Sigh. David Brooks is back at it again on original sin. It seems that whenever a heinous act is featured on the news, Brooks directs our attention to the dark underbelly of our own natures. Back in November, it was the child abuse scandal at Penn State. Brooks chastised those who expressed outrage about it for assuming a “superior” attitude and not recognizing their own inner failings. Now the killing spree of a U.S. soldier brings forth similar reactions on Brooks’ part. Those condemning the killer should contemplate the evil in their own hearts, he tells us. In our modern secular world, we are all products of self-deception, carrying around conceptions of our “inner wonderfulness” rather than of our true inner depravity.
Brooks’ real purpose, of course, is to transform such incidents into critiques of our contemporary culture. If we want to assign fault, he suggests, we should look not at discrete individuals or immediate causes but at our defective worldview. In a recent discussion on Meet the Press, Brooks remarked: “You know, you spend 30 or 40 years muddying the moral waters here. We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is.” The result of such muddying is that people get off the hook with “an easy conscience.” It’s been downhill, it appears, ever since the dark days of Woodstock and Roe v. Wade, when sin began to be eradicated from our collective consciousness.
Viewed strategically, the tendency to blame the worldview should be seen for what it is: a resort to a culture war framework. It is not a lot different from the language used by Gingrich, Santorum, Buchanan, and others to shift the blame for a list of society’s ills onto a modern culture they do not approve of. It has also been a cover for so-called guardians of morality like the Catholic Church, an institution that has sought to absolve itself of its own scandals by targeting secularism. David Brooks presents a sophisticated version of the trope.
Brooks clings to the idea of original sin for an obvious reason: he believes the very idea of conservatism is built upon it. The myth of a fallen humanity allows conservatives to justify orderly authority and traditional norms in order to keep things in check. The focus on internal sin makes people “responsible amidst our frailties,” he says, and gives people “scripts to follow” when they confront it. It leads in his mind to a stable moral order.
The problem is that there is little evidence to show that being aware of one’s sinfulness will make one act more responsibly than someone else who is less internally fraught. What we all know is that such thinking encourages guilt. If our past ancestors are any testament, it makes people dwell on things that are forbidden (often having to do with sex) and conjures up punishments to go along with them. All too often, moreover, it causes people to see evils where they do not exist. The individual’s sin in this sense is projected onto the outside world and takes on a shape of its own, often unpredictable. Witch trials and crusades only occur when people see the devil’s work in other individuals and forces.
Given the number of culture warriors in our midst who purport to have a special knowledge of sin, it helps to be armed with a certain skepticism about claims in that realm. David Brooks should be careful what he wishes for.