Sleight of Hand

Conservatism, like liberalism, is a protean thing. I learned that many years ago in a graduate seminar. It was 1970 or thereabouts, back when we were all liberals (or in some cases radicals). To my surprise, I discovered considerable wisdom in critics of modern liberalism from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott, and, at the same time, flimsy argumentation in the work of such iconic liberals as John Stuart Mill. I fretted: Did this mean I was in some way (gasp!) a conservative? Then and there I decided not to be allergic to arguments emanating from thinkers whose political designation might be different from my own.

Andrew Sullivan is a conservative and a Roman Catholic. But what sort of conservative and Catholic? A prominent political writer, blogger, gay activist, and former editor of the New Republic, Sullivan promises in his new collection of essays to answer that question-and many others. He tells us that the conservatism he admires and endorses embraces individual freedom, skepticism, acceptance of life’s griefs and incompletenesses, modesty, and a “remembrance of things past.” Such a conservatism, according to Sullivan, would express itself politically as a minimalist state, one that protects the polity but leaves individual people alone. The state should stop financing the arts and shed all redistributive schemes. Progressive taxation earns his ire; he favors an identical tax rate across the board for all income brackets.

Sullivan laments that George W. Bush is far too liberal to go along with such a vision. Bush came in as a conservative, but he expanded Medicare and other entitlement programs, increased government regulations, and launched initiatives in education and social reform. That is what liberals do, argues Sullivan; ergo, Bush is a liberal. Then there is the president’s unfortunate habit of urging politics to defend “inalienable human rights” and “God-given liberty.” In Sullivan’s view, if you hold that there are certain inalienable human rights, you are a liberal and should quit pretending otherwise. Of course, Sullivan’s great heroes-Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher-also believed governments should defend freedom and human rights, and he lifts them up as iconic conservatives. There is considerable slippage, to put it mildly, in his categorizations. (And how Sullivan squares his view of the minimalist state with energetic state-sanctioned legitimation and enforcement of gay marriage entitlements via judicial fiat is never made clear.)

Worse still, in addition to being a liberal, Bush is a “fundamentalist.” Here Sullivan reveals the dragon he is out to slay in The Conservative Soul. Sledgehammer in hand, he goes after all those he calls “fundamentalists”-a list that includes the Taliban; Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI; advocates of creationism; natural-law philosophers; and many more. Indeed, “fundamentalist” seems to describe any political actor, writer, or policy to which Sullivan takes exception.

Sullivan traces most of the ills of past and present to fundamentalism, which he characterizes as a pervasive search for a totalistic ideology. In his view there are progressive fundamentalists and conservative fundamentalists. He castigates the bin Laden-Wahhabist “cobelievers [who] are simply repeating what all previous totalitarian theocrats have done.” In this virulent form-and Sullivan has no doubt that we are in a deadly clash of civilizations-the mere existence of non-Muslims is a defilement.

But there exists in America a “milder counterpart” to this fundamentalism, Sullivan argues, one that shows itself as a fearful reaction to modernity-a claim he repeats but does not defend in any compelling way. His history of how fundamentalism became pervasive is a connect-the-dots scurry through the twentieth century. In the face of rapid change, fundamentalists hoped to push back the clock even as left-wing utopians aimed to create a brand-new world through radical social engineering. The collapse of left-wing utopianism created a vacuum, and when loosey-goosey Clintonism didn’t fill this yawning emptiness at the heart of things, then, bam!-Emeril-like-the age of fundamentalism was upon us.

An adept social commentator, Sullivan skewers errant nonsense and keeps his eyes peeled for humbug, but overall his discussion disappoints. His treatment of modern Catholicism is especially disconcerting. Advancing truths through reason does not a fundamentalist make; properly understood, the famous Augustinian insistence on credo ut intelligam, seeking understanding through faith, has nothing to do with fundamentalism. Although Scripture (together with centuries of teaching) lies at the heart of things, there is no rigid scriptural proof-texting in Augustine, nor is there in the writings of recent popes. Like Augustine, Catholic moral philosophers and popes accept multiple possibilities of interpretation without abandoning an insistence on searching for truth. It is not the case that if you “live in a constant state of doubt,” you cannot make truth claims. Again Augustine: “I doubt therefore I am.” Augustine also knew that the boat adrift on the shoals of confusion would make harbor in the truth that is God. He was an orthodox Catholic Christian, not a fundamentalist. In collapsing the two, Sullivan confuses matters and undermines his own arguments. Even as he distorts Augustine, he transforms Jesus into something of a hippie whose message is “Let love happen.” One has the sense that Sullivan must, surely, know better.

These distortions and simplifications occur because Sullivan cannot hold doubt and truth together within a single frame. Those who can are not, perforce, fundamentalists. The fundamentalist mindset is quite different, emphasizing rigid moralisms rather than claims to moral truths and norms. This failure to make appropriate distinctions mars Sullivan’s energetic and, at times, appreciative jousting with Robert George and other proponents of the “new natural law.” They, too, are labeled fundamentalists before the discussion ever begins, and so one knows in advance where it will all come out.

I expect that The Conservative Soul will be a success, as it feeds the paranoia of those who see theocrats and fundamentalists making raids on our liberties, both from without (radical Islam) and within (radical Christians, including the current president). But the mere fact that a book rides the waves of the zeitgeist doesn’t necessary recommend it. Sullivan is a lucid, intelligent writer, and portions of The Conservative Soul are a genuine pleasure to read. On the whole, however, the book is riddled with rhetoric, sleight-of-hand, and prolix categories so broad as to evaporate upon close examination.

In Sullivan’s worldview, anyone who thinks the state has a stake in protecting and preserving human life in any way save “providing for the common defense” is in peril of being labeled fundamentalist. At one point, he directs his ire at proponents of a “thick” version of democracy that does not bracket questions of “the good.” On this reading, such critics of John Rawls’s comprehensive liberalism as Michael Sandel and Michael Walzer find themselves in the fundamentalist camp-a surprise to them, surely. Rather astonishingly, Sullivan insists we can defend a “thin” procedural vision of secular American democracy against fundamentalist threats by saying things like: “We like it here” and “This is our kind of place.” (And by deploying a strong military to protect that place.) What might his beloved Reagan and the formidable Lady Thatcher say to such an anemic defense of democracy? I have a hunch it would be rather tart.

Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: 
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Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political theorist, authored more than a dozen books, including Women and War (1987), Democracy on Trial (1993), Augustine and the Limits of Politics (1996), and Sovereignty: God, State, Self (2008). She was a frequent contributor to Commonweal and covered many subjects in our pages, including feminism, family, just war, criminal justice, and capitalism.

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