Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Marilynne Robinson on Faith and Conservatism

The award-winning author talks to us about the personal and political.

Marilynne Robinson is a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and best-selling author who was awarded the 2012 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. Despite her personal liberalism, Robinson’s work has won the admiration of many conservatives, as Robert Long explored in his recent essay, “Christian, Not Conservative.”

Over the summer, Robinson talked with Long about Christianity, President Obama, and her view of American conservatism.

TAC: You draw deeply upon Christian figures of the past in your work. Are there any figures in contemporary Christendom whom you find particularly inspiring or admirable?

MR: Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.

TAC: Are there any public figures in contemporary American politics whom you find particularly inspiring or admirable?

MR: I respect and admire President Obama. He and I (and John Ames) belong to the same denomination, the United Church of Christ, and this may make his ethos more understandable to me than it seems to be to many others. While he was still a senator, he and I both spoke at a UCC conference. He was attacked then for violating the separation of church and state. I think some kind of legal action was attempted. Since then he has been attacked for anything and everything, usually by innuendo that is in effect endorsed by media attention and political exploitation. There is a movement now that, intentionally in some quarters, works to embarrass and diminish that most American creation, the United States Government. To subject the President to constant whisper campaigns or outright rudeness is as much a strategy as to withhold funding from government and to paralyze Congress. The most essential obligation of any President in these circumstances is to maintain the status and dignity of the office, and he has done this with extraordinary grace and resourcefulness. I would have preferred to see him be President in better times, having some latitude to realize the policies for which he was elected twice. But in fact it has been his role to do a much harder thing, and he has done it brilliantly, with a humane self-possession that would make his and my Puritan ancestors (adopted in both cases) very proud.

TAC: What was it like to have President Obama tell you recently, “Your writings have changed me—I think for the better. Marilynne, I believe that”? 

MR: I was startled, frankly. It takes a good man to want to be a better man, and a very good man to acknowledge indebtedness, if that is the right word. I hope the example of his dignity and equanimity has made me a better woman.

TAC: What are you working on now?

MR: I have just finished a novel.

TAC: What does the word “conservatism” mean to you?

MR: For our purposes, it is important to consider the word as qualified by the adjective American. Conservatism should mean the carrying forward of the conception of polity and community that was asserted here at the end of the 18th century. Historically this has meant holding institutions we received as colonies and as Anglo-Europeans—slavery and the subordinate status of women, for example—to the standards articulated by the founders. Granting that the founders did not foresee the emancipation of women, surely there are few who would wish to argue now that essential American ideals were not realized when their equality as citizens was acknowledged. And so with the whole history of reform. The founding idea was that there would be a new order of things, guided by law and deliberation, with the dignity of the individual as its motive force, its method and its objective.

TAC: Are there any thinkers on the “right,” broadly construed, that you admire, any conservative strains of Western thought that you take inspiration from?

MR: Many of the earlier American writers, who were still in love with America and therefore conservative as defined above, are deeply important to me. None of them could be said to be of the “right.” Western, which I take to mean Anglo-European, conservatism is, fundamentally, nostalgia for an old order, hierarchical and pre-democratic. To acquaint myself with this thought-world I read some books of Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Oakeshott. I can’t imagine what, except for the attractive powers of a vacuum, could have installed them as conservative intellectuals. In any case, they exemplify this nostalgia I speak of perfectly.

TAC: In “Wondrous Love,” you criticize those who are reluctant to use government as a tool for practicing liberality and generosity. Is it possible, in your eyes, to be a truly “compassionate conservative” or a “bleeding heart libertarian“, to live according to the Christian vision of “open-handedness” while being skeptical of government redistribution?

MR: Skepticism is appropriate in all cases, especially where money is involved. There should always be checks and balances. We all know of non-government charities whose CEO’s have done very well for themselves. As Christians, we must be concerned with outcomes—are the hungry fed, are the naked clothed, are the sick visited. The more strategies that are brought to bear on the problem—which current policy or lack there of has made a pressing problem—the greater the likelihood that it will be dealt with as Christ, who identifies himself unambiguously with those in need, tells us it must be. There is no analogy to be drawn between a beleaguered community governed, in effect, by a hostile and alien occupation and a modern society that can indeed govern itself and care for its own as it chooses. If we were indeed a Christian country I think we would be making other choices than many self-proclaimed Christians are trying to impose on us now. No talk of compassion impresses me when the tone of all reference to those who are struggling is hostile and judgmental. And of course anyone can be open-handed. But, as an American, I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans. The national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of “redistribution,” a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.

TAC: Why do you think so many American Christians identify as political conservatives? What advice would you give to our readership, many of whom fit that description? 

MR: Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.

TAC: What is the most under-appreciated book of the Christian Scriptures today?

MR: I don’t see much evidence that any of them is being given appropriate attention.

TAC: What is the hardest teaching of Christ for you to follow in your daily life?

MR: I work more or less constantly. This makes me inattentive and forgetful in any number of ways. I do consider existence miraculous in its nature, therefore revelation, but I forget to look at it. I neglect my friends. I hope the work I do makes up for all the good I might do and enjoy if I were less obsessive. I must say, however, that I enjoy every minute of this strange life, exasperating as it often is.

TAC: Do Christians have a duty to spread the gospel to people of other faiths?

MR: The first and last obligation of Christians is to be Christians. Christianity is a profound and beautiful faith, and when it is enacted as an ethos it is deeply attractive. Julian the Apostate, the emperor after Constantine who tried to restore paganism, attributes the growth of Christianity in the Roman world to their unconditional generosity to all the sick and the needy. They were also famous for the kind of fearlessness that rejects violence. When I see what so much of modern Christianity has become, I wonder if it is Christian enough to have a gospel to spread.

TAC: How does the eschatological vision of the New Testament fit into your understanding of the world? How do you understand Christ’s second coming?

MR: I expect to be very much surprised by the Second Coming. I would never have imagined the Incarnation or the Resurrection. To be astonishing seems to be the mark of God’s great acts—who could have imagined Creation? On these grounds it seems like presumption to me to treat what can only be speculation as if it were even tentative knowledge. I expect the goodness of God and the preciousness of Creation to be realized fully and eternally. I expect us all to receive a great instruction in the absolute nature of grace.

Robert Long, a summer 2013 editorial assistant for The American Conservative, studies philosophy of mind and of religion at Brandeis University. This conversation was part of his recent Marilynne Robinson profile, “Christian, Not Conservative.”

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