. I deeply resonate with how you approach it and present it. This embodied form this, “I just know the chants. I’m so broken. I can’t think but I know the chants.” How do you teach that except through formation? 

Brooks: I wrote a column about evangelicals a couple of weeks ago and even to get the word, “Christian formations,” the paper was challenging because a lot of people said readers will have no idea what the word formation means. That shows where we are but I do think for us it’s through words and books. Life is made up of the small moments. Jews have handed down a set of wise practices so if you go to a Jewish home there’ll be a mezuzah on the door. Why is there a mezuzah on the door? Because walking through a doorway is a transition. If you have a transition in life, you should have a ritual to go with a transition to mark the movement from one state of consciousness to another. 

We do that when we have graduation ceremonies, wedding ceremonies but even walk in a room, transition. Or when somebody dies as you say, you wouldn’t think intuitively if somebody loses a son or in this case a wife, you wouldn’t think, “You know what you should do having had suffered this terrible loss, you should host a ton of people over to your home for next week.” That’s not intuitive but the Jewish shiva rituals, it’s you will host or you’ll go to a group and the community will gather around you. Among other practical things in the midst of grief, it gives you something to do. You’re making whatever, making casseroles, whatever it is. 

Then there are many rituals within the shiva ritual. You sit next to the person you don’t necessarily talk to them maybe you talk around them as somebody else who’s also sitting next to the person in grief. You just surround them with your presence. I’ve found for those who suffered a loss, you mention the person who has just died. If they want to talk about that person they have an opportunity and if they don’t, they cannot. It’s not like you’re avoiding the subject. 

Patel: The point that you made about the shiva ritual it was in a column a few weeks back. I just thought that was brilliant. This is part of what religion does is that it is an accumulation of wise practices, which are often immediately counterintuitive. Nobody in their right mind would want to fast from sun up to sundown for a month of the year. It’s a counterintuitive practice that has lasted for thousands of years because there is a life-giving wisdom to it. I want to end up the personal part of this and then shift to the nation and the civilization. 

I want to end with the Springsteen thing and whenever I talk to you about Springsteen, there’s a glow. Both of us are big fans, we have Dorothy Day in common, we have Springsteen in common. I think you like St. Augustine more than I like St. Augustine, but on Springsteen and Dorothy Day and baseball and Whitman, I think there’s an awful lot of mutual love. 

What Springsteen does in his show on Broadway, it just makes so much sense to me. It’s like one of these moments when my eyes well with tears because there’s something deep that I’ve understood. He goes through basically his life in music, and he does this remarkable thing with “Born in the USA” and the guys that go off to the Vietnam War and knowing that they went for him because he didn’t go for I think some I don’t know, he had bad eyesight or something like that. 

Then towards the end of this, he does the Lord’s Prayer and he just out of nowhere he recites it and he says, “I tried to get away from this my whole life. Then I realize those Catholic sisters they just reach inside you and they put something in your system and then everything else comes from that.” I’m like, “I understand 50 years of music and American civilization in a different way having seen that.” I’m curious how did you feel? You’re friends with him, you were there in person. How did you feel when he did that? 

Brooks: I was shocked when he did that, and he says, I’m going to use the word, he says,” There’s no fucking escape.” That’s like you can’t get out once they put this in you. He was someone damaged by the religious education, but I think he realized that his mom, his dad, the nuns, the whole broader Springsteen family, a big extended family living in this town of Freehold, New Jersey, they plant stuff into you and there’s no escape. 

I think his faith, he can talk about his faith or non-faith, but if you listen to his music, it’s shaped by religion in profound ways. Not only the explicit religious songs, “Adam Raised a Cain” and I think “Mary’s Place” is a little bit of heaven and there’s no accident the woman’s named Mary in my view. The epic scope, the sense that those on the margins are closer to holiness. These are religious doctrine. The sense that life has a transcendent meaning, a meaning beyond ourselves. Just the operatic grandeur of those early songs of junglelands and badlands, that all comes from a religious sensibility and awareness of the biblical stories and the vocabulary we talked about earlier. He’s constantly using words like “redemption” and so he sees through a biblical metaphysic, even if he has faith or no faith. 

