David Brooks recognizes that many of his fellow Republicans have an attitude problem. Cleverly, he invites them to change their attitude through the medium of a Christian parable. He retells the story of the Prodigal Son in his latest New York Times column, adding to it a modern moral. Too many Republicans -- Brooks actually says too many well-off people in general -- take the resentful attitude of the prodigal's older brother when the father takes the prodigal back in. Bible readers will recall that after years wasting himself, the prodigal returns home and is feasted by his father, to his brother's dismay. You know: Why does that bum merit such special treatment? You never gave me a feast? The father can't help rejoicing, however, because one who was lost has been found.
Brooks recognizes that many Republicans don't get it. He paraphrases their attitude: "People who play by the rules should see the rewards. Those who abandon
the community, live according to their own reckless desires should not
get to come back and automatically reap the bounty of others’ hard work.
If you reward the younger brother, you signal that self-indulgence
pays, while hard work gets slighted."
While many such critics may actually imagine themselves in the father's role, Brooks sees them as kin to the unreasonably envious older brother. "In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating
programs on behalf of the younger brothers," he observes, "The great danger in this
situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up
self-righteously lecturing the poor: “You need to be more like us:
graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.”
Moreover: "[T]his parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class
are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and
shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he
was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism." Meanwhile, "The father also understands that the younger brothers of the world will
not be reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by
unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude."
It becomes clear that this is a parable for political candidates in 2014, 2016 and beyond. "Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son
instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think
the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive
member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some
bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity."
In Brooks's reading of the parable, the prodigal is less a representative of the wastrels and sinners than a symbol of the unsuccessful. Brooks most likely shares with other Republicans a belief that the unsuccessful need to change their lives in order to become successful. But he knows, as many of his fellow partisans may not, that our modern prodigals won't be motivated to succeed -- more specifically, to emulate the successful -- unless they believe that the fathers and the elder brothers really want them to succeed. Brooks is probably exceptional in realizing that the prodigals need assurance that there's actually a place for them at home. "The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted." For Brooks, that acceptance comes with the prodigal's obligation "to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline." But the imperative to accept the prodigal also puts an obligation on the elder brother. He "gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship."
Oddly, Brooks notes a modern critique of the prodigal-son story that finds it irrelevant to modern conditions. From this perspective, Jesus's story is mainly a critique of Phariseeism and its " overly rigid and rule-bound society." In this reading the elder brother is an unforgiving Pharisee while the father represents Jesus's "radical forgiveness." Modern critics supposedly find the parable counterproductive in a society that needs more rather than less discipline; its message may only discourage personal responsibility. Brooks finds this criticism "valid" but still rejects it. Without quite making it plain, he leaves his fellow Republicans, perhaps those on the Christian right especially, with a challenge. Are they Christians or are they Pharisees?