David Brooks on his life-changing pilgrimage with St. Augustine and Dorothy Day
David Brooks quietly walks into a small, glass-enclosed conference room at the Aspen Institute offices in Washington, D.C., right on time and tastefully dressed in a conservative suit and tie. The veteran New York Times columnist looks as if he could have just walked off the set of one of the numerous news shows on which he has become a fixture over the past 20 years. He is soft-spoken and—in a surprising inversion of “the camera adds ten pounds” cliché —not as tall as one might have expected.
His calm demeanor and well-turned-out appearance belie the fact that Brooks, 57, is a man who has been experiencing enormous upheaval in his life over the past few years. In 2013 he separated from his wife of 27 years, with whom he has three grown children. In the wake of the breakup, he was alone and adrift. Despite being raised in a secular Jewish family and having been a self-described atheist, he found himself drawn to the lives and writings of St. Augustine and Dorothy Day. He began exploring Christianity in earnest, reading more deeply and visiting various churches near his home.
Anyone who follows his twice-weekly columns or reads his books knows that David Brooks has been circling the topics of virtue and what constitutes a life of meaning for years.
In 2017 he married Anne Snyder, a writer and former researcher for Brooks’s 2015 bestseller The Road to Character, who is 23 years his junior and a committed Christian. It was a move that set a few tongues wagging inside the Beltway punditocracy.
“Having failed at a commitment,” he writes regarding his divorce and the aftermath in his latest book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, “I’ve spent the ensuing five years thinking and reading about how to do commitments well, how to give your life meaning after worldly success has failed to fulfill. This book is a product of that search.”
Anyone who follows his twice-weekly columns or reads his books knows that Brooks has been circling the topics of virtue and what constitutes a life of meaning for years. This focus has led to much speculation; Google the question “What religion is David Brooks?” and you will discover that the subject has become a bit of a parlor game. Meeting him in person, the first question feels unavoidable: “What is it like going through the most public conversion process in recent memory?”
“It’s been pretty much fine,” Brooks says after a brief laugh. “My Jewish friends have been mostly fine and charming and given me a long leash. The Christian world has been welcoming.”
More problematic has been what he believes is the secular news media’s tin ear on issues of faith. “They treat it like you have changed from being a Republican to a Democrat,” he says. “As if it’s that kind of choice. ‘I used to like french fries; now I like sweet potatoes.’ You feel like there’s something that’s sacred and mysterious that is being handled with boxing gloves.”
Brooks is no stranger to rough treatment. His Twitter feed brims with vitriolic comments from trolls taunting him about his divorce and remarriage. Among Times readers he is like a Rorschach test. Ask a random sampling of them and you are bound to hear everything from genuine interest, affection and puzzlement regarding where he stands (“Is he still a conservative?”) to deep frustration and anger at his changing perspectives and moralizing.
David Brooks: "I do think the public square has been denuded of moral conversation, and yet it’s completely hungry for it.”
Morality in the Public Square
Brooks is fine with being tagged as a moralizer. “I’m very happy to spark that reaction,” he says, “because I do think the public square has been denuded of moral conversation, and yet it’s completely hungry for it.” But what exactly does this integration of a budding Christian faith—particularly one heavily influenced by the life of Dorothy Day—look like in the public square? How do his beliefs regarding the roles of business, government, market economics and more square with a Gospel message that emphasizes a radical identification with the poor, the sick and the hungry?
There is no short answer to that question. It’s complicated. It is no accident that Brooks’s last two books have been constructed around the notion of journeying. With Brooks, it is better to speak in terms of provisional findings than final conclusions.
In Brooks’s reckoning, the “second mountain” he writes about is the one people begin climbing once the goals of the first mountain—the goals of success, personal fulfillment and happiness—have been met and found wanting. “If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self,” he writes, “the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self.”
It is similar to the distinction he made between the “résumé virtues” and the “eulogy virtues” in The Road to Character, but the years since he wrote that book have been the most turbulent of his life, and his own understanding has changed. “I no longer believe that character formation is mostly an individual task,” he writes. “I now think good character is a byproduct of giving yourself away. You love things that are worthy of love. You surrender to a community or cause, make promises to other people, build a thick jungle of loving attachments, lose yourself in the daily act of serving others.”