Once that’s in you – we don’t create our lives. It’s created, it’s poured into us over the course of centuries. Springsteen is really looking at his life, he’s about 71 now, and he’s realizing, “This is what they poured into me. This is what my mom poured into me. This is what my dad’s depression poured into me. This is what the church poured into me.” You’re a transmission point on the long chain of generations. 

That’s just a beautifully wise way to understand yourself and I think by reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I don’t think he was making a profession of faith. He was showing a sign of respect to the moral landscape in which he was raised. 

Patel: It’s an origin story. This is where it’s the same thing of, I think when Springsteen does a Woody Guthrie song and says, “This is where I come from.” That Lord’s Prayer’s, this is where I come from. For me, the quintessential collection of Springsteen songs, include “Highway Patrolman,” which is about a cop gone bad and his good cop brother letting him escape and “American Skin” and then “Streets of Philadelphia.” These very different, and then you add to that “We Take Care of Our Own,” soldiers with the American flag will take care of their own. There’s this song that is sympathy for the familial relations of a bad cop and then there’s this song about this West African immigrant gunned down by cops and for every single one of them, Springsteen has not just a sympathetic eye, but just this like the most beautiful song. 

In the early ’90s when there was still the hangover of the Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson just hatefulness about AIDS and gay folks, here’s Springsteen who writes just the most beautiful haunting human song. Because that is how I understand faith. Faith gives you eyes to love everyone and a heart to love everyone to know that that is where Springsteen comes from when he’s writing “Streets of Philadelphia” or “American Skin,” or “Highway Patrolman” is just like almost unbearably moving for me but then again I’m a big sack of emotions, so. 

Brooks: Well, I would say two things. First, in understanding humanity two religious concepts I think are just tremendously powerful whether you believe in God or not, the first is the concept of a soul. That there’s some piece of you that has no size, weight, color, shape, but gives you infinite value and dignity and you never lose that even if you’re a cop that went bad, you still possess a soul. The second concept is made in the image of God that each human being is made in the image of God. That’s to see each human being as a creator, as someone who is a creative participant in the universe. 

Both those things invest everybody with a sense of dignity. If you see everybody as something that possesses this transcended soul, you’re going to end up treating them well or right. That I think is infused in Springsteen’s music, the soulfulness of it, and the way his concerts are hyped-up church services, like the best kind of church service. 

The second thing is what you said, origin story, the ruddiness. To me, the most heroic moment of Springsteen’s life is he releases two albums that do not succeed commercially. His third album is “Born to Run,” massive success. The natural tendency at that point is to go big and become a global superstar. Instead of doing that, he goes down back to Freehold, New Jersey, writes a dark, very local album called “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” about the people he grew up with. 

He went small and so that was just an act of creative courage to do that but the way it perversely paid off is that if you’re an artist and you create a landscape that’s small, whether you’re Marilyn Roberts or William Faulkner or Bruce Springsteen, people go to your landscape. I was once at a concert, if you go to a concert here in the States, most of the people in concerts are old at a Springsteen concert. I had once sat next to a guy with an oxygen tank but if you go in Europe, his fan base is young people 18 to 25 primarily. 

I’m in Madrid at the Real Madrid Stadium and he’s singing to 65,000 Spaniards and they’re wearing t-shirts that say things like “The Stone Pony.” this little bar he used to play at or “Greasy Lake” or “Route Nine,” these local landscapes that are in his songs and they’re in Spain. Then in the middle of the concert I see 65,000 kids screaming, “I was born in the USA, I was born in the USA.” I was like, “No, you weren’t,” but it’s fine. It’s fine. 

Patel: Actually, Springsteen does that several times. “Born to Run” to “Darkness,” and then I think “Nebraska” might come after that. Then he’s got “Born in the USA” which is even bigger than “Born to Run.” Then he does “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Lucky Town” and “Human”– I could geek out about music forever but it’s almost Neil Youngish where he’s like, “Well, yes, now I’m going to explore a different path.” 

