Response to Jeff Sharlet

It seems as if I have gotten myself into a conversation/debate with Jeff Sharlet about his blog post on David Brooks’s op-ed column on John Thune as a possible GOP candidate in 2012. (Did you get all of that straight?). For those of you who do not know Sharlet, he is a writer worth getting to know. He is a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone, editor of The Revealer, a review of religion and the press, a books columnist for Religion Dispatches, and partly responsible for three books: as author of The Family, a New York Times bestseller (Harper, 2008); coauthor, with Peter Manseau, of Killing the Buddha (Free Press, 2004), and co-editor, with the staff of KillingTheBuddha.com, of Believer, Beware: First Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith (Beacon, 2009).

Jeff was gracious enough to respond to my original post that criticized him for being too hard on Brooks (and Thune). I have printed Jeff’s comments to that post below (in italics), with my responses in bold.

Thanks for a thoughtful response, John. I hope you’ll allow me to clarify a few misperceptions, starting with Biola.
Jeff, thanks for the comment. I appreciate your willingness to take the time to interact with one of those “small blogs” you talk about in the beginning of your piece. I also appreciate your clarifications on some things. They have helped me to better understand your original post.

Given that I’m pals with some Biola folks, and think highly of their work, I’d hardly argue that affiliation with that school disqualifies one from public life. My issue is with Brooks’ attempt to rebrand Biola as other than what it is: one of the preeminent Christian conservative schools in America. If someone tried to mainstream themselves by, say, declaring their affiliation with the Highlander Institute nothing more than a relationship with a community center, I’d be just as quick to challenge that.
You seem to know Biola well, and are correct to call it “one of the preeminent Christian conservative schools in America.” (As you know, of course, it is also a lot different than Bob Jones, Regent, or Patrick Henry). I took issue with the way you chided Brooks for referencing Biola. Brooks said that Thune: “attended Biola University, a small Christian college outside of Los Angeles.” I read this as a mere statement of where Thune went to school (much like the next sentence in Brooks’s column about Thune receiving an MBA from the University of South Dakota). In other words, I did not see his reference to Biola as some sort of “rebranding” of Biola as something that it is not. In your blog post you accurately note that Biola is an acronym for the “Bible Institute of Los Angeles,” but your tone implies that this would automatically disqualify Thune from being a politician who could reach across the political aisle or embrace some form of moderation.

My problem with Brooks isn’t so much his conservatism as it is his insistence on ignoring the reality of political differences. Thune is a real political conservative. You want to support that, fine. But don’t pitch Thune as some kind moderate just because he’s a nice guy.
Brooks admits that Thune is a “down-the-line conservative on social, economic and foreign policy matters?” I don’t think Brooks is saying Thune is a moderate, but I do think he is saying that he is a political conservative who is not “combative.” Brooks is not making an argument about the content of Thune’s political convictions, but rather one about his style. I think your post misrepresents Brooks on this point unless, of course, you believe that it is impossible for a political conservative to be “ecumenical” in style.

More importantly: I don’t suggest that Thune is involved in a Christian conspiracy to overtake America. I don’t suggest the Family is anything like that. Ever. And your implication that I do is at best ill-informed. The Family is not a conspiracy, a point I make in my introduction, throughout my book, and in dozens or hundreds of media interviews. They are not trying to overtake America — they are, as I quote Christian Right activist Rob Schenck, “a religion of the status quo.”
Fair enough. I am sorry if I misrepresented your view. Thanks for clarifying. I am glad you did.

As for Colson — I’m glad you’re distributing presents to prisoners. But Colson’s ideas are, frankly, ugly. Do I think they’re “dangerous”? I’m not sure I’d say that. I would say that they’re certainly anti-democratic. And I base that on what I’m guessing is a more extensive reading of Colson’s books than Thune has undertaken, months in Colson’s archives at the Billy Graham Center, and interviews with Colson himself.
I wonder how you distinguish Colson from Robertson or Dobson? Below you state that you have defended Dobson and Robertson for being members of the Religious Right who make their views known in the public square. What am I missing? It would seem that Colson, Dobson, and Robertson are all contributing to public discourse. In this sense, I think Jon Shields is correct in his book, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right.

By comparing that to the anti-LDS bigotry with which some on the left and the right attacked Romney is disingenuous, anti-intellectual, and, frankly, just kinda dumb. I know that’s a harsh assessment — but you did just compare me to a bigot.
I in no way meant to say that you were a bigot. I apologize if I came off that way. But it does seem that your criticism of the anti-democratic, elite, secretive nature of the Family is similar to some of the critics of the LDS and their secretive rituals. Both, it has been argued by their critics, threaten democracy. And of course the Mormons were major players in Prop 8 in California. What do you think about that comparison? How is the secrecy of the Mormons, which translates into political action, different from the secrecy of the Family, which also translates into political action? Maybe I really am dumb, disingenuous, and an anti-intellectual. Help me out here!

Nowhere have I ever attacked Christianity, evangelicalism, or even fundamentalism, per se. I’ve been glad to count a number of self-described fundamentalists as my allies in trying to shine some light on the elitist politics of the Family. And before liberal and secular audiences all over the country, I’ve actually defended fundamentalist leaders such as James Dobson and Pat Robertson, arguing that regardless of what one may think of their views, one CAN have an opinion about their views, because they make them known in the public square. They participate in the democratic process. The Family attempts to sidestep that process, by their own declaration, seeking opportunities for powerful leaders to meet and make decisions “beyond the din of the vox populi.” The group was founded in explicit anti-democratic sentiment and continues to apply those ideas, through back room dealing and some very fuzzy theology — charges, by the way, that come not just from the left but from World magazine. So while I disagree with Thune, my problem here is not with his conservatism, but with his preference for what the Family calls “privacy” when it comes to the intersection of religion and politics. Give me a Mike Huckabee — or, hell, a Sarah Palin — over that kind of elitism anyday. Is Thune a contender? Yes — and I’m hardly hiding that opinion. I was making that case before Thune popped up on Brooks’ radar. Do I want him stopped? Sure — because just as Bob McDonnell suckered the Virginia media into seeing him as a moderate, Thune can do the same thing. That’s why I prefer honest conservatives like Huckabee.
Thanks for clearing this up. I think we are in general agreement here.

