The Conservative Soul:
How We Lost It, and How to Get It Back
by Andrew Sullivan.
HarperCollins, 304 pages, $25.95.
Andrew Sullivan's most evident theme is that there are two kinds of conservatism struggling with each other: Sullivan's kind and the perilous kind that is the nemesis of all that is good.
The bad kind, “fundamentalist conservatism,” combines a rigid, puritanical, and self-righteous psyche—instantiated in the Republican party under George W. Bush—with the “theoconservatism” he assigns to such people as Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Robert George (and natural-law theorists in general), and James Dobson. Today's Republican party, he argues, is perhaps the first fundamentally religious party in American history.
Sullivan signed on in the 1980s to a conservatism he thought emphasized freedom rather than virtue. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are his political heroes, while his intellectual heroes are Montaigne and Michael Oakeshott, since they exemplify—Sullivan thinks—a skeptical, detached, and indeed an inclusive view of the human condition.
Fundamentalism, Sullivan argues, “purposely and relentlessly forces an unalterable, precise, external truth into the center of a person's life.” Fundamentalism is not a specific doctrine but a “psyche” or “mindset,” a “fearful insistence on a faith in all its particulars, and an equally clear sense of those who are saved and those who are not.” Fundamentalism insists that one must embrace “complete purity . . . utter truth in every particular, to avoid evil at all times.” Fundamentalism endorses a Manichean universe and is always tempted by totalitarian impulses.
Sullivan's vitriolic attack on the Catholic Church, which has, he insists, retreated from the true spirit of Vatican II, is a complementary theme. According to Sullivan, an increasingly fundamentalist Vatican emerged in “the latter days of the papacy of John Paul II and the enormous influence of Joseph Ratzinger,” and it “pointed to a subtle revocation of the Second Vatican Council's concession to the claims of individual conscience.” “How many times have you heard a pope talk about his own errors? Or an Islamist mullah, for that matter?”
His critique of the Church is integral to his political agenda. Sullivan understands himself to be engaged in an intramural struggle among conservatives for the soul of conservatism. Of course, Sullivan's agenda, which includes liberalized abortion and gay rights, could also be identified as liberal, at home in the Democratic party, where it is not unknown to assert, as Sullivan does, that Christian fundamentalism is a “milder counterpart” to Islamic fundamentalism in expressing its disgust and rage “at court-imposed racial integration, abortion rights, and homosexual equality.” In truth, political liberalism is perceptible throughout the book.
On foreign policy, Sullivan is bitterly opposed to the war in Iraq, which he originally supported. He is now disillusioned about its prosecution, fears that American domestic liberty is threatened, and angry with himself for not seeing from the start these pitfalls that result from a “fundamentalist mindset.”
In a way, though, what Sullivan ultimately seeks is a worldview that looks beyond party disputes, perhaps even beyond politics, a conservatism acquiescent in the reality, as he conceives it, of the human condition. Sullivan does defend the resurgence of conservative attitudes as a proper response to a widespread sense of the loss of tradition and as resistance to the rationalization of modern life through social engineering.
The proper response to these developments is, he argues, skeptical restraint and a minimal politics that emphasizes freedom rather than virtue. By contrast, the fundamentalism he rejects, in its zeal for virtue and perfecting the world, ends up serving the fashion for innovation and social engineering that conservatism is supposed to resist.
There are several difficulties with his argument. One difficulty is that, as he defines “fundamentalism,” it could include almost everyone who is a traditional Christian going back to St. Paul himself. Sullivan never says directly that Christianity has been distorted from the beginning, but there are no positive remarks about the Pauline heritage. It appears that he thinks the gospel of Jesus is concealed by the Christianity of Paul. Since most Christians historically have shared the convictions of the Pauline epistles, this surely subjects any appeal to tradition to a severe tension.
Yet Sullivan's appeal to tradition is selective. Traditional Christians will not be convinced that they are “fundamentalists” because they wish to conserve an inheritance they believe to be true. Moreover, one might think that traditional Christians are among those most perceptive of totalitarian impulses and most resistant to the claims of Caesar. John Paul II, who was both instrumental in undermining communism and wildly popular, while thoroughly traditional, is the obvious case in point.
A related difficulty, illustrated by reference to John Paul II, lies in the fact that Sullivan has no discussion of “orthodoxy,” a word that is not in his vocabulary. His is a Christianity of informality and sentiment. His analysis of Christianity tends to be ahistorical, in that he views everything from the issues of the present moment. It is true that he refers to historical events and past thinkers, but they do not seem to speak back to him. An illustration of this is his treatment of St. Augustine, whom he admires and associates with the skepticism of Montaigne and Oakeshott.