He’s got a massive album that came out, “The Rising,” and then a couple of years later he does an album full of old civil rights songs and folk tunes. I did a commencement on Springsteen where the core line is Bruce Springsteen is so essential to the character of America that if we did not have him, we would have to invent him. Springsteen’s core message is that you highway patrolman, you West African immigrant, you person living with AIDS in Philadelphia in the early ’90s, you are so essential to America that if we did not have you, we would have to invent you. It is American soul. 

In any case, before I start to cite super obscure Springsteen songs let me shift a little bit. Let’s shift to the nation because part of what I love about religion and your work on religion is the way you connect it to individual lives, character and meaning, but also to civilizational narratives. 

I want to begin with the dark night of this stuff who’s Huntington, of course. Huntington, his big point in the clash of civilizations is that the political and economic clash that was the Cold War was an anomaly in human history. Most conflicts are not about economic systems and political systems. Most conflicts are about identity and the most potent form of identity we have is a religion. The largest scale level of culture that we have is a civilization. 

In Russia, it’s a version of Christian Orthodoxy. In Western Europe and the United States, it’s a version of Protestantism with Catholicism that’s not been mixed and this is all what Huntington is saying. I’m curious what you think of that. If in fact, it is the case that at the heart of nations and civilizations, and of course, this is largely at the subconscious level. It is in fact religious identities. The kind of text that I would submit as an interesting proof point for this is after national tragedies, we gather in stadiums to pray. Whatever the numbers on non-religious, et cetera, after national tragedies, there we are in Yankee Stadium and Rudolph Giuliani of all people is leading us in prayer. I’m curious what you think of that. 

Brooks: Yes. Well, the part I agree with Huntington is that most conflicts are clashes of identity. It’s not about money or power. I’ll just point to the conflict we’re in, sitting in the middle of the Ukraine, Putin did not invade Ukraine for money and not even, I don’t think for its wheat fields. He invaded it because he had a sense of Russian greatness. He had himself a sense of his own identity as “Vladimir the Great,” the next Peter the Great. I think this is a war about identity and about status. 

I agree that most wars are based on that, driven by our need to live up to some identity of ourselves. Now, is it, say American identity as Huntington argues based on basically Anglo-Protestantism? Yes, that’s where I get off the train. I think we have a strong religious foundation to American identity. I would say it’s eschatological. It’s a vision about the future. Lincoln’s words were “the last best hope.” 

When people came to this country, those who came voluntarily, they came with a sense of what the future could be like, and that it could be paradise. That was true of the Puritans who came, but it was also true of my Jewish immigrant ancestors, which was probably true of your ancestors and it’s true of a lot of different groups and of different faiths. Is there Chesterton famously said, “America is the nation with the soul of a church.” I agree with that, but it’s not one church. It’s a spiritual hunger that transcends a bunch of different religions, and it’s in the mixing of those religions. I’m a Jewish kid who goes to Grace Church School and that’s normal in America. 

I think he defines the religious core too narrowly for the actual reality. It may be possible to sit at Harvard and think that Episcopalians and Methodists were running the place, and it could seem like that from certain sectors of the American elite but that was never really America. 

Patel: Alongside talking about Springsteen, talking about the interaction of diverse religious traditions is what gets me up and keeps me going. That’s the name of the organization is Interfaith America. 

What we are saying is precisely, we’re no longer the nation with the soul of a church. We use this language precisely. It’s the soul of a church and a gurdwara and a mosque and a sangha and a synagogue and a temple and a secular humanist society. 

We are very much a city on a hill, but it’s got all those faith communities and they’re in interaction. That interaction really matters. There’s new things that happen with that interaction. You can see the kind of beauty of it if you go into virtually any healthcare center in the country. It’s a place where a Muslim doctor is working with a Jewish anesthesiologist to operate on the Hindu patient in a room sanitized by a Jehovah’s Witness, at a hospital started by a Catholic order, run by a secular humanist who was raised by a Buddhist. 

