Smart and stupid

Posted: Dec 25, 2003 12:00 AM

On Christmas, along with remembering how God came to earth, we might also read these words in Psalm 92: "How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! The stupid man cannot know."

During three years of syndicated columnizing, many readers have asked why I'm a Christian conservative -- not the most likely outcome for a liberal Jewish boy from Massachusetts. Short answer: In my 20s, three decades ago, I realized I was stupid.

Oh, my intellectual credentials are OK. Sky-high SAT scores. A top chess player in high school. Graduated from Yale in three years. Ph.D. with super recommendations from impressed professors. Written lots of books. Yada yada.

But my brainy political ideas led me at age 22 to Marxism. Brainy ideas about marriage without fidelity led me to wed at age 21 and split at age 23. Brainy ideas about religion led me to atheism.

Happily, while in graduate school, as professors offered compliments, God showed how little I knew. For example: to satisfy a Ph.D. language requirement, I had to improve my Russian. One evening, just for reading practice, I plucked from my bookcase a copy of the New Testament in Russian given me two years before as a novelty item and never even opened. Surprise: The words had the ring of truth. (It helped that I had to read very slowly.)

Another time I was assigned to teach a course in early American literature, and my preparation involved reading ... Puritan sermons. Those very bright dead white males who fell on their knees before a far greater intelligence showed me I wasn't so smart. Later in my reading, books of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer displayed Christian brains at work, but brains that understood the importance of respecting true wisdom.

Once I understood that God is smarter than me, it made sense to follow the Bible rather than my own playbook. It made sense that a civilization based essentially (although imperfectly and sinfully) on biblical teaching would have wisdom that deserves respect. True conservatism in this country means standing on the shoulders of earlier generations of Americans and the institutions that helped to mold their lives -- family, church, business -- instead of assuming that modernity knows best.

My professorial colleagues who have not realized their limitations still gravitate to the left. Media stars and Supreme Court justices, both frequently kissed up to, also tend to head left. The liberal emphasis on liberation from traditional institutions assumes that we're bright enough to do much better. Liberals in power harass what previous generations built: Look at homosexuality's war on marriage, the Supreme Court's assault on unborn children and the tens of thousands of regulations that hamstring the freedom to work.

Sure, the word "conservative" carries a heavy burden. The Social Darwinist variety of conservatism -- humanity evolves economically through survival of the financially fittest and elimination of the poor -- turned its back on the needy in the past. But that is changing, and the tragic liberal alliance with abortion has made the Democratic Party a Social Darwinist battering ram against the weakest of the weak, unborn children.

Most conservatives, unlike most liberals, understand that progress comes one by one from the inside out, not million by million from the top down. Most conservatives understand that all manmade institutions and all people are flawed, so utopia is not one revolution or one great leader around the corner. Conservatives, like liberals, like all of us, are sinners, but conservatives who privately defend sin at least do not try to use governmental force to push others to sin. Liberals, though, regularly purchase government-surplus stain removers that in practice grind the evil deeper into the social fabric.

That's why I'm a Christian conservative. "Claiming to be wise, they became fools," the book of Romans says of those who do not honor God. That was me. But now I pay attention to herald angels who sing, "Glory to the newborn king."