In the world of national columnists, David Brooks is a star. But in the past few years, The New York Times writer and author has whipped up fascination among a certain subset of readers for a specific, gossipy reason: They wonder if the Jewish writer has become a Christian.
In his best-selling new book, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for the Moral Life,” Brooks, 57, one of the most prominent columnists in the country, traces his spiritual journey alongside his relationship with his second wife, his former assistant who is 23 years his junior and attended Wheaton College, an elite evangelical school.
“I really do feel more Jewish than ever before,” he said in a recent interview. “It felt like more deepening of faith, instead of switching from one thing to another.”
He has no plans to leave Judaism, he writes, calling himself “a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian.”
“If Jews don’t want me as a Jew, they’re going to have to kick me out. On the other hand, I can’t unread Matthew,” citing Jesus’ Beatitudes as the “ultimate road map for life” in the book.
Brooks said he was taking an annual walk near Aspen, Colo., in the summer of 2013, around the time of his separation from his first wife, when he realized he was a religious person after decades of being an atheist.
Brooks addresses “the crucial question” of whether he believes in the resurrection of Jesus, a core doctrine for most Christians where most Jews would draw the line. “The simple, brutally honest answer is, [the belief in it] comes and goes,” he writes.
“It’s not like deciding which party to vote for, where you can sort of make up your mind. You sort of roll with the process and see where God leads you.”
He still hesitates to accept some Christians’ interpretations that sex is only appropriate between a man and woman inside of marriage, calling himself enthusiastically pro-gay marriage.
“We’re defined by how we treat the stranger and the least among us,” he said. “I frankly think it’s a big mistake for people to bet their entire complex faith on one side of the sexual revolution. It demeans what faith is.”
New York City evangelical pastor Tim Keller, who has been having conversations with Brooks for about five years, said that some evangelicals have been keenly interested in the faith of Brooks and Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist who also has a large conservative following. (Peterson considers himself a Christian but whom some would consider unorthodox in his beliefs.)
“In their own different ways,” he said, “they have platforms religious people don’t have anymore.”
Even though one chapter of his new book includes his personal experience with faith, Brooks does not push a particularly religious message, Keller said.
“Brooks has the ear of a lot of people and is basically saying there has to be a higher allegiance than your individual self,” Keller said. “It’s not a call to repentance and see Jesus.”
Would Brooks consider himself a Messianic Jew, part of a controversial modern movement of people who embrace elements of Judaism and believe Jesus is the Messiah? He said he doesn’t know enough about it, but he would probably say no.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who was rabbi at Washington’s Adas Israel when Brooks was a member, said that Brooks is living “a dramatic contradiction,” which is difficult for the Jewish community, but he noted that “all of us live in contradictions.”
“Do Jews cares that there is someone who is a celebrity who is also talking about a deep relationship with Christianity?” said Steinlauf, who will be the incoming rabbi of Kol Shalom, a synagogue in Rockville, Md. “Of course Jews are going to have strong feelings about that. He’s one of our own. That’s why he doesn’t want labels.”
Steinlauf, who divorced his wife and came out as gay to Adas Israel in 2014, said he and Brooks spoke with each other about their respective divorces.
“Do I personally wish he would remain fully in the Jewish fold? Of course,” he said. “My job is not to enforce how someone lives.”
David and Sarah Brooks, who were married in a Unitarian church and had three children together, both declined to respond to questions about the end of their 27-year marriage due to a legal agreement that was part of the divorce. Sarah Brooks converted to Judaism three years into their marriage.
Around the time of their separation, he began attending his then-assistant’s church Christ Our Shepherd, a nondenominational church in Washington where many evangelicals attend.
He said by fall 2013, “strong emotional feelings existed” between him and his assistant, who later became his wife. But they were not having an affair, he and Anne Brooks both said in interviews. She said she does get self-conscious about public perception and their age gap in social situations.
“The internet is cruel,” she said in an interview. “It combines into the perfect Hollywood story in a bad way.”
While writing his 2015 book, “The Road to Character,” the two exchanged memos that led to conversations about faith when he told her he was having his first religious crisis in decades.
Later, when he wanted to try dating her, she declined and moved to Houston to work for a Christian foundation. He started seeing someone else. After leading separate lives, he and Anne eventually got together and were married in 2017. The pastor of Christ our Shepherd Stuart McAlpine, who conducted the marriage, did not respond to a request for an interview.
If Anne, who now works for the nonprofit Philanthropy Roundtable, hadn’t come along in his life, would he have had the same experience with faith?
“I wonder what would have happened,” he said. “I mean, we can’t know the counterfactual evidence.”
Anne said her husband “sits at the crossroads of Christianity and Judaism” but he says the Nicene Creed, a profession of faith, and he takes Communion.
“I couldn’t have married him if I hadn’t sensed that he had crossed a certain place of surrender to acknowledging who Christ said he was,” she said. “He would call himself a Christian, but he’s subtle about where he does use that name.”
Did Brooks, who has not been baptized, experience a specific conversion moment, a common experience for many Christians?
“And that’s when it happened,” he writes in his new book. “I was sitting in my apartment one day when Jesus Christ floated through the wall, turned my water into wine, and commanded me to come follow him. No, I’m kidding. Nothing like that happened at all.”
Growing up in New York City, he cited the influence of Episcopalians during childhood, especially at a camp sponsored by the Church of the Incarnation on Madison Avenue.
His process to Christianity “was as boring and gradual and incremental a process as is possible to imagine,” he said. “There was never any blinding ‘Road to Damascus’ experience.”
The gossip during the past few years in many Christian circles was almost giddy as people wondered, “Could he become one of us?”
“I felt like his bodyguard because of the Christians . . . who were bizarrely obsessed with him,” Anne said. “I didn’t like that he was being treated as a win or project.”
Brooks said he sometimes feels at home in the Christian world and some days he doesn’t, saying some Christians have a “spiritual superiority complex and an intellectual inferiority complex” while “lack of rigor” is “certainly not true of the Jewish world.”
“A lot of the Christians talk about [faith] like, ‘God told me to order a cheeseburger.’ Some talk as if it’s just a constant voice in their head,” he said. “I really don’t resonate with that.”
He is not a member of a synagogue and observes Jewish holidays in a “less than rigorous way,” saying he practices faith mostly through reading and book discussions. The authors he cites as most influential in his life include New York pastor Keller, poet and author Christian Wiman and C.S. Lewis.
He said he’s graduated from what he describes as Thomas Hobbes’ or Adam Smith’s views of the world, that humans are self-interested creatures. Now he believes humans are fundamentally good, broken but “splendidly endowed.”
“Our culture is much in worse shape than I anticipated four years ago. We’ve built up a culture of hyper-individualism that really does separate ourselves from each other, and it has a morally numbing effect,” he said, citing President Donald Trump’s election. “When you get down to the core of yourself, you find this inimitable ability to care. And I do think that deep caring is planted in each of us.”
His interest in writing books on character and morality, he said, came out of the question of how to “write yourself to the truth” and become a better person.
“My whole career has been an attempt to be less shallow than maybe I naturally am,” he said. “You become very aware of how much easier it is to write than to live.”