From Caleb Crain‘s review of Richard Wightman Fox‘s Jesus in America in The New York Times a few weeks ago: “Artists of existential anxiety, the Puritans believed that even those who wanted to be saved rarely were. Confidence in salvation was usually a sign of perdition. The best state was a high fret, distrusting one’s faith incessantly…” (emphasis ours).

Skip forward to David Brooks‘ column in yesterday’s Times, “Hooked on Heaven Lite.” Brooks works himself into such a high fret over Mitch Albom‘s The Five People You Meet in Heaven that he argues that Albom’s feel-good poppycock is more dangerous to America than religious zealotry. Brooks leaves his feelings on scourging unstated, but he longs for a good scouring: In Albom’s depiction of Heaven, he charges, “sins are not washed away. Instead, hurt is washed away.”

Break out the brillo pads and let’s feel bad!

Not that we care to defend Albom’s theological gooferdust. But we’re just as distrustful of Brooks’ crusade against “Americans… divorced from any sense of a creedal order, ignorant of the moral traditions that have come down to us through the ages and detached from the sense that we all owe obligations to a higher authority.”

This is as reductionist a view of religiousity as Albom’s. Our traditions are not all moral and our morals are not all traditional. None of them have “come down to us through the ages”; inasmuch as such traditions survive they do so because we pick them up and adapt them. And how exactly does one owe an obligation to anyone?

Then there’s Brooks’ “higher authority.” If he means God, he should say so; but Brooks, to our knowledge, has always remained slippery on the God question, preferring the bureaucratic names of the divine. “Higher Authority” (let’s just say HA) allows Brooks to project order and hierarchy as the faces of the Lord.

Eisenhower was famous for saying that he didn’t care “what a man believes in, so long as he believes in something.” Brooks might update that Albomian axiom like so: “I don’t care what HA you answer to, so long as you obey — we must have order.”

Brooks has “high fret” down to a science. But before he preaches against the dangers of simple-minded sweetness again, we wish he’d embrace the great American moral tradition of “distrusting one’s faith incessantly.”