The Value of Faith, Family, Community, and Meaningful Work: Part II
This interview is Part II of our previous discussion with George Khalaf about Arthur Brook’s book “The Conservative Heart.” To read Part I, click here.
“The Conservative Heart” by Arthur Brooks was published in 2015 and offers “a new vision for the pursuit of happiness, earned success, and social justice”. Brooks is a scholar, economist, author, and the former President of American Enterprise Institute (AEI). His latest venture, a film called “The Pursuit” will be released this Spring.
Micah: In our last segment, you talked a lot about meaningful work and that kind of dovetails into another question I have. In his book, Brooks talks about four institutions of meaning that are the sources of human happiness. What are they and how are they connected to our level of happiness?
George: The four pieces of what Brooks calls the “happiness portfolio” are faith, family, community, and ‘earned success through work.’ I think that fourth one is a pillar itself, but it is also built on the other three. Free enterprise was birthed with the assumption that faith, family, and community are foundational to society.
To me, this all relates to a word I have been hyper-focused on which is the idea of ‘relationships.’ Faith, family, and community all bring you meaningful relationships. People of faith derive community from going to church, but even just going to church isn’t good enough. There has to be active participation and a relationship with your church community and in turn, a relationship with God. Cohesive families with a mom and dad and kids are another building block of this ‘community’. We see a decline in these essential building blocks as people increasingly do not go to church and wait later to get married or don’t get married at all and have kids late in life. Relationships tether people in times of struggle. If something earth-shattering happens to you, you can lean on your close family and friend relationships. Without a family, you are more likely than not to spiral out of control. Just like family, faith acts as a tether. When things get bad, you go to your place of worship and you have that relationship there to ground you.
Relationships tether people in times of struggle.
Then you have the idea of community. One of the books I most vividly remember from my high school career is Lord of the Flies. The whole point of it was this idea that human beings who were put on an island with no structure, inherently built a government on this island-- and they were a bunch of children. We need and desire structure. That’s why, as a person of faith, we value relationships with each other anchored by a relationship with God. Having a sense of community is a big deal and we clearly see it on the decline. Because of mobility, people are moving all over the place. Growing up—even in the 90s in Mesa, AZ—I played outside everyday with my friends. I lived in an apartment complex—and talk about transient, right? In my neighborhood in the early 2000s, our neighbors got together for consistent block parties. My parents tell me one of the most exciting times for them is when they put up their light displays around Christmas because their neighbors come by and they get to talk with them. That very rarely happens today. But communities that have a system like that are more likely prosper. All in all, faith, family, and community are anchors for “earned success”. You want to feel success, but you want to earn your success, which is a very conservative idea. It’s not about handouts, not because we are fundamentally opposed to giving people money, but because it doesn’t get to the actual root cause of the problem. That’s what’s misunderstood. Again, let me pick the thing that people often view as meaningless, flipping burgers. People need to eat. Burger flipping can be meaningful because it fills a need to provide people with convenient food they can afford. There is this unending desire as Americans to be attached to things. If we haven’t made it to whatever level we have developed in our minds—or more importantly, whatever level we see on social media—we become unhappy because we judge our faith, family, community, and meaningful work relationships relative to our friends on Instagram that are making tons of money and having fun doing all kinds of stuff. We compare our lives to each other and end up falling into a “grass is always greener” mentality. So, we have been programmed to always achieve because that’s the American way. I think there is some danger to that. Meaningful work can take any form because it is a mindset.
Micah: How do you see conservatives supporting those four ideas?
George: I touched before on how conservative ideas can contribute to lifting people from poverty. When it comes to family, I believe we need to support policies that promote life and family cohesion. This is why I think we should implement some type of mandated paid maternity and paternity leave. We are the only first world country that doesn't have it. Fundamentally, you can’t have kids if you can’t afford to take time off from your job. Conservative policies can support the idea of cohesive families and we need to be in the business of helping families wherever we can.
Also, Conservatives need to be in the business of promoting policies, locally and nationally, which keep communities together. Because the American identity is wrapped up in the mosaic of the identities within it, whether that be ethnic or faith identities, the struggle is to find a way to connect with one another in the midst of diversity. It goes back to what St. Augustine said, “You can’t love what you don’t know.” This is what Americans are suffering from today. Often, we grow up in one part of the country and live our entire lives without ever interacting on a personal level with people who are different from us. This is happening everywhere, in the middle of the country as well as our urban cores. If we want to inspire true unity, we need to be able to interact with people who are different from us without shouting them down or assuming they are bad people. We should be seeking to build community by getting to know people and showing them love.
