The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back
Harper Collins, 304 pages, $25.95
He’s a walking contradiction,
Partly truth and partly fiction,
Taking every wrong direction,
On his lonely way back home.
Andrew Sullivan never tires of reminding readers that he is a Catholic, yet he is the rather odd sort of Catholic who proclaims the “spirituality”—I’m not kidding, the word is his—of sexual encounters between strangers who don’t even bother to reveal to each other their names (what Sullivan calls “anonymous sex”). He also advertises himself as a conservative, but in this, too, he is a walking contradiction. His new book, The Conservative Soul, mixes some important truths about what it means to be a conservative with some outrageous and even zany fictions. At some level, he really does seem to want to be a faithful member of his Church and a true conservative, but he is managing to take just about every possible wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
Andrew Sullivan is, if nothing else, a passionate writer. He forcefully asserts strong opinions—mostly liberal ones—on a range of hotly contested moral and political issues. Expressions of doubt are rare in his writings. And woe betide those who have the temerity to express opposing views! They are consigned to the category of “fundamentalists”—twisted and dangerous people who are psychologically incapable of dealing with ambiguity or uncertainty and are bent on tyrannically imposing their beliefs on others. Much of The Conservative Soul is devoted to demonizing Evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics who have, he insists, succeeded in usurping authentic conservatism and robbing this great tradition of reflection on politics and culture of its soul. (Full disclosure: I am one of his principal targets, though in an amusing display of ineptness he manages to confuse my arguments on the foundations of sexual ethics with those of the philosopher Edward Feser. Although I have respect for Professor Feser’s work, he and I disagree with each other on the very points on which Sullivan runs our thought together and criticizes what he imagines to be my views. What he in fact criticizes are Feser’s views, or—more accurately—a caricature of his views. Professor Feser has ably defended himself in a detailed response on the blogsite “Right Reason.”)
In its more formal and donnish aspect, Sullivan’s book contrasts “two rival forms of conservatism.” The bad conservatism is the type that has gained control of the Republican Party and led it down the path to perdition: This type of conservatism he labels “fundamentalism.” (“The most powerful Christian fundamentalist in the world is George W. Bush.”) The good conservatism—the one whose rescue “means rejecting the current fundamentalist supremacy in almost every respect”—is what Sullivan describes as “the conservatism of doubt.” He writes:
As a politics, its essence is an acceptance of the unknowability of ultimate truth, an acknowledgment of the distinction between what is true forever and what is true for here and now, and an embrace of the discrepancy between theoretical and practical knowledge. It is an anti-ideology, a non-program, a way of looking at the world whose most perfect expression might be called inactivism.
Sullivan is at pains to show that the conservatism of doubt has a distinguished intellectual pedigree. Its architects and defenders have included such intellectual giants as Michel de Montaigne and, much more recently, Michael Oakeshott.
Sullivan also wishes to show that the good conservatism—though an “anti-ideology” and a “non-program”—has some concrete substantive implications for contemporary moral and political deliberation. You won’t have difficulty guessing what these implications centrally include: A thoroughly liberal conception of sexual morality (especially as regards homosexual conduct and relationships integrated around such conduct) and the public recognition of same-sex sexual partnerships as “marriages.”
Now how did you know that? You knew it because if you know anything about Andrew Sullivan you know that he is certain that the teachings of his Church and of the broader western tradition of thought about sexuality and marriage are profoundly and destructively wrong. Although earlier in his career he famously argued in favor of same-sex “marriage” as an antidote to male homosexual promiscuity (an argument that established his credentials as a “conservative” gay-rights advocate), he has long since abandoned the critique of sexual license. Hence his proclamation, well before the publication of The Conservative Soul, of the “spiritual value” of “anonymous sex.”
For some reason, though, Sullivan wishes to hang onto the label “conservative,” just as he wishes to remain at least formally a Catholic. So he redefines conservatism to make it accommodate “toleration” of what most conservatives regard, and have always regarded, as serious sexual misconduct. And mere “toleration” isn’t enough. Nothing short of official approbation will do. So legal recognition of same-sex marriages is essential (though no longer as an antidote to promiscuity).
Sullivan supposes that people who continue to believe that licentious sexual behavior, and not the condemnation of it, is immoral and socially destructive—those who observe that the consequences of such behavior in our own society are measurable in broken relationships and ruined lives—are actually not conservatives (or at least not good conservatives) at all. They are fundamentalists—people belonging to a class that includes Osama bin Laden and Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.
