Brooks on Faith

I am grateful for David Brooks' thoughtful review of my book. But I do want to take serious issue with a couple of arguments he makes. The first is the following:

When a writer uses quotations from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the Left Behind series to capture the religious and political currents in modern America, then I know I can put that piece of writing down because the author either doesn't know what he is talking about or is arguing in bad faith.

Tcscover_3 If by that, Brooks means that the scope and scale of American Christianity encompasses far more than these three things, then of course he's right. That's why an entire chapter of my book - a chapter he simply ignores - is devoted to conservative, Catholic arguments about life, death and sex. And many evangelicals, as I also take pains to point out in the book, are subtler than their leaders, especially the more politicized ones. Here's a direct quote from Chapter Two:

It is too broad a brush to describe all fundamentalist Catholics and Protestants this way, let alone most non-fundamentalist Catholics and Protestants. Many have adopted much more open ways of discussing their human failings, and the most successful have put practical counseling to deal with human problems at the core of their ministry. The success of books like Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life" is based on his candid and humane acknowledgment that many Christians experience drift, bewilderment and self-doubt. James Dobson's folksy homilies on how to rear children fall into the same category. Similarly, many contemporary Catholic priests offer compassionate, pastoral care for their flawed flocks; and have learned to subject themselves to careful moral scrutiny.

Does that sound like I'm describing even all fundamentalists as Christianists, as Brooks implies? I'm even giving Dobson credit when he sticks to faith, not politics. But the notion that Falwell's past, Dobson's current political clout and the "Left Behind" series' success do not capture something important about "the religious and political currents in modern America" today is preposterous. For David to deny this says much more about his blindspots than about America.

Falwell may indeed no longer be a central figure in American Christianism. But he was a critical early force in building the movement that now runs the GOP, along with Pat Robertson. You cannot narrate the emergence of the new Republicanism (in which Brooks played a part), as I do in the book, without mentioning Goldwater's nemesis. As for Dobson, his influence is indisputably enormous. Last year, Dobson's group spent $150 million on spreading its message. Dobson's estimated listening radio audience is in the tens of millions Left_behind a day (some claim 200 million), and his multi-media complex in Colorado Springs is so vast it has its own zip-code. The president vets Supreme Court nominees through him. This is irrelevant to what has happened to conservatism in the last decade? Please.

As for the "Left Behind" series of books, the data also speak for themselves. Money quote from USA Today:

Since an initial printing of 35,000 copies, nearly 8 million of the original Left Behind have sold, as well as 62 million copies of related titles. The last six books in the series made their debut at No. 1 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list, a David and Goliath-like feat for a series that didn't make a significant dent in mainstream stores until 1998 ... In 2002, Jenkins and LaHaye joined Tom Clancy, John Grisham and J.K. Rowling as the only authors who have first printings of 2 million copies or more.

The books don't do nearly as well abroad, because they speak to the particular dynamics of American evangelicalism, especially the popular notion of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture that has rapidly spread in the last five years - especially after 9/11. For good measure, author Tim LaHaye's wife founded Concerned Women for America, a powerful Christianist lobby group with half a million members. Is Brooks saying that my citing this mass phenomenon means I knows nothing about American religion and politics today or that I am arguing in bad faith? If he is, his dismissal is a function of his own denial, not analysis.