Sleight of Hand

The Conservative Soul

How We Lost It, How to Get It Back

Andrew Sullivan

HarperCollins, $25.95, 304 pp.

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...

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About the Author

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.