Perhaps Sullivan’s lowest attack on those who do not go along with his beliefs (especially on sex) is reserved for men who experience same-sex sexual desires but who, because of their conscientious moral convictions, decline to act on them. Evidently, Sullivan cannot abide the thought of such men, much less consider the possibility that they, rather than he, have grasped the truth about sexual morality and human dignity. In discussing these men, he immediately descends into amateur psychiatrist mode:
But a gay man who decides to sublimate his entire sexual being into the maintenance of a rigid religious orthodoxy is often an ideal fundamentalist. His own chastity is a particularly onerous sacrifice for the sake of truth; and such a sacrifice in turn intensifies commitment to the orthodoxy. The longer he retains this sacrifice, the more insistent he is on its necessity. And so you have the well-documented phenomenon of repressed homosexual men being in the forefront of religious campaigns to suppress homosexual behavior in others.
It doesn’t seem to occur to Sullivan that someone, whatever his experiences of sexual desire, might think carefully about issues of sexual morality, consider the arguments advanced by people on various sides (including those who draw on what they regard as the wisdom of their religious traditions), arrive at conclusions at variance with Sullivan’s own, and do his best to resist sexual temptation and orient himself so as to live a life in line with what he believes the dignity of a human person requires.
One would think that a proponent of “the conservatism of doubt” would be more charitable towards his intellectual and political opponents. One would expect him carefully to consider the possibility that people who have reached conclusions at variance with his own might have arrived at, or gotten nearer, the truth. One would certainly expect him to regard them, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, as reasonable people of goodwill whose views ought to be given respect and thoughtful consideration. Yet when it comes to issues of sexuality and sexual morality, Sullivan’s “conservatism of doubt” yields—mirabile dictu—nothing short of a liberalism (one might even say a libertinism) of absolute certainty. Dissenters are not reasonable people who happen to disagree. They are psychologically warped individuals—fundamentalists!—who perversely refuse to recognize truths—even truths about themselves and their own motivations—and who are bent on tyrannizing others.
When it comes to the dogmas of the sexual revolution, Sullivan is as true a believer as one can find. But his dogmatism extends beyond sexual liberalism, central though that is to his quasi-evangelical mission. He fervently and largely uncritically expresses unshakable beliefs in many other areas as well—from bioethics to the war in Iraq—all the while attacking those who hold opposing views as “fundamentalists.” Advertising himself as “mildly” pro-choice, he virtually invites ridicule by invoking in support of legal abortion and against its “fundamentalist” opponents, none other than St. Thomas Aquinas: “Aquinas reasoned that unborn life went through three stages—a vegetative period, an animal stage, and finally a rational moment when the basis for cognition and reason could be detected, and ‘ensoulment’ fully realized.” Well, yes, Aquinas, while rejecting abortion, did believe that unborn life went through these stages. But that was because the great medieval philosopher was working with what we now know to be a profoundly flawed understanding of the basic facts of embryogenesis and early intrauterine human development. Since the discovery of the ovum in the nineteenth century, our knowledge of the embryological facts has advanced far beyond anything a thirteenth-century writer such as Aquinas could possibly have known. Medieval speculation about “vegetative,” “animal,” and “rational” stages has been replaced by knowledge of human development as a gradual and gapless process by which the newly conceived human being develops (by a self-directed, gradual, and gapless process) from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages, and into adulthood with his or her distinctness, unity, determinateness, and identity fully intact.
Sullivan’s posturing as a practitioner of “the conservatism of doubt” is, in the end, risible. As Jonah Goldberg has pointed out in a devastating review of The Conservative Soul, Sullivan “believes nothing if not the moral superiority of his own position.” In labeling his opponents as “fundamentalists,” he is, at best, a pot hurling epithets at the kettles.
There is an important truth in the idea of a “conservatism of doubt.” It was expressed many years ago by the great conservative jurist Learned Hand: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.” Yet Sullivan’s presentation of himself as the champion of such a spirit is the purest fiction. His problem is not that he doubts too much, but rather too little. It is not that he is excessively self-critical; it is that he is insufficiently so. He cannot entertain an intellectual challenge on an issue he cares about without classifying his interlocutor as warped and potentially tyrannical. Much less can he bring himself to consider the possibility that his opponent might actually be right. He is filled with too much dogmatic certainty for that.