Those thick, loving attachments and values are at the core of Weave: The Social Fabric Project, an initiative Brooks has directed for the Aspen Institute since 2018. The project highlights people and organizations across the United States who are working on the local level to relieve the social fragmentation, loneliness, division and distrust so prevalent in our society and replace them with relationship, community and purpose.
Weave reflects a communitarian instinct that has long been part of Brooks’s worldview. “David is the last living, surviving American Whig,” says E. J. Dionne Jr., a Washington Post columnist and Brooks’s frequent debate partner on NPR. In the mid-19th century, the Whig Party—typified by Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln—advocated for “old national greatness conservatism...internal improvements, use the government to build the country and its competitive capacity. But there was also a very strong moral and religious strain to the Whigs,” he says. “Even in David’s most conservative period, he was always drawn to the communitarian strains of conservatism.”
David Brooks freely admits that it is his own story that he is mining in The Second Mountain.
Mining the Second Mountain
Brooks freely admits that it is his own story that he is mining in The Second Mountain. Conquering his first mountain turned him into someone who was “aloof, invulnerable, and uncommunicative—at least when it came to my private life.” He calls himself out as being guilty of evasion, workaholism and conflict avoidance and as lacking in empathy. “This pattern—not being present to what I love because I prioritize time over people, productivity over relationship—is a recurring motif in my life.” In the past few years, he has begun to resemble the bright student who has finally looked up from his textbooks and is starting to connect his voluminous reading and thinking to a more deeply lived emotional reality.
“Life has to tender you up before you can be touched. So when bad things happened to me in 2013, I moved out of the typical neocon camp, which is ‘I really approve of religion for other people. I think it’s good for them and good for society, sort of like eating vitamin D or something,’” he says. “But I never thought I would actually be implicated. And then I think somehow you just get implicated.” For readers, Brooks’s getting implicated can feel like a voyeuristic window into an intelligent mind at work on the ultimate mystery.
Being the dutiful student that he is, Brooks initially attacked the question of faith as if it were a syllabus for a challenging new course. He thought that he could just come to belief by doing the homework and reading the right books. He came into the Christian world through reading Dorothy Day and St. Augustine but found the Christian concept of grace a stumbling block. “[Day and Augustine] don’t place as much emphasis on agency, and I had real trouble understanding surrender and grace,” he says. “And at first I thought, ‘O.K., it means take your hands off the wheel and just lay back and let God take over.’” The more deeply he read, the more he realized how foreign the notion of grace was to him—and yet he was fascinated and captivated by it.
During his religious exploration, Brooks was taken by the unabashed faith he encountered in Christianity and how it contrasted with what he experienced at conservative synagogues on the high holy days during his childhood. Referring to different traditions in Judaism, he comments, “In the Orthodox [Jewish] tradition you see faith. In the conservative tradition, you see peoplehood,” he says. “The rabbis probably have faith, and some people in the congregation have faith. It’s just not the main subject. And I think that is, frankly, a weakness that there’s not more God-talk.”
He also encountered some serious impediments. “I found that Christians, especially of the Protestant evangelical variety, are plagued by the sensation that they are not quite as intellectually rigorous or as cool as the secular world,” he writes. “At the same time, many of them are inflated by the notion that they are a quantum leap or two more moral.” Brooks believes the critique offered in Mark Noll’s 2010 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind—“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind”—is essentially still true.
“When you have any spiritual wandering, if people think of you as a thoughtful person, they all say, ‘Oh, you’ll wind up Catholic someday.’ Just because they think you’re going to want the spiritual...the hardcore stuff.” Brooks and his wife attend a Christian church in the D.C. area, but he says it is no secret that his wife has always been drawn to a certain “Catholic air.” “I don’t know,” he says, reflecting on what all that means, “there is something different. I’m too new to this world to really put my hand on it.”
The pilgrim journey on which David Brooks’s own soul has taken him reveals a fascinating contrast.
Power to Shock
Brooks considers St. Augustine the most brilliant mind he has ever encountered. “His capacity to understand human psychology 1,600 years ago is equal to our own,” he says. But he also recognizes himself in the broad strokes of Augustine’s own life story: the Ivy League student who found his success empty and unsatisfying. “[Augustine] was a classic achieve-a-tron who went for the things that clever people go for—which is closed intellectual systems like Manichaeism. And then he sort of let his soul take him on the journey it took him.”