Augustine was, of course, an orthodox Catholic Christian, an unlikely source of support for Sullivan's liberal reform agenda, one who said that his faith in the Scriptures hinged on the Church's promulgation of the Scriptures. What Sullivan takes from Augustine is his powerful skepticism about human devices and constructions, his profound sense of man's radical, ineluctable temporality. Augustine was thus profoundly skeptical about human pretensions, and to this extent he has affinities with Montaigne and with Oakeshott, who had a great admiration for what he called Augustine's “religious imagination.”
But Augustine would not be satisfied with the mostly human Jesus that Sullivan presents. In the Confessions, Augustine says the prelude to his conversion to Christianity came through the Platonic insight into the reality of the non-corporeal. This led Augustine beyond Plato to grasp the centrality of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh—not merely as a man through whom God comes alongside us in this world as a model human being, friend, and helpmeet but also as the source of transfiguration to lift our eyes toward the heavenly kingdom, to help us to be not of this world. According to Sullivan, however, “at the core of the very Gospels on which fundamentalists rely for their passionate certainty is a definition of humanness that is marked by imperfection and uncertainty.”
This is who Jesus is, for Sullivan, and he proposes that Christians should commemorate Jesus “whose individuality and humanity cannot be abstracted [that is, Jesus is obscured by doctrines] . . . who was God and lived among us . . . and who commanded us to ignore everything except . . . to love one another.” Sullivan does not mention the biblical injunction that we must, lovingly, speak the truth.
Nevertheless, Sullivan offers an attractive Oakeshottian Augustine. He tells the charming story of visiting Oakeshott at his Dorset cottage and discussing Augustine with him. I can corroborate the account Sullivan gives because I had many similar conversations with Oakeshott on these subjects during which he said to me the same things Sullivan reports. It was always clear to me that Oakeshott, whom I believe was a thinker of genius, took exactly what he wanted from past thinkers. I do not mean that he failed to explicate the thought of past thinkers accurately and fully when he was engaged in such scholarly work; his work on Hobbes illustrates this. But in elaborating his personal convictions, there were parts of the thought of thinkers such as Augustine that Oakeshott quietly passed over. It is evident that the Augustine whom Sullivan admires is the part of Augustine congenial to Oakeshott. Augustine taken whole is a fundamentalist by Sullivan's definition.
We find another difficulty in Sullivan's extended critique of natural-law theorists. (Sullivan mainly takes on Robert George.) Sullivan grounds most of his argument against them on nature's astonishing diversity, from which he concludes that normative natural-law theories cannot have a nonarbitrary foundation. This is crucial to his argument because Catholic natural-law teaching contradicts his agenda regarding abortion, gay rights, and stem-cell research. Yet natural lawyers, such as Robert George, ignore neither the scientific revolution nor modern technology in responding to the challenges these pose. Thus, while they hold to strict ethical precepts, they cannot be merely “fundamentalist,” for they willingly enter into dialogue with those with whom they disagree about the ethical ramifications of modern science. The task these thinkers accept is to reconcile reason and revelation, not to pit them against each other. To hold something to be true need not entail closing off argument or finding disagreement intolerable.
Even more important, Sullivan misconstrues central aspects of natural-law theorizing. The astonishing diversity of nature has always been recognized by natural-law thinkers. In the Christian natural-law tradition, the telos of humanity is not derived only from biological nature but also from our apprehension within nature of a supernatural end transcending biological nature. Human consciousness apprehends the possibility of something beyond nature, discovers that to be human is to be more than mere biological nature, and thus the possibility of aspiring to a higher, transfiguring end. Sullivan thinks natural law holds that nature “dictates certain moral behavior.” Properly speaking, however, it is the apprehension of a transcendent possibility available to human beings that, for Christians guided by revelation, brings forth a vision of spiritual life that we can choose, requiring discrimination among, and sacrifice of, various promptings of nature.
Biological nature constitutes a precondition of our existence but does not dictate what it means to be human. Promptings and urges are not dictations; they do not license us to do as we wish, nor do they excuse us from the ordeal of giving approval and disapproval to our desires. This confusion and the modern decline of faith in revelation, not the astonishing diversity of nature, are at issue here.
For Sullivan, revelation seems to be that which can be appropriated in human terms as a consoling means to get along in a world without a preordained end. Sullivan abandons the teleological understanding of humanity, as did Oakeshott.
