David Brooks, Erasmus, and Luther Walk into a Bar…

On Monday one of my colleagues, joking about the growth of “Leadership Studies” programs, suggested that we should probably offer a “Followership Studies” minor.

From his mouth to God’s ear. Or, at least, to David Brooks’…

David Brooks
Wikimedia

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

Now, I don’t think that Brooks’ Tuesday column in the New York Times was the semi-authoritarian apology for hierarchy that some of his critics thought they read. He started with an important reflection on how America commemorates its political leaders — here’s my own post on presidential memorials — and why recent Washington, DC monuments (FDR, MLK, the proposed Eisenhower memorial) lack the stature of the perennially popular Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, both of which help citizens of a democratic republic think about the paradoxes of power:

…the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.

Instinctively, as a small ‘d’ democrat and small ‘r’ republican, I want to dismiss Brooks’ comments out of hand and shout back Jeffersonian and Lincolnian platitudes about inalienable rights and government being of/by/for the people. But I couldn’t entirely disagree with him.

Maybe it’s just that I’m a typical first child: deferential and rules-following. But, coincidentally, Brooks’ column also followed a semester in which one question kept bubbling up again and again: Is autonomy a virtue? To what extent are Brooks’ proud but ordinary individuals self-governing, save for whatever (limited) authority they (provisionally) grant to others?

On one extreme, this spring my Senior Seminar students encountered the Catholic historian Christopher Shannon insisting that autonomy is not a Christian value, that human agency ought only be studied for its irony, while leaving God at “the center of Christian history.” Of course, the chapter that followed Shannon’s in Confessing History found another Christian historian, Jim LaGrand, saying something quite the opposite. (Read about both chapters in my post on that section of Confessing History.)

Hunt, Inventing Human RightsThen there was my course on Human Rights in International History, which started with the French historian Lynn Hunt contending that human rights were “invented” thanks in large part to the growing assumption in the 18th century West that one’s body and life were one’s own and could only be governed by one’s consent. More than a few of my students ultimately found this claim, and ensuing developments in the theory and history of human rights, quite dangerous — they were persuaded by the argument (chiefly coming from outside the West, or from the world’s great religions) that individual autonomy could be destructive of community if unchecked by values like duty and righteousness.

A similar concern has come up in the last two weeks as we’ve been filming faculty interviews for a new online version of Bethel’s introductory course on Western Civilization and church history. We’ve asked each interviewee to reflect on a Western value that they would encourage Christians to reject, or at least to engage cautiously and critically. More than any other, they’ve wrestled with the Western value of individualism — and at least one pushed back against the Enlightenment’s privileging of autonomy.

In light of these discussions, I’m perhaps a bit more predisposed than I would have been six months ago to nod along with Brooks when he frets about “mass adversarial cynicism” producing “movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether” and seek to make the world “like the Internet — a disbursed [sic] semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.”

But those same discussions from the past semester also help me to critique Brooks on at least two important counts, or at least to hope for a follow-up column that digs a bit deeper:

1. Brooks is probably right that “Those ‘Question Authority’ bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.” But at least in this column, he doesn’t explain what he means by “just authority.”

My colleague who worried that the excesses of Western individualism are built on Enlightenment notions of autonomous individuals contracting to form social institutions also speaks regularly in this Western Civ/church history course about the nature of just authority. Wary as he is of radical notions of individual autonomy, he’s also unswervingly critical of hierarchies that subvert justice (from the Roman Empire — “they make a desert and called it peace,” as Tacitus said — to the late medieval church at its most corrupt and exploitative to the absolute monarchies opposed by Enlightenment advocates of human rights).

ErasmusAs a Christian at a Christian college, he presents students with biblical descriptions of leadership, which don’t neatly lend themselves to modern categories like “authoritarian” and “liberal.” To be sure, Romans 13 avers that secular authorities are ordained by God and ought to be obeyed, but my colleague has Psalm 72 remind us that might does not make right. That psalm opens with a prayer that God “endow” political leaders with His justice and righteousness. That psalmist prays that the ideal leader “defend the afflicted among the people / and save the children of the needy; / may he crush the oppressor” (v 4), that he will “deliver the needy who cry out,” “save the needy from death,” and “rescue them from oppression and violence, / for precious is their blood in his sight” (vv 12-14).

So I’m taken with the Christian humanist Erasmus’ response to Machiavelli’s amoral conception of power:

A good prince… is a living likeness of God, who is at once good and powerful. His goodness makes him want to help all; his power makes him able to do so….

[A good prince is one] who holds the life of each individual dearer than his own; who works and strives night and day for just one end—to be the best he can for everyone…. (The Education of a Christian Prince, 1516)

Is this what David Brooks means by “just authority”? I don’t know, but if “the king” of Psalm 72 or the “Christian Prince” of Erasmus’ dreaming is a worthy model for just authority, then it’s easy to understand why so many Americans have such an adversarial posture towards authorities. Do those in authority in this country combine power with goodness? Do they defend the afflicted, or do they afflict defenseless people caught in the path of unjust wars prosecuted with grand armies and unseen drones? Do they deliver the needy, or permit them to sink into deepening poverty and inequality? Do they rescue the needy from oppression and violence, or do they expose the most fragile life to death, even before birth? Perhaps we’d be a bit more eager to follow leaders who work and strive a bit more to be the best they can for everyone.

2. In the end, I do think that Brooks is right that individuals only thrive as grouped within a society that has institutions. But as he’d surely agree, the vertical relationship of leadership and followership is only one element of that flourishing. Society also requires horizontal relationships in which each person relates to others with some recognition of mutual obligation — or, as many of my Human Rights students concluded in their final papers, individual rights are only meaningful when accompanied by social duties.

Named for someone who is both Lord and suffering servant, Christianity offers scriptural and historical resources that (at its too-rarely realized best) can shape communities in which individuals are free, equal, and possess dignity, but also serve sacrificially, lovingly. Paul’s advice in Ephesians 5-6 understandably draws attention for what he tells women and slaves about obedience, but “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21) is not limited to any group, and has to be understood in the context of his earlier statement that “we are all members of one body” (4:25).

Martin LutherOr, in Martin Luther’s famous paradox (from his Freedom of a Christian, 1520):

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Given what Luther writes of his own political philosophy in this piece and elsewhere (On Secular Authority), I’m sure he’d go even further than David Brooks in encouraging “ordinary” people to cultivate their abilities to follow leaders (though he didn’t view many rulers as all that extraordinary). But within Christian communities, he taught that “all of us who believe in Christ are priests and kings in Christ” who nonetheless “should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor.”


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