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Q+A: David Brooks

The conservative New York Times columnist explains how socially conservative evangelicals can repair their public image.

As the Republican Party seeks to regain political control after the last election, some conservatives are calling for a new image.

"As Republicans sort out the reasons for their defeat, they likely will overlook or dismiss the gorilla in the pulpit," Kathleen Parker wrote for The Washington Post. "To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn't soon cometh."

Evangelicals make up about a quarter of the electorate, and about 62 percent of them identify themselves with the Republican Party. David Brooks spoke with Christianity Today in Wheaton, Illinois, about how evangelicals can change their image.

Do you see evangelicals as the core of the Republican Party or as weighing on the neck?

I see them as the core of the party. Just sheer numbers, politically, the party would be dead without evangelical voters, or without a lot of evangelical voters. But even more seriously, spiritually, … the moral core of the party is provided by social conservatives. Without that core, it would just be a party of tax cuts, and that wouldn't be a very inspiring party. I think social conservatives will always be the core of the Republican Party.

Can Christian conservatives repackage certain issues?

Life issues will always be center — life and death issues will always be central. I guess what I would think is the core issue — which is possible [issue] around which to build bridges — is the family, issues about family togetherness, reducing divorce rates, helping kids do missionary work or aid work in Africa. All that stuff should come from the core pro-life community to a broader community.

How does religion make a difference in the Republican Party, as opposed to just promoting conservative values?

Religion connects you to a set of moral principles that are more than just conserving the past or the free market. Americans like the free market, they like capitalism, but it's not that inspiring. To really inspire people and inspire young people, you've got have a more serious moral mission. So I think social conservatives at their best provide that. As long as it's not a social conservatism that is about how sinful everybody else is.

Is there anything that evangelicals can do to repair their image?

It comes and goes. I understand [that] Rick Warren's not the leader, but I think people like him have a positive effect. There are a lot of people all around the country less famous than he is that don't have churches with thousands of people but who do that on [a] day-to-day basis. The more those people are in public life, the more familiar the country gets with them. I thought, to be honest, Jerry Falwell did damage, and frankly I think James Dobson does damage sometimes. His work on psychology and family is very sophisticated and very productive, but a lot of his observations on politics are crude and ill-informed. I sometimes think he says things that are too angry.

I know you mentioned that you like Mike Gerson, President Bush's former speechwriter. Are there other evangelicals you would like to see more of?

I liked Mike Huckabee's campaign. There [are] a bunch of governors who are committed Christians as well as very modern, sophisticated politicians like Bobby Jindal in Louisiana. The people will naturally emerge, I think.

Obama has promoted the faith-based initiatives again recently.

I think he's sincere about that. I'd hate to see the faith-based initiatives cut off. Obviously, there's this issue of whether or not you can discriminate in your hiring and keep your core mission. That's the political fight. But I'm glad we have a President who is a Democrat who is very sincere, and not only sincere but very comfortable talking about religion in public life.

Do you think the faith-based initiatives office is a good result of that?

I think when you're trying to get somebody over drug addiction, you can tell them, "Hey, you shouldn't do drugs because it's wrong," or you can transform their life through evangelical work. The latter is just more powerful and more effective.

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