David Brooks Takes on “Service Religion”

Service religion is David Brooks‘ expression for the do-gooders of our world, those who frown on politics and smile at compassion, and Brooks says it’s not enough.

Who has read soe Hammett or Chandler and do you agree with Brooks?

In short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on. So if I could, presumptuously, recommend a reading list to help these activists fill in the gaps in the prevailing service ethos, I’d start with the novels of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or at least the movies based on them….

This worldview had a huge influence as a generation confronted crime, corruption, fascism and communism. I’m not sure I can see today’s social entrepreneurs wearing fedoras and trench coats. But noir’s moral realism would be a nice supplement to today’s prevailing ethos. It would fold some hardheadedness in with today’s service mentality. It would focus attention on the core issues: order and rule of law. And it would be necessary. Contemporary Washington, not to mention parts of the developing world, may be less seedy than the cities in the noir stories, but they are equally laced with self-deception and self-dealing.

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  • RJS

    Who hasn’t read The Maltese Falcon? It should be on every “great books” list.

    I don’t know if I agree with Brooks though. I’ll need to think it over a bit. Is there a link to a longer article?

  • Rick

    “Is there a link to a longer article?”

    There probably is, you just can’t see it with this new design ;^)

  • Joe Canner
  • Joe Canner

    I agree with Brooks that bad governance is often to blame for poverty and other social problems, but I’m not sure what his solution is*. He seems rather optimistic about the ability of politics (and perhaps military force) to bring about the required change. In Africa and the Middle East, for example, political change has a rather checkered history when it comes to producing significant societal benefit. So, while pursuing political change can be useful in the long-run, the youthful do-gooders should not be told to sit on the sidelines waiting for this change to take place.

    * Although I haven’t read them, I don’t see how the references to Hammett and Chandler are particularly relevant. How are hard-boiled private detectives going to solve the political problems of the 2/3rds world? If this is an analogy, to what is he referring?

  • I read this article last week & thought that there has to be something better to read than noir fiction to get “moral realism” in my perspective. Then, I went back to my OT readings for the day. 🙂 But, for those who won’t read that book, fiction can be useful, but it may not be as helpful to confront our own complicity in the corrupt systems.

  • Tom F.

    A great movie that gets to this in a Christian context is “Gone, Baby, Gone”. A beautiful look at how to be a moral realist without becoming cynical.

    The movie opens with Matthew 10:16 “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves”.

  • RJS


    As I read on my iPad, I’ll just say this … I am waiting with bated breath and tired eyes for Patheos to get the bugs and kinks out of the new design. I think it will all work out eventually.

    Having looked at the full article – I think Brooks has a point worth some discussion.

  • Rodney

    “They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.

    That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.”

    At the risk of sounding cheeky, would Jesus think of his kingdom efforts in light of this assessment by Brooks?

  • Jeff Y

    Brooks writes: “There’s little social progress without political progress.”

    Didn’t Jesus bring about social & spiritual progress without seeking direct political change? Rather, through his own loving death and sacrifice? Similar to what Rodney says, I wonder what Jesus or Paul would have said of this? Or, perhaps more telling, what would Brooks say to them based on their teachings alone? “Sorry, it’s not enough to love your neighbor, you need the political process.”

    Granted, this brings in a deep question of Christians & politics. But, Jesus only bothered with it in either indirect ways or with respect to leaders among the people of God; Paul simply does not – anywhere that I know of – call on Christians to be active in political process, to bring about political change within the tyranny of Rome. The most anti-Roman book of all, Revelation, calls on saints to resist through sacrifice – not by invoking political change. It seems to me, God does his most powerful work through suffering and sacrifice for the healing others (see Jesus). Whether this will create a rapid change or a realized eschatology is another matter. But, it is the latter that it seems Brooks is after and I don’t think that’s a legit concept.