People who spend years riding commuter trains — Baltimore to Washington, D.C., for me — learn that there are community rules. For example: Don’t crack up laughing and make a lot of noise.
I violated that written law several times while reading a snarky, hilarious 2000 book by David Brooks called, “Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.” The term “Bobo” was short for “Bourgeois Bohemians.”
But what is a religion writer supposed to do while reading its “spirituality” chapter, which ended with a vision of “Bobo Heaven.” Brooks offers a tweedy angel of death sentencing an urban lawyer to spend eternity in her chic, “green” summer house, with National Public Radio on every channel. Heaven or hell?
Readers who have been online lately will know where this is going, because of the multi-media firestorm ignited by his New York Times column: “On Anti-Trumpers and the Modern Meritocracy.” That Brooks essay provided the hook for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in). Here’s a sample:
The meritocracy isn’t only a system of exclusion; it’s an ethos. During his presidency, Barack Obama used the word “smart” in the context of his policies over 900 times. The implication was that anybody who disagreed with his policies (and perhaps didn’t go to Harvard Law) must be stupid.
Over the last decades, we’ve taken over whole professions and locked everybody else out. When I began my journalism career in Chicago in the 1980s, there were still some old crusty working-class guys around the newsroom. Now we’re not only a college-dominated profession; we’re an elite-college-dominated profession. Only 0.8 percent of college students graduate from the super-elite 12 schools (the Ivy League colleges, plus Stanford, M.I.T., Duke and the University of Chicago). A 2018 study found that more than 50 percent of the staff writers at the beloved New York Times and The Wall Street Journal attended one of the 29 most elite universities in the nation.
Now, let’s leave Orange Man Bad out of this. I’d like to focus on the fact that Brooks has been writing about this phenomenon for several decades now.
As you would expect, I appreciated that Brooks dared to mention the ice-blue trends in elite journalism. I started paying attention to that in the late 1970s (hold that thought). However, I have to admit that I wondered why Brooks defined his meritocracy in terms of class (correct), zip codes (correct), resume credentials (correct), but — in this case — ignored the obvious religion themes in this drama.
With that in mind, let’s flash back to an “On Religion” column (Bobos ‘r US) that I wrote after meeting with Brooks at The Weekly Standard (#RIP). At that time, he was a rather liberal Jew — but with a shelf of C.S. Lewis books near his desk, which might have been a sign of a spiritual pilgrimage yet to come. As you would expect, I was probing the DNA of Bobo faith. Thus:
It was a rabbi in Montana who gave Brooks the perfect word — “Flexidoxy” — to describe this faith. This is what happens when Americans try to baptize their souls in freedom and tradition, radical individualism and orthodoxy, all at the same time. One scholar found a Methodist pastor’s daughter who calls herself a “Methodist Taoist Native American Quaker Russian Orthodox Buddhist Jew.”
It doesn’t make any sense, but it looks good and feels right. …
“Can you have freedom as well as roots? Can you still worship God even if you take it upon yourself to decide that many of the Bible’s teachings are wrong?”, he asks, in his rollicking book “Bobos in Paradise.” “Can you establish ritual and order in your life if you are driven by an inner imperative to experiment constantly with new things? … The Bobos are trying to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice.”
The key to this earlier Brooks meritocracy vision is that the new elite rejects any belief in absolute, eternal truths (other than their embrace of the absolute truth that there are no absolute truths). Yes, we’re talking about the “Culture Wars” themes pioneered by sociologist James Davison Hunter.
The Bobos do, however, make judgments and they use their cultural clout to enforce them on others. Read this next part carefully, after reading the New York Times column that is in the news:
For Bobos and their followers, said Brooks, the idea of “one, universal truth is not even something that they have consciously rejected. This concept is not a part of their world. They have never even really considered the idea that one religion might be true and all the others false, or even that there is one true way to approach the moral universe, and all the others are false.”
But Bobos do not consider themselves moral relativists. … They even have creeds, said Brooks, but they are built on concerns about aesthetics, health, safety, science, self-esteem and, especially, achievement.
Does this shape America’s political divides, as well as the bright red-blue splits in entertainment, business, journalism, public vs. private education, etc.? Oh, and religion?
Yes, once again, remember the stark, sobering opening sentences of the must-read David French book, “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.”
“It’s time for Americans to wake up to a fundamental reality: the continued unity of the United States cannot be guaranteed. At this moment in history, there is not a single important cultural, religious, political, or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pulling us apart.”
Oh, and this too:
“We lack a common popular culture. Depending on where we live and what we believe, we watch different kinds of television, we listen to different kinds of music, and we often watch different sports.
“We increasingly live separate from each other. … The geography that a person calls home, whether it is rural, exurban, suburban, or urban, is increasingly predictive of voting habits.”
So, who wants these two New York Times conservatives to record a podcast addressing the religious implications of the new Brooks essay? My hand is raised high.
Let me end with another comment about the distant past.
Readers should note that Brooks suggests that journalism was essentially different back in the 1980s and he focuses, with good cause, on newsroom divides defined in terms of class and education. As I mentioned earlier, that was when I started doing research — during my graduate studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign — on media-bias issues.
At that time, everyone was arguing about the “media elite” studies done by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College. When doing my Urbana graduate project (condensed into a massive cover story for The Quill journal), I interviewed the late religion-beat pioneer George Cornell and a host of other pros about the struggle in many newsrooms to “get religion.”
Remember, this is the late 1970s and early 1980s:
“They’re very secular,” Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are “much less religious than people in general,” he added.
In each “elite” news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled “religion,” 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word “none.” … In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:
“A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services.”
In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the “non-religious aspect” of the media simply showed up in the data. … He called the media’s outlook a “cosmopolitan, Northeastern, liberal, highly educated point of view.”
Cornell had a chance to look at the actual survey forms and he noted that a high percentage of the journalists who wrote “none” in the religion slot underlined the word to stress that point. Where were the “Nones” in 1980?
Paging David Brooks. Paging David Brooks.
Please answer this question: Why are the red states in this “flyover country” divide known as “Jesusland”?
Brooks knew the answer to that question in 2000, and dared to write about it.
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.
FIRST IMAGE: The classic “Jesusland” meme, drawn from numerous online sources.