You will not be surprised to learn that I am solidly on Ross Douthat’s side in his exchanges with Damon Linker at the New Republic Online (registration required) and the American Experience . My personal interest aside¯or as much as I am capable of putting it aside¯this is one of the more intelligent exchanges on religion and the republic that I have seen for some time. Following the links from the above, you will note that some of the comments assume that my colleagues and I at First Things are trying to "baptize" the liberal tradition by equating our constitutional order with Catholic doctrine. That is far from the truth, as any thoughtful reader of First Things knows. Between God and Caesar, there are deep and perduring tensions, and will be until Our Lord returns in glory, at which point all Caesars will be dethroned. The classic text here is St. Augustine’s The City of God , and book XIX should be regularly reread by any Christian pondering ultimates and preultimates in relation to any political order. The larger truths engaged are not limited to Christians. In the forthcoming November issue of First Things , I explain why a writer in Time is quite wrong to be worried by the fact that so many Christians in America say they are Christians first and Americans second. The right ordering of their loves and loyalties is what makes them, contra the proponents of the naked public square, better Americans.


In the current issue of First Things , Timothy Fuller of Colorado College has an incisively critical review of Andrew Sullivan’s new book The Conservative Soul . Fuller is an acknowledged authority on the thought of the late British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Sullivan claims that his view of conservatism is in the tradition of Oakeshott. Writing in Books & Culture , Mark Judge focuses on Sullivan’s understanding of what it means to be a Catholic:
Yet to be always and forevermore open to further argument or revelation means never having to settle on anything as the truth¯except, of course, the impossibility of objective truth itself. This is the paradox of the postmodernism that eats itself; if there is no settled truth, if the sands of morality constantly shift, then how can Sullivan’s core beliefs be defended at all? Sullivan talks about “moments of struggle” in his “long engagement” with the Catholic faith. He had questions about the nature of the Trinity, transubstantiation, and the Resurrection. His conclusion: “Reaching the answer yes to these questions¯and asking them again and again and again¯is not an easy process.” Of course it isn’t. But as Chesterton put it, having an open mind is like having an open mouth: the point is to eventually come down on something solid. And secular doubt is the easiest thing in the world. One can simply take any position on anything. Thus, to Sullivan, “tradition is not a static entity.” A good statesman will take into account “the internal dynamics of the evolving societies” to make decisions. That’s why conservatives should back gay marriage. Sullivan reveals that he took his confirmation name after Saint Thomas More, but More was martyred precisely because he would not bend to the political and cultural fashions of the day. While Sullivan praises “the marking of nuance, the weighing of things from different perspectives, the desire to understand something as it is, and not as we would like it to be,” his thirst for knowledge falls short when it comes to the teachings of his religion. This champion of the supposedly hungry and expansive mind can’t be bothered to honestly engage with ideas with which he disagrees. He touts his Catholicism and pushes homosexuality and gay marriage but can’t be bothered to tackle John Paul II’s The Theology of the Body , the late pontiff’s massive and revolutionary work about the meaning of sex and the human body. His engagement with Benedict and other thinkers he disagrees with is superficial and dishonest. Apparently for the thinking, reading, praying, ever-expanding conservative like Sullivan, there’s just no time to read things one disagrees with, or engage opposing argument honestly.
Over the years, I have been with Andrew Sullivan at various events and I still read him on occasion. He is a frequently clever and almost always articulately voluble fellow. But, as he gets older, he seems ever more frenetically driven to divide the world between those who agree with him and those who don’t, with the latter being pilloried as stupid or evil. And the one thing on which it is most imperative to agree with him is that it is OK, and more than OK, to be gay. Homosexuality is the polestar of his intellectual universe. It is a pity. There is in The Conservative Soul and some of his other writings a palpable longing to be taken seriously by serious people, to be something more than an in-your-face polemicist. That desire, however, is repeatedly sacrificed to the tedious justification of erotic compulsions, a melancholy obsession that has prevented him from making possibly valuable contributions beyond the dubious distinction of being the country’s most public gay pundit. As it is, I’m afraid, Mr. Sullivan merely flirts with ideas in the hope of seducing them into providing intellectual panache for a worldview framed by disordered desires.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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