For Oakeshott, “revelation” was a way of expressing self-understanding. Sullivan says that “theoconservatives” “abhor” what is “unnatural.” Rather, one might say that they lament the obscuring of a transfiguring vision.
It is that very sense of loss, however, that for Sullivan justifies his skeptical conservatism. As with Oakeshott, Sullivan's religious sensibility, which is genuine, is immanent and full of the resignation reminiscent of the Stoics and the Epicureans. Sullivan concludes: “By empirical observation, homo sapiens is a moderately adulterous species, made up primarily of mildly unfaithful male-female couples with a small minority of same-sex coupling. This is our nature, imprinted indelibly on our genes . . . it does not exclude a diversity of moral sexual experience and identity.”
Is this reductive and statistical observation exhaustive? “Imprinted indelibly”? What exactly does that mean? That there is nothing to be done but to submit to ineluctable necessity? But this avoids the question of the nature and destiny of humanity, as opposed to merely living together experimentally in endlessness unto death. Not to accept Sullivan's argument is, according to his logic, to risk fundamentalism.
As the argument progresses, it becomes clear that “fundamentalism” is a broad-ranging ideal type that includes—in varying degrees of intensity and danger from mild to extreme, he does admit—Saint Paul, the Inquisition, Oliver Cromwell, radical Islam, Fascists, Nazis, Soviet Communists, Maoists, Osama bin Laden, and Benedict XVI. “For Osama, as with the evangelical Christian right, there was a perfect Edenic past, a fallen present, and a perfect future promised.” “This use of religion for extreme repression, and even terror, is not of course restricted to Islam. For most of its history, Christianity has had a worse record.” No sustained argument is provided for this moral equivalency, and little is said of the good Christianity has done.
What, then, is the “good conservatism”? Sullivan's good conservatism is inspired by what he gets from Montaigne; Michael Oakeshott, whose writings altered Sullivan's life; and, somewhat surprisingly, Leo Strauss, who is nowadays criticized as the inspiration for neoconservatism in American foreign policy. Sullivan aims to “rescue” Strauss from his followers, who have, as he sees it, corrupted the Straussian message. Sullivan goes so far as to argue that, ultimately, Strauss and Oakeshott are saying similar things. This will surprise many Oakeshottians and Straussians.
For the good conservative, “there is merely life—life as a continuing narrative, both personal and communal, a narrative that, like a conversation, has no pre-ordained end and no ultimate truth but the one we give to it . . . conservatism begins with the premise of human error, fundamentalism rests on the fact of divine truth.” Even if some conservatives think this—plenty of conservatives who might agree with Sullivan's critique of our foreign policy would reject it—can it be so for a “good Christian”? Is it not more likely that good Christians (and at least many good conservatives) acknowledge the inevitability of human error while remaining faithful to divine truth?
For Sullivan, “the defining characteristic of the [good] conservative is that he knows what he doesn't know. . . . While not denying that the truth exists, the conservative is content to say merely that his grasp on it is always provisional.” Sullivan's libertarian streak leads him to be a “small government,” free-market opponent of the regulatory state, while admitting that libertarians fail to appreciate the Hobbesian elements of politics. Virtue is for him a private matter, the crucial value is freedom: “Thatcher and Reagan had some socially conservative views. But these never supplied the organizing principle or ideological mandate on which they governed. They spoke of freedom far more often than of virtue.” But, of course, they did speak of virtue.
Finally, conservatism as politics “is an acceptance of the unknowability of ultimate truth, an acknowledgment of the distinction between what is true forever and what is true for the here and now . . . a way of looking at the world whose most perfect expression might be called inactivism. . . . The great and constant dream of [a conservative] is to be left alone by his own government and by his fellow humans, as much as is possible . . . [in] contingent and foundationless conservatism . . . [whose] deeper asset is its restless, spiritual core . . . [finding] the peace that comes from accepting such doubt and turning it into living.”
This emphasis on freedom, privacy, and relaxed, inclusive Christianity suggests that Sullivan wants to use politics to get beyond politics, and he wants to argue religion in order to free religion from argument. This will attract some who will feel no need to look further. Given the intense spiritual longing afoot in the world, however, characterizing responses to that longing as fundamentalist is relevant but inadequate. We require more-careful analyses of tradition and natural law, a more discriminating analysis of “fundamentalism,” and deeper reflection on the paradoxical character of modern spiritual uncertainty.
Timothy Fuller is the former president of the Michael Oakeshott Association and co-editor of The Intellectual Legacy of Michael Oakeshott. He teaches political philosophy at Colorado College.