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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Pause for reflection

Being out of power and out of fashion has advantages

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

I'm looking forward to Time in the Wilderness. It's a phrase one must now capitalize, so often has it been repeated about American conservatives, and American Christians, and especially those American conservatives who call themselves Christians. The party that most claimed to represent these crowds has been thrashed at the polls. Milton Friedman is dead; John Maynard Keynes is reborn. King James is out; The Message is in. And so the various strains of conservatives and Christians with political aspirations are headed to the wilderness, as the narrative goes, to find themselves.

In truth, most of the people who make their living from politics will do no such thing. Temporarily deposed, they will write campaign manifestos thinly disguised as memoirs, or become lobbyists or consultants or television talking heads. They might slim down, or buff up, or get a tan. They will await the gradual unfolding of slip-ups and scandals that signal the impending downfall of their opponents. Surveying American politics is, in this regard, like watching a game of musical chairs between two surly teenagers with one chair. The kid on the chair puffs out his chest; the kid without the chair sulks and bides his time.

But just because the professionals are unlikely to take advantage of this opportunity for reflection doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't. I've given some thought to what the wandering time might look like. One blessed power of wilderness, for example, is that it shuts people up. Even the chattiest of chatterboxes finds words inadequate when he is surrounded by towering sequoias, or scrambling up a rocky slope in thinning air. We could use less chatter, I think. Especially the chatter that is in essential agreement with itself, and convinced that those who disagree are Of The Devil. When you find yourself surrounded by people who agree with everything you say, you're headed for a fall. No wonder the Bible warns against idle talk.

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Another thing about wilderness is that it simplifies, which is, as the artist Hans Hoffman explained, "to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak." You forget about your petty grievances when you are tensely waiting for a mother bear and her cubs to cross the trail up ahead. Whatever disagreements may have been festering among your small band of brothers disappear in that moment, because you are reminded that there are no animal cages out here, no ambulances, no one to look after you but these people here alongside you. The unnecessary has gone; there are only the necessities of brotherhood and faith.

A dissipation of chatter and the renewal of brotherhood are overdue. And so I'm encouraged by two small endeavors. In one instance, a young Christian friend has started a series of dinners to bring people in Washington, D.C., together to discuss not politics but ideas. He's modeling it on "The Other Club," which Winston Churchill and a friend started in response to being snubbed by the mainstream London political club of their day, "The Club." The Other Club's original membership was one-third Liberal and one-third Conservative, with the last third consisting of accomplished people outside politics. They were bound by rules of civility and thoughtfulness, but not commonality of thought.

Other friends have started a Hall of Men, which meets fortnightly in Wichita, Kan., to share a meal, discuss great men of the Christian faith, and sample homemade brews. Here Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants come together to learn about the feats and writings of men like Athanasius and G.K. Chesterton, closing each meeting with Compline-evening prayers. The conversations here run much deeper than politics, to faith, culture, art, and civilization. I suspect these are the concepts to which we need to return, during our stint in the wilderness, if only to remind ourselves why we cared so much about politics in the first place. And who knows, maybe some struggle and reflection might change the mind even of someone like me, who is always right.

There's something more important going on here than intellectualism. For all the talk in conservative circles about a need for "fresh ideas," what's even more imperative is renewed hearts.


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