The pilgrim journey on which Brooks’s own soul has taken him reveals a fascinating contrast. On the surface, it can seem as though this very buttoned-down personality is having a life-changing conversion experience while still fully clothed. The inclusion of numerous lists—“Stages of Intimacy,” “Stages of Community Building” and more—throughout The Second Mountain only heighten that sense. But in conversation with Brooks, it is hard to ignore that something deeper is going on. As much as he might be seduced by a beautiful mind like Augustine’s, he has come across great minds before. In the lives of St. Augustine and Dorothy Day, it is their acute emotional openness and insight combined with intelligence that is so compelling. It is an awakening for which his rational mind does not yet have words.
“I think for people like me, [Day’s] kind of goodness has the power to shock,” he says. “Just because, as she said, ‘You should live in a way that wouldn’t make sense unless God exists.’ She really did live that way.”
So how has that shocking goodness affected his voice in the public square? “I think I’m more aware of how capitalism, unbalanced, just rationalizes selfishness.... And it also justifies a sort of amoralism. It turns off the moral lens,” says Brooks. “It hasn’t made me anti-capitalist, but it’s made me see the ways that capitalism—and specifically the meritocracy—have on balance created a very shallow view of life.”
Though he concedes there are people better able to debate the issue, he perceives the relationship between Catholicism and capitalism “as rival mind-sets that balance out each other in a productive way. It’s a tension that never gets squared.”
It will be interesting to see how the body of Catholic social thought and the life of Dorothy Day—that has inspired so much of his wife’s work—will influence his own thinking moving forward. Day’s faith life was deeply devotional and conventional; her political, social and economic critiques are not so easily domesticated.
Brooks has studied the pilgrim narratives of others, deeply human stories of profound vulnerability and gradual transformation.
Thinking, writing and living in tension has become Brooks’s stock in trade. He grew up a secular Jew who attended an Episcopal elementary school and summer camp, both of which had positive impacts on him. He is a self-described “border stalker,” who has always lived on the line between worlds. No doubt this is one reason he frustrates so many readers. What some of us experience as cognitive dissonance is simply a fact of life in the world in which he grew up.
Having been on a pilgrimage of his own over the past seven years, Brooks has studied the pilgrim narratives of others, deeply human stories of profound vulnerability and gradual transformation. If the stories in this genre have a general sense of coherence and direction to them, it is because they are written retrospectively, after a fuller understanding of the change has come. Brooks has not granted himself that luxury; he is writing in real time. Perhaps the problem is ours, then. Has our desperate need for fixed coordinates in a complex world made the notion of pilgrimage so foreign that we are frustrated and intolerant of it in others?
For his part, Brooks reports he is reading more Jewish authors than ever. He has a particular fascination with the Book of Exodus. “Frankly, I feel the blood of 3,000 years of my ancestors more strongly, and I feel protective of it,” he says. “Maybe because I’m wracked by guilt by somewhat leaving it. So I feel more Jewish than ever before. I prize Judaism more than before.”
He is also fascinated by the idea of looking at the roots of Judaism and Christianity and how the two faiths have become different by 2,000 years of cultural history in which each group defined itself against the other. He believes that if you go back to the actual Jesus, the traditions were a lot closer than they seem today.
Wherever Brooks’s pilgrimage is taking him, the journey will almost certainly include open expressions of doubt and unknowingness. “The way I experience faith is not a block of concrete,” he writes in Second Mountain. “Faith is change. Faith is here one moment, gone the next, a stream that evaporates. At least for me.” Brooks comes to faith from a journey that is intensely personal and connected to his own unique makeup and personality. If we are honest, that is also the story of everyone who comes to faith as a mature adult.
“I connect more with a smaller group of people who struggle with faith, who wrestle with all the ridiculous unlikelihood of faith,” he writes. “I experienced grace before I experienced God, and sometimes I still have trouble getting back to the source.”
Correction: For clarification, words from a direct quote that were mistakenly cut in the editing process have been reinserted.