My Conservative Confession (Why Smart People Do Stupid Things)

NY Times conservative writer David Brooks gave the Commencement address this past weekend at Occidental College in Los Angeles, an alma mater of President Obama. Brooks spoke to the left-leaning crowd about how he evolved from a New York liberal to a moderate conservative because of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Edmund Burke. These philosophers taught him that people and cultures are not shaped by rational forces, as the European Enlightenment taught, but by the “sentiments” and emotions that are shaped by experience and imagination. The longer I live, the more I believe this too. Institutions, governments and religious organizations can put all kinds of rational policies, rules and creeds in place, but in the end, it is the sentiments of the heart that guide their behavior. This explains why very smart people do very stupid things.

This is why several Republican conservative politicians from the “class of 1994” who espoused their “family values” seem to have a penchant for cheating on their spouses and having homosexual liaisons. That’s why my home state of Tennessee was recently ranked by HuffingtonPost as the nation’s most corrupt state because of cronyism and fraud, and yet it is a state with one of the highest percentage of churches. Generally, these majority Protestant churches emphasize right belief over passionate relationship with God and ethical conduct. How else does one explain the fact that the presence of many of those who perpetuate Medicare fraud at health care companies in the area sit in church pews on Sunday morning? It seems to me that there is a disconnect between our deepest ideals and our convictions when those do not penetrate our emotions and shape our passions. As Brooks said in his Commencement Address:

“There are hidden layers of emotions and sentiments within each of us formed over eons of time. A person’s behavior is shaped by the informal constitution of our mind, by the habits, etiquette, norms, values, moral and unconscious assumptions that loop from our mind to other minds and back again. These things shape how we perceive the world, how our emotions value the world, how our affections pre-consciously organize our thinking, and how our longing for admiration, harmony and spiritual goals find expression in the concrete circumstance of our lives. I came to believe it is impossible to de-moralize and de-emotionalize behavior. You amputate reality if you try to imagine social problems can be solved through material forces. So I came to think that everything comes down to character and culture, and that’s the reason life is so hard. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is the author of one my favorite quotations, which is that “The central conservative truth is that culture matters most. The central liberal truth is that government can change culture.” The best liberalism pushes us to change culture, to change these emotions. The best conservatism warns us that this change is hard, and in the long run, if we’re not careful, will accidentally destroy the social relationships we may not even see or be aware of.”

If political, educational and religious institutions want to change culture, it’s not enough to just push for good and equitable policies. It’s not enough to just turn out ministers and PhDs with knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and biblical texts. It’s not enough to teach students technical skills if they also do not engage the liberal arts where sentiments are discovered and character formed in the presence of history, art and literature. It’s not enough to insist on educating the mind if we also do not shape the imagination.

But emotions don’t just push us towards mistakes and irrational behavior. They also push us towards goodness, peace and our best accomplishments. Our best successes and our most influential acts usually are the result of a right ordering of our emotional lives, a creative imagination that can see possibilities, and unswerving passion to a goal or cause.

If all this “emotionalism” means I’m a conservative, then sign me up. Most of the conservatives I know don’t show many, so maybe I’ve missed something. But I couldn’t agree with Burke or Brooks any more: Right policies and sound doctrines do not good societies and ethical people make.

As Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” St. Paul said it this way, “If I have all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” All true education, true religion and true cultural change happens when we move from knowing, to being fully Known.

If you want to change the world or shape a culture, you can’t do it by shaping what people believe. You only can do it when you shape what people love.

2 Responses to “My Conservative Confession (Why Smart People Do Stupid Things)”
  1. Phillip says:

    Growing up in church, I heard warnings of “over-emotionalism.” I never heard anyone warn of “over-intellectualism.” I had to learn that one on my own. A good, recent book that speaks to some of the issues you raise here is James K. A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom.”

  2. toddbouldin says:

    Thank you, Phillip. I agree — I was left with the impression that emotionalism is a bad trait and especially when it comes to worship. As a therapist friend once told me, “You were taught to love God from the neck up.”

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