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Desacralizing Politics and David Brooks

October 16th, 2011 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

David Brooks:

Ward (who is inexplicably being replaced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo) rescued the ground zero project by disenchanting it, by seeing it as it is, not through shrouds of symbols — by attending closely to all the practical complexity. American politics in general could use that sort of disenchantment.

Many issues that were once concrete and practical are distorted because they have become symbolic and spiritual. Tax policy isn’t just about how to raise revenue anymore. Liberals see it as a way to punish the greedy and redress the iniquities of capitalism. Conservatives see tax increases as an assault on the enterprising class perpetrated by arrogant central planners. A tax rate could be seen as just a number signifying an expense, but now it’s a marker in a culture war.

Brooks is exactly right on this, yet whether because of the confines of the article or his perspective, he doesn't quite get around to saying exactly how politics might be "disenchanted."  I'm not one to talk, but I would be happy to endorse the idea that legislators need a strong drink of wonky pragmatism in order to, you know, govern, but the simple recommendation to be more practical doesn't seem like it will get very far without a broader, more systemic change in the American culture.  Brooks again:

Maybe it’s part of living in a postmaterialist economy, but nearly every practical question becomes a values question. You get politicians and commentators whose views are entirely predictable because they don’t care about the specifics of any particular issue.

The more plausible suggestion, I think, is that every practical question has become a values question because values questions have been ruled out of bounds.  Let me try framing it this way:  if first principles are neglected by a society, they don't recede into the background--instead, they run wild over everything, popping up in the oddest of places precisely because the absence of first principles means there are no second or third principles either.

An unsatisfactory way of putting it, yes, so one more go:  the sacralization of politics such that political decisions get freighted with the most transcendent of meanings happens precisely when the public square is systematically stripped of anything else.  If politics is not to be sacred ground, and hence a site for the new holy wars, there must be some other place more hallowed, more treasured.  There must be a church, and that church must not be neutered or silent.

"The more transcendental is your patriotism," G.K. Chesterton once put it, "the more practical are your politics."  A different point in his hands, but it fits just as well here.  In giving priority to a transcendent order, a sphere of life not subject to every wind and wave of political machination, we are freed from viewing every political blunder as a fatal one and every political decision as an eternal one.  The attitude is not the beginning of political engagement as such, but its beginning, for it recognizes the political order as what it is:  politics, and nothing more.



Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.