It sounds like a joke, but it’s actually virtually every hospital floor within 10 square miles of where I sit, and probably you as well. There’s so many things that excite me about this. We’re the most religiously diverse nation in human history. As you write about and talk about, we think of ourselves as coming out of a religious narrative. Exodus story is central amongst that. 

What happens to use Lincoln’s language an “almost chosen people” who still carry with us some of this narrative of the city on a hill Puritans? When you look around and you’re like, “Boy, this is a society made up of Muslims and Buddhists and secular humanists. Do we need a new narrative that holds this diversity but also binds it together?” 

Brooks: First, as you were talking about the hospital, I was reminded of a famous joke about my college, the University of Chicago. They say that Chicago is a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s your Interfaith America right there. That joke is probably decades and decades old. Let’s take the Puritans. They get a bad name. We think of they hated sex, actually. They were very good at sex. 


Patel: Shakers were the ones who weren’t so good at it. 

Brooks: They were not so good. The city on a hill, what do they mean by that? When Reagan used it, it was like, “Oh, we’re this glorious place everybody looks up to.” That’s not how the Puritans thought about it. They thought about it through a ritual of jeremiad, which is we are being watched and we are found wanting. Their tradition, there’s a great book called “American Jeremiad” about this tradition of prophecying about America and pointing out the sins of America. 

That’s something the Puritans did. It’s also something Martin Luther King did. It’s something that we have a lot of today, a lot of jeremiads against the sins of America. This story, like I said on that podcast, I was raised with the Exodus story that America’s an Exodus nation, that our ancestors, those who came here voluntarily, escaped oppression across the wilderness, came to the promised land. 

I tell college students that these days and they say, “That’s the narrative rich white guys tell.” That this is not a promised land. I’ve tried to beat the Exodus narrative into them, and they’re not buying it as far as I can tell. Fine. We need a new narrative, as you say. To me, the best example of a new narrative is a redemption narrative in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural, which is, this is a beautiful experiment, we have screwed it up in all sorts of ways. There will be divine justice imposed as we try to reckon with how we’ve screwed it up. There’s ultimately a redemption at the end of the story, and we are working toward that redemption together. 

To me, that’s a story that takes into account the voices of those who have been oppressed but points us all in the direction of unity. To me, that’s a realistic story that maybe we can congregate around, but we can’t be a diverse nation without a common story. If you don’t like that story, come up with a different story because if you don’t know what story you’re a part of, you don’t know what to do. Right now, we have no story. 

Patel: Nice. You snuck the MacIntyre in. 

Brooks: There you go. 

Patel: You and I are nerdy enough to like the University of Chicago joke. I’m nerdy enough to have caught the subtle MacIntyre reference. Of course, the full line is, “I cannot tell you who I am or what I am to do if I do not tell you the story or stories that I am a part of.” 

There’s a couple of possibilities in the American dramatic diversification that we’re seeing right now. One of the things we like to say over and over again at Interfaith America is we are the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation of the Western Hemisphere at a time of global religious prejudice and conflict. Actually, the North Star offered by the European founders, I’m actually quite compelled by Nikole Hannah-Jones’ notion of there was a founding in 1619. I think that ought to be taken seriously. There was a founding in 1776. Nations can have multiple foundings. I refer to them as the European founders. 

Of all the dimensions of identity and diversity that they dealt with, got most of them wrong. Gender, class, race to the lights of decency and to contemporary notions of being humane. They got a dimension of identity right, and that was religion. It’s remarkable considering that they were coming out of the European wars of religion and they didn’t repeat them. They launched a different experiment. It has given rise to the most religiously diverse nation in human history. One American possibility is that there is this just continual scattering, and we become the barely connected tribes of America. I really hope that doesn’t happen. 

I think that there’s maybe two other possibilities. One is that ancient narratives get resurrected by new people. Lin-Manuel Miranda does this with just stunning brilliance in “Hamilton.” Here’s this ancient narrative, the European founders, ancient for Americans, and it will be revived by the people, the European founders excluded from the American experiment. 

