Love Has Good Manners

Among the voices I rely on to be honest, intellectually stimulating and morally grounded is David Brooks’. In addition to reading his New York Times editorials, I try not to miss the “Shields and Brooks” segment of the PBS News Hour on Friday evenings. Brooks is a thoughtful conservative who regularly drops references to the great Protestant theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, into his column. Mark Shields is an equally thoughtful and wise progressive. Every week the two of them engage in what has become increasingly rare these days as the nation listens to candidates for the presidential nomination – an intelligent, honest and supremely civil exchange of ideas: i.e. a conversation. It is so extraordinary I feel bereft if a Friday evening commitment prevents me from seeing it.

The civil, thoughtful exchange of ideas, grounded in conservative and liberal political ideology stands in stark contrast to what happens in the televised presidential primary debates. The Democrats have at least remained mostly civil and their exchange of ideas is an actual debate. On the Republican side the level of political discourse quickly dissolves into an adolescent alley fight. The current leader in the polls has yet to launch a cogent argument about anything, instead relying on name calling, bullying and self serving braggadocio, punctuated with an occasional crude obscenity. His mantra: “I’m going to make America great again” and “When I’m president we’re going to win again” are absent any rational explanation of how exactly it will come to pass and amounts to little more than empty, exaggerated boasting and self promotion. Candidate number two looks into the camera and promises to end the very real security threat posed by extremist terrorist groups by carpet bombing, unleashing our full military might in spite of the fact that if we have learned anything at all in the past decade it is that military might does not always lead to good outcomes. Candidate three spends most of his time exuding his loathing for the current president and his former Secretary of State.

In my retirement I am watching the news more than ever before and I confess that it’s making me depressed. And so I was heartened to read David Brooks’ New York Times editorial February 9, “I Miss Barack Obama”. Brooks makes no secret that his political instincts are conservative and Republican, not Democrat. Yet he misses in this campaign what he calls the President’s integrity, basic humanity, soundness in decision making process, grace under pressure and optimism. Brooks wrote, “To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism. And to conclude that this country is on the verge of collapse. That’s simply not true.” Brooks said that although we have problems they are less serious than those of about any other people on earth. “There is a tone of ugliness creeping across the world” he wrote and expressed his longing for “an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that he finds in President Obama in spite of major ideological and political differences.

I love a careful, surprising, compelling turn of phrase and Brooks came up with a few in this piece, “the pornography of pessimism” is certainly one of the best. And his inclusion of “good manners” as something Barack Obama practices and that is notable for its absence in the current campaign, is another.

J.B. Phillips was a distinguished British New Testament scholar whose translation of the New Testament was the first popular breakthrough in the attempt to put scripture in language people understand and use. Phillips translated the section of St. Paul’s beloved 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians that describes what love is and what loves does in a way I find myself thinking about a lot these days.

“This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience,
It looks for a way to be constructIve.
It is not possessive: it is neither anxious
to impress, nor does it cherish inflated
Ideas of its own importance.
Love has good manners.”

Good manners. Just a touch would elevate the conversation enormously and recover something precious that is woefully absent.


  1. Thank you, John, for a word of sense and grace in these difficult times. Bless you.

  2. Susan Schaefer says:

    Wonderful words, John. I don’t think you are really “retired.” Your blog continues to be a valuable ministry.

    My small group at LaSalle St. Church this morning was just talking about David Brooks and thinking about reading his book. (Two of our members heard him speak at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School last week.) If you haven’t already, I suggest that you send this blog to him (David Brooks). My prayer is that his editorial will be read by those who have abandoned good manners.

    • Susan Schaefer says:

      . . . those who have abandoned good manners, including the Republican front-runner, whom I have read is a Presbyterian.

  3. Thank you for this,John! I always appreciate your thoughts. This is “right on”!

  4. Hi John, I too am a fan of David Brooks. During the Calvin College lecture series last month, he referred to his conservative point of view at the NY Times as making him feel like ‘…the Chief Rabbi of Mecca.’ Gave me a chuckle. I like his curiosity about the human condition, how societies work, and his recent book about humility and character. I agree with you that he modeled good manners and discernment in spelling out the admirable qualities of Pres. Obama despite some policy differences of opinion.

  5. Thank you. I am not familiar with David Brooks — yet. With this recommendation, I see that I should search him out.

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