Elizabeth Bruenig makes no apologies. Not for his progressive politics, not for his Catholic faith, and certainly not for having children at an age that some leftist intellectuals find old-fashioned.
Last year for Mother’s Day, she wrote an essay exploring the challenges and rewards of parenthood as a millennial. The article was published in the New York Times under the title: “I became a mother at 25, and I’m not sorry for not having waited”. Leftist Twitter erupted in predictably righteous outrage, but the avowed democratic socialist was unfazed. “More than any decision made in my life,” she says, “having children has made me happy.”
Now a 31-year-old writer at The Atlantic, Bruenig is a rising star in journalism, with stints at The Washington Post and The New Republic, as well as The Times. In 2018, she was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a feature film about the sexual assault of a student who attended her high school in Arlington, Texas. The judges praised his ability to write with “moral authority”. She has written prolifically on ethics, theology, politics and economics, from a complex position: just to the left of Bernie Sanders on economics, openly religious and quietly anti-abortion.
In 2020, Forbes included Bruenig in the magazine’s “30 Under 30” list, stating that “Bruenig uses his unique perspective as a socialist, Catholic, and Texan to weigh in on the political and moral issues of public life” .
These adjectives are not frequently used to describe a single person, at least not in the United States, but Bruenig encompasses them all. If there is tension between them, she accepts it too. Perhaps that’s why she likes to tell complicated stories about what’s going on inside the people she writes about — “the moral universes and the kinds of battles we fight inside.” she says.
Social media skirmishes are a different animal, one that she could largely do without. Still, as a millennial, she appreciates the good side of this technology. “It’s so much fun, like posting pictures and talking to people about the things I cook,” she says, “and it’s a great way to keep up with the latest news.”
But she knows things can get out of control, so she stays in control. “It’s very hard to stop something when you’re still having fun. But if you wait until you stop having fun, then you’re having a bad time.
In real life, Bruenig calls being a wife and mother of two young daughters her greatest accomplishment and her greatest joy. She earned a BA in English and Sociology from Brandeis University and an MA in Christian Theology from Cambridge University, which she attended on a Marshall Scholarship. She is unapologetically religious in a time when religious affiliation is fading and describes a personal faith journey to understanding God and her relationship to him.
In a conversation with Deseret, Bruenig explains how she reconciles faith, politics and family even as mavericks like her have become the target of public criticism from all quarters.
Desert News: You take a fair amount of abuse on Twitter. Why is that?
Elizabeth Bruenig: It’s partly because I brand myself and I’m outspoken about what I think. It’s probably because I’m a woman, or for reasons I don’t understand and don’t want to consider. That does not bother me. If it’s a concern, the Atlantic Safety Team will deal with it. If it’s just mean people, press X. Focus on the things that make you happy. My children make me happy. My husband makes me happy. My friends, my home life, these things make me happy.
DN: You were raised Methodist. What attracted you to Catholicism?
EB: I started reading the work of Saint Augustine of Hippo at university, then I got a scholarship to get a master’s degree in philosophy in Christian theology at Cambridge. That’s where I was drawn even further into his work, that kind of apologetics and tradition. You fall in love. This is what happens when you convert.
DN: What prompted you to study theology?
EB: Maybe I just needed a little more help than the others. Everyone else seemed content when they were in church, and that’s all they needed. This was not the case for me. I had things that I didn’t understand and that I wanted to understand better. And I felt clearer and closer to God as I studied or researched or answered some of these questions about the history and philosophy of faith. So I kept doing it. This is how I spend time with God.
DN: Many Americans see socialism and religion as mutually exclusive. But you claim both. How it works?
EB: I see them as consistent. During the Cold War, when Americans were forming their views on socialism, the conflict was not as straightforward as the media often portrayed it. The Soviet Union practiced Soviet Communism, which was atheistic. But there are other forms of socialism, like the democratic socialism we see in Scandinavia. Not only do Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark allow religion, but some of these countries even have mandatory taxes that fund their state churches. It is not the only system for any country at any stage of development, but the United States has a rich and advanced economy, we are industrialized, we have the technology, there is no reason why we can’t do that. And it would greatly improve the lives of some of our most needy people. I find a natural fit with a political system that ensures a dignified life for the least of us. This seems extraordinarily obvious to me.
DN: You made a similar point in 2018, writing for The Washington Post. Why do you think this piece got so much attention?
EB: We were at a time when politics seemed subject to change. The 2016 elections produced an unexpected result. Not only the general election – Donald Trump winning and Hillary Clinton losing – but also the primaries, with Bernie Sanders so close. For a little-known senator from Vermont, a longtime independent who caucused with Democrats, doing as well as he did, that surprised people. It seemed like there were possibilities that hadn’t existed for a long time. It was like a moment of unique energy. A lot of people felt that.
DN: Where do you think your vision of government could do the most good?
EB: There is a certain logic in human life and a predictable economic model. We can tell when people will need financial support. It’s when they’re kids, because kids don’t work. It’s when they’re students, that’s why they get loans or scholarships or rely on their parents to support them. Young adults sometimes need a little help, because they’re making the least amount of money in their career, but that’s also when they have kids and all that. When they are old and thinking of retiring, these people also need support. They deserved a rest.
We have to recognize that there is a cycle, a realistic number of years that a person is allocated. Pay attention to this and recognize that there are times when people need support. We increasingly accept a country where older people are expected to work until they die, without rest or retirement. The fact that this is happening without serious protest is very, very disturbing to me.
DN: What is the most interesting story currently playing out at the intersection of religion and politics?
EB: When the Supreme Court takes action this summer, there will be a great deal of public discontent, one way or another, regarding the issue of abortion. It’s obvious; there are religious angles to activism on almost every issue. There are religious climate activists and religious activists who oppose gun violence and the death penalty. Many domains remain as active as ever, even if religion in general tends towards disaffiliation.
DN: As a storyteller and theologian, is there a scriptural account that you find important?
EB: The prodigal son. It’s so complicated morally. Each character could be the protagonist of a captivating tale. I’m mostly interested in the older brother, who is still obedient and stays with his dad, but then gets frustrated when his brother returns to the big party, despite his dissolute ways. That feeling when you did everything right and obeyed but others who misbehaved are accepted or forgiven or even praised for coming. I think it’s so human. It’s morally wrong, but intuitively it’s a sympathetic response. It’s all the complexity I could ever hope to put into anything I would write.
DN: No last word?
EB: I hope we are all praying for peace. I have often included this in my prayers and it seems like something a Christian community could clearly be united about.
This story appears in the May issue of Desert Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.