David Brooks has a fascinating and fair-minded review of Andrew Sullivan’s new book on conservative political philosophy. I don’t agree with Sullivan’s descent into trite Bush-bashing, but he’s a very astute thinker. I haven’t read the book yet, but from what I understand if it Sullivan attacks what he calls the “fundamentalism” that has arisen since the the Bush Administration and has taken over the mainstream conservative movement.
As a caveat, my conservative beliefs are probably closer to Sullivan’s than they are with the Bush Administration. However, I find Sullivan’s distaste for Christian conservatism to be more personal than philosophical. Brooks is right in pointing out that Sullivan ascribes a sense of unity among Christian conservatives that simply doesn’t exist. The “Christianists” that Sullivan attacks are largely a category defined by having position that Andrew Sullivan disapproves of than a coherent political bloc. For instance, there are plenty of Democratic politicians who are opposed to gay marriage and make frequent religious references in their political rhetoric. Sullivan has spent the past two years attacking straw men, which seriously degrades the quality of his arguments.
Brooks has a good, if damning line about Sullivan’s brand of conservatism:
Politics is not an effort to find solutions and realize ideals, in this view. It is merely an effort to find practical ways to preserve one’s balance in a complicated world. An Oakeshottian conservative will reject great crusades. He will not try to impose morality or base policy decisions on so-called eternal truths.
Of course neither would this kind of conservative write the Declaration of Independence.
I’m sympathetic towards Sullivan’s arguments that the politics of faith can be based on a certainty that doesn’t exist in the greys of the real world. I’m not a fan of religious fundamentalism, I can’t stand the idea that creationism is treated as valid science, I’m agnostic on the issue of civil unions for gay couples, and I don’t particularly believe in ostentatious displays of religious faith. However, I also agree with Brooks that Sullivan’s view of evangelical voters is fatally flawed:
“The Conservative Soul” is imbued with Sullivan’s characteristic passion and clarity. And yet I must confess, if I hadn’t been reviewing this book, I wouldn’t have finished it. I have a rule, which has never failed me, that when a writer uses quotations from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the Left Behind series to capture the religious and political currents in modern America, then I know I can put that piece of writing down because the author either doesn’t know what he is talking about or is arguing in bad faith.
That’s the problem with most of the writing being done today on politics and faith in America: they ignore the complexities of the evangelical worldview and focus in on the noisy minority. Granted, that noisy minority wants to believe that it is representative of the majority of evangelicals, but I doubt many traditionalist Catholics give much consideration to the pop eschatology of the Left Behind series. Nor do all evangelicals think alike, or even necessarily agree on all the issues.
Sullivan is a gifted writer and an excellent thinker. Anyone who can read and understand Michael Oakeshott definitely is no intellectual slouch. At the same time, Sullivan constantly rails against straw men of his own construction, and his constant repetition of the same one-sided talking points vomited forth by the Bush-obsessed left doesn’t help his credibility. Andrew Sullivan was once one of the most clear-headed and powerful writers covering our current war. It’s too bad that he seems unable to realize that there’s a manifest difference between the enemies seeking to destroy us and those who don’t share his particular social views. There’s a surefire test to determine whether someone is sufficiently serious about this war: if they make an argument that insinuates that George W. Bush is as bad as Osama bin Laden, they’re simply not serious. Sadly, Andrew Sullivan continues to fail that test.