Here’s the third possibility, which is the newly diverse America. Those people bring new narratives. When I think of America, as a Muslim, I think of it as Medina. I think of a nation in which the pure people were hounded out of the unjust cities of their birth the way that the Prophet Mohammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, is hounded out of Mecca. 

He goes to a city called Yathrib. He builds out of it this just paradise. He launches the Constitution of Medina, which is a loyalty pact between the diverse tribes of– The city gets renamed Medina, city of the prophet. He brings the tribes together and he creates a sense of civilization. Then that civilization spreads. But of course, American Medina is a contribution of a minority community that is growing in influence and strength and numbers, but it’s not a reinterpretation of Exodus, and it’s not a reinterpretation of the second inaugural. 

Brooks: It’s a really interesting point. I had a great uncle named Irving Browning who was a movie director in the silent era. He directed westerns. If you went to his apartment in Washington Heights where Lin-Manuel Miranda lives, it was like Montana in the 1860s, rifles, muskets, powder horns. The guy himself never went west of the Hudson River. [chuckles] He was an immigrant trying to grab onto the American narrative and his instinct was assimilate. That is not the practice today. 

As you were talking, I was somehow thinking about Houston. When I was courting my wife, she was living in Houston. I went down to Houston. I went down there with certain stereotypes, all of which I was disabused of quickly. It’s the most diverse city in America. You drive through parts of it and within a half-hour drive, you feel like you’re in Lagos, you feel like you’re in Phnom Penh, you’re in Mumbai. It’s incredible diversity of peoples. Yes, it’s still Houston, but the immigrant groups there are not absorbing the Western. I don’t know, I’m the last person to ask what their narrative will be. 

Medina’s a good one. I hadn’t heard that before, but I imagine if you’re from West Africa, you’ve got a narrative. I would say Houston is a city where people are, really are future-oriented and not past-oriented. They’ve got their traditions, but they live it out. 

Patel: I’m the geek who read that column 10 years ago and remembers it. You go to the rodeo and you integrate that with an American archetypal narrative, which is Whitman’s Democratic Vistas. What’s fascinating to me is, of course, you would do that because these are the narratives that live within you, and so you take these new experiences and you connect them with these resident narratives. 

If you’re an immigrant from West Africa or an immigrant from Kuwait or an immigrant from Pakistan, the narrative that lives within you might be a Medina or it might be the Bhagavad Gita. You see the rodeo and you think I’m getting the application to work here, but you see Krishna and Arjuna. I wonder if when we have a Hindu presidential candidate or a Muslim presidential candidate in 2032 or 2036, are they reinterpreting Exodus or are they offering the Bhagavad Gita and Medina? What do you think? 

Brooks: Yes. As you’re talking, I’m someone whose family has been here on one side for a lot of generations on the other side for three or four. I’m hearing you with excitement and anxiety or fear. The excitement is, “Wow. I could learn a new set of stories and the country would just, I would be introduced to a new set of stories that I could see my own experience, my national experience differently.” The anxiety would come from, “I’ve got to start at first grade on this stuff. I may not know the full meaning of these stories, so it’s going to be a big learning experience.” 

I’m a big fan of diversity, so I see it as an exciting opportunity, but I can see it, which we’re now seeing around the country, a lot of people seeing it as a form of anxiety. The chance to learn to see your country in a new way is exciting. Somebody once said that the most radical journey we could ever take is to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. 

Patel: Here’s my last question. I’m so grateful for your time, and as I say to you often, I’m just grateful for your presence. I’m grateful for Rumi says, “I offer light and not heat,” and that’s how I feel about your work and presence. I’m grateful for your friendship, and I’m grateful for the work you do. Here’s my last question. We are living in a diversity moment. From Fortune 500 companies to universities to school districts, all of them have some antiracism policy or quasi-policy or at least some kind of elite-level discussion about it. 