Rant ended. I see you’re a serious scholar, so I wanted to respond with a little depth.
I have enjoyed taking the time to engage with your response to my post. Thanks. I hope you keep reading the blog.

3 thoughts on “Response to Jeff Sharlet

  1. With respect, John, I may be a bit more familiar — for better and mostly worse — with Brooks' journalistic milieu than you. I don't know Brooks, but I've met him a couple of times. Here's a little anecdote for what it's worth: First time I met was at a conservative think tank junket for journalists in Key West. Guest speaker was Mark Noll. Terrific, I thought. Brooks, apparently, did too. After a thoughtful general talk on American evangelicalism, Brooks grilled Noll. Death penalty: did evangelicals give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down? Thumbs up, thumbs down, he said, over and over. Noll tried to explain every time that it was a little more complicated than that, but Brooks would have none of it. Goddammit, he had business to attend to! Writing a column isn't about nuance! It's about erasing nuance to build maximum support for your side. So: John Thune: thumbs up, thumbs down?

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  2. Jeff: I am enjoying the dialogue. I wish I could devote more time to your thoughts, but classes and student papers are constantly calling.

    I think you are reading way too much into this Brooks piece. I do not deny the fact that Thune is a conservative's conservative. In fact, I remember being a bit turned off by his conservatism during the Daschle senate race. I think I am just more willing than you to give Brooks the benefit of doubt. Until I see differently, I am willing to believe that Thune is a true conservative with “ecumenical” sensibilities.

    I also think you are splitting hairs on the Biola issue. Perhaps I am one of the readers Brooks is trying to dupe, but I still do not read his reference to Thune's Biola education as anything other than a statement about his educational background and the location of the college he attended. Most readers of the New York Times do not know Biola so Brooks is explaining it to them. It seems you will not be satisfied until Brooks says something like: “Thune attended Biola University, a former Bible institute that is a prominent fundamentalist school (read: he is a dangerous conservative).

    I will check out Apostolidis's book and go back and look at Shields with your thoughts in mind.

    Thanks for the conversation

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  3. John — Killing the Buddha's blog is a small, too!

    I think you are reading Brooks a little too literally. The work of a columnist like Brooks — or, say, Nick Kristoff on the liberal side of things — is in large part a matter of branding, of finding ideological allies on some issue or the other and then presenting them to the less-informed public as moderates — or, like Thune, as a conservative who can be trusted to act like a moderate.

    The substantive details about Thune are right-wing. As they are about Huckabee and Palin. But Huck and Palin put those differences on display. Which, I'd argue, is a more democratic style.

    My point about Biola is in line with that. Yes, Biola is a lot different than Bob Jones, which is in a class of its own. Not as different from Regent, which has more ideological and intellectual diversity than most people are aware of. But they're all still at heart and by history fundamentalist schools. Would you agree that if a politician tried to play down his tony background by saying he went to school “in New Haven” that that would be a little disingenuous?

    Colson is in a different class than Dobson. He has moved closer to transparency over the years. But it remains a value alien to his “worldview,” which, I'd argue, is explicitly and deeply anti-democratic. I mean, here's a guy who says the Enlightenment is the enemy. For a more extensive — and much smarter — consideration of that ideology as manifest in Colson (and Dobson), I'd recommend Paul Apostolidis' “Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio.”

    It is no accusation to say that the Family is secretive, given that they refer to themselves, when they refer to themselves at all, as an “invisible” organization. When I teamed up with NBC Nightly News last year to do a segment on the group, Family leader Dick Foth tried to tell NBC that there'd been a mistake, that there's no organization at all. When NBC responded with the tax records of the Fellowship Foundation and the International Foundation, he begrudgingly admitted that there was an organization.

    Are the Mormons anti-democratic? Theologically, perhaps; I don't know enough to answer that. In practice, no, for the most part. Is the Family anti-democratic? Yes, explicitly, theologically and in practice. Moreover, the Family is not a religion, like LDS; it's religious political organization, created from its inception for the purpose of influencing policy.

    Lastly, Shields. That's a deeply puzzling book, starting from page 1: “The claim that theologically conservative Christians threaten democratic values is not new. In fact, it would be hard to find a more well-entrenched and enduring belief among elite journalists and academics alike.” It's not a belief I hold, as I think I've made clear with my defense of Dobson and crush on Huckabee. And having worked with a lot more elite journalists than Shields has — and probably more academics, too — it's not one I've widely encountered. So what's his evidence? Let's go to the notes. A list of scholars (no journalists), all of whom I've read and many of whom I know and none but a minority of whom hold that belief.

    So Shields starts with a straw man, and then heads off to Oz, a country in which he defines New Left goals as moral, NOT economic (tell that to the Marxists!); suggests that Black Power was an “uncompromising and violent” movement within civil rights (tell that to the Black Power business movement!); and reports that Beverly LaHaye — a bruiser by any definition — is always gracious based on the evidence that she says she is.

    Shields makes a fetish of civility and then celebrates those who proclaim their own civility loudest and most often. Then again, civility is overrated. Civility in politics is all too often a cover for the consensus opinion of elites. That's why I like Huck — with whom I disagree on everything — and don't like the bland veneer with which Brooks tries to present Thune to the middle. Democracy is better served by candor than pleasant manners.

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