When it comes to faith, there is an answer for us personally and an another from a policy perspective. For me, one of the most important parts of my faith journey has been to model what it means to be a Christian and to live that out on a daily basis. I believe that we are all inherently fallen and have issues. But we can strive to adopt “Christ-like” behavior. At a policy level, we need to recognize the important ways people of faith have contributed to our society and communities. That means respecting rights of conscience and encouraging people of faith to keep contributing on every level. That’s another way we build strong families and communities.
Micah: One of the major themes of Dr. Brooks’ upcoming book “Love Your Enemies,” is the ‘culture of contempt’ in American politics and discourse today. How have you seen this theme play out?
George: Dr. Brooks wrote a book about generosity and the data showed that conservatives give more to charity than liberals. The book gained considerable attention and as a result, he got a lot of emails. He received one from a very angry guy who went line by line detailing what he disagreed with about the book. Brooks wrote him back and said, “Thank you so much for reading my book. I know we disagree, but I really appreciate you reading it. It means a lot.” Shortly after, the guy responded, offering to meet him for coffee sometime. Brooks uses that story to demonstrate how showing just a little bit of love can disarm people. We can have legitimate discussions about hard issues but still walk away without hating the other person. During my early years in politics, I stayed quiet about certain beliefs so I could get along and not lose friends. That’s a problem. As a society, we are afraid to upset other people. We can’t be afraid to speak up and lean in on important issues, the important thing is to do it with love.
At some point, we just have to say “enough” and move on. Most of these situations will be hard, but we have to lean in and just react in a different way.
It’s not easy to love people, even though that is what Christians are called to do. It takes intentionality. As Dr. Brooks talks about, contempt in the form of scoffing or rolling our eyes is a habit. Contempt is an addiction and a psychological wiring of our brain to react with hate to people who disagree with us. I’ve fallen victim to that, and I’m sure many of you reading this can relate. At some point, we just have to say “enough” and move on. Most of these situations will be hard, but we have to lean in and just react in a different way.
Micah: What has it looked like for you to combat the culture of contempt in your day-to-day life and conversations?
George: I am ashamed to admit that it took me a long time to read The Conservative Heart and to immerse myself in the work of Dr. Brooks and AEI. Now that I have though, it has made a permanent impact on the way I approach my political career. I feel called to lead by example in approaching people with compassion and love. I have a calling now as a professional and a business owner in the political field to bring people together while advancing the ideas I believe in. I’m not perfect and I struggle like everyone else to do this on a daily basis, but I’m not going to be defined by the slip ups. Instead, I am going to be defined by what I feel God has called me to do, using the gifts and talents that he has given me. I will admit that I struggle to empathize with people on face value and I had to learn that the hard way. But I did learn and it is something that I will continue working on for the rest of my life. I want to approach situations with compassion for people while never losing my fight and fire. If we do this, even in small ways, we will go far.
Micah: In the next 10 years, how do you hope conservatives are talking about issues with opponents?
George: I hope, as conservatives, we stay true to our deeply held beliefs across a myriad of issues and continue to speak about these deep, difficult topics—all the stuff that makes people squirm around the Thanksgiving table—with intelligence and compassion. I hope we can put ourselves in the shoes of other people. There is a famous clip of Senator McCain at a town hall during the 2008 election. In response to heated and personal attacks against then-candidate Obama, McCain had a firm response. “He’s a decent family man and a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”
We need to be able to approach difficult conversations with love and empathy. We never know who we are talking to. A lot of times, people arrive at an opinion because they have a personal connection to it (i.e. a family member in the criminal justice system or a personal story about immigration). It hits close to home. For example, I am passionate about foreign policy because I am Lebanese. I have a personal relationship with the issue. Dr. Brooks makes it very clear that this is not at all about moderating or compromising your positions, though. At the end of the day, conservative issues win out because we have the better approach. We just need to be able to communicate with compassion and lead by example. I hope in the next 10 years conservatives will be able to do this better.
George Khalaf is the Co-Founder of The Resolute Group and President of Data Orbital. He has a background in grassroots politics, survey research, and political data.
Micah Vandenboom is Research Assistant for The Resolute Group. She is currently studying political science at Arizona Christian University and will be graduating in May.