Terms that were once used only in graduate school seminars like white supremacy and BIPOC, they’re now common parlance in Whole Foods America, on and on and on. Even with all of this very, I think, positive movement, virtually nobody will stop you in a diversity discussion and say, “Isn’t it remarkable that we’re the most religiously diverse nation in human history? Isn’t it unbelievable that coming out of the European wars of religion, these guys Franklin and Adams and Madison and Washington and Jefferson, they got so much wrong? They envisioned a religiously diverse democracy, this notion that people could come from the four corners of the earth praying to God in different ways, including not at all, and build out of this land a nation.” How come nobody in the world of smart people is like crowing from the rooftops how remarkable an achievement it is to have a religiously diverse democracy that is not at each other’s throats all the time? 

Brooks: Yes, well, a couple of things leap to mind. One, we take what we do well for granted. Two, and this would be a fear I don’t know what you think of this that maybe we don’t fight about religion because we don’t care about as much as we used to. Three, as you write early on in your coming book, I don’t know if it’s out yet, but I’ll give it a plug “We Need to Build.” 

Patel: You are the best. 

Brooks: You talked about early in your life when you were a critic and not a builder. There are a lot of critics in the world and are looking at ways to criticize society. I would say in my business, the new business, we think the preferred model of social change is to describe how terrible things are and then we’ve done our job. We do not need to cover the solutions, we just cover what’s bad. I do think that’s part of why we don’t celebrate. We’re in a mode, in a historical moment, where celebrating America seems to be out of fashion. I think we’re struggling to find the right kind of balance between what we can celebrate and what we can criticize. 

I think we went through a very period of intense self-criticism in 2020. I think we’re heading toward a better balance right now. I worry maybe I do take religious peace and relative harmony for granted, especially given the fact, as you know better than anybody, it wasn’t automatic, people had to work on it. You’ve taught me about the Judeo Christian and ethic and how that was a creation. 

Patel: Yes, an invention. 

Brooks: Your work is part of that creation. I do worry, especially when I’m teaching, I don’t know the effect of the rise of the nones, the rise of the secular surge, as they call it. I do not believe religious people are better than secular people or faithful people are more moral than atheist people. That just doesn’t rhyme with my perception of reality. I do think religions offer a series of strengths to a country that diminish when the religions are not there. The first, the form of community, just one basic one, this is the first time in America in my lifetime and maybe forever, where the majority of Americans don’t go to any service. 

I worry about the loss of community. Religions are very good at reducing anxiety. People who enter into religious practices are less anxious than others. Religions encourage charity. Ten years ago or 20 years ago, 67% of Americans gave to charity. Now it’s down to 49%, and only 42% give to secular charity. As we nurture our religious diversity, I would hope for expanding religious observance. Just as a matter of faith, as a matter of formation, as a matter of community. I worry that the real war is between a militant secularism and frankly, a fundamentalist kind of evangelism. The culture of wars is not between religions. It’s often what I just described. 

Patel: My preferred mode of social change is tell the good news story and encourage people to do more of it. As opposed to sophistication being confused with being able to tell everybody else what they’re doing wrong all the time. 

Brooks: Right. No, that’s my theory of social change too. A small group of people find a better way to live and the rest of us copy them. 

Patel: Yes. Well, David Brooks, I’m just grateful for you. Thank you. 


Patel: Part of what I loved about this conversation was not just the dimension where we talked about what faith does in the world, right? The work of people like Dorothy Day, but how faith gets into us. What it feels like to sit in the chapel at Grace Church School and stare at those stained glass windows and just know that there’s something cosmic in the world, something beyond our philosophy and these stars, so to speak. I think David and I see that most profoundly in the songs of Bruce Springsteen and how Springsteen saying the Lord’s Prayer in his Broadway show just invites us into how religion gets into him and how we might consider how it gets into us. 

I think the most important part of this is how religion brings us together. Religio, of course, means “to bind.” Faith has to be a bridge in Interfaith America. To read more about this conversation and to find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse democracy, visit our website I’m Eboo Patel.


Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.

Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.

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