Like so many parties that go on past their proper bedtime, Karl Rove’s Republican Party has lately begun to break out in fights, as neocon theorists, Goldwater-style libertarians, the corporations, and grassroots Christian fundamentalists come to the aggravating discovery that they’re more defined by their differences than by what they hold in common. On climate change, government spending, stem-cell research, reproductive rights, and the Iraq war, to name just a few of the triggering issues, self-styled conservatives find themselves at loggerheads with other self-styled conservatives, each claiming the mantle of true conservatism for himself. As both symptom and diagnosis of this interesting—one might say promising—development, Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul is as engaging as it is provocative.
Sullivan is an odd duck. Born in England in 1963 to an Irish immigrant family, he grew up in East Grinstead, a town long associated with a cho-leric, class-based brand of reactionary Toryism. Whenever letters appeared in the Daily Telegraph demanding the return of the birch or the noose, the chances were good that they’d be signed by Colonel Blimp (retd.) of East Grinstead, Sussex. But that was never Sullivan’s style of conservatism. A beneficiary (as I was) of the 1944 Education Act, he passed the eleven-plus exam and went to Reigate Grammar School, where he became a “teenage Thatcherite” and sported a Reagan button in 1980. From there, he won a scholarship to Oxford, becoming the first member of his family to attend university. He was elected president of the Oxford Union and, in 1983, or so he has boasted, threw a champagne party to celebrate the arrival of Pershing II missiles in Britain. An exemplary product of British meritocracy, he went on to Harvard, where he completed a Ph.D. with a dissertation on the British conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott. Its title, “Intimations Pursued: The Voice of Practice in the Conversation of Michael Oakeshott,” played on the title of Oakeshott’s 1959 essay “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.”
As someone committed—almost, it seems, from the cradle—to minimal government, maximal personal liberty, and a “strong anticommunist foreign policy,” Sullivan’s natural habitat was the United States. In the 1990s he was the youngest-ever editor of The New Republic; he is now a blogger, columnist, and ubiquitous guest on radio and cable TV talk shows, where he speaks in a peculiar creole, half English, half American, an accent from a region located somewhere on the sea floor of the Atlantic, midway between the Azores and Flemish Cap. This highly idiosyncratic mongrel voice tells one something about the character of Sullivan’s conservative journey, on which he has been, variously, Irish among the English, a scholarship boy among the sons and daughters of privilege, an Englishman among Americans, an HIV-positive gay man among right-wing homophobes, and a liberal Catholic among fundamentalists—good training for a chameleon, as for a combative gadfly, and Sullivan is both. Along the way, he’s fallen out with most of his political fellow travelers, most recently with the Bush administration and all its works. In The Conservative Soul he summons to his aid a trinity of mentors—Oakeshott, Christ, and Montaigne—to explain his furious disillusion with the presidency he once extolled.
Sullivan makes plain that his singular view of the world was both confirmed and shaped by Oakeshott’s writing, and in figuring out Sullivan it helps to know something of his intellectual hero. In conservative circles, Oakeshott (1901–1990) is often said to be the greatest English political philosopher since Hobbes, and is widely credited with having been the gray eminence behind Thatcherism. It’s most unlikely that Margaret Thatcher ever read him, but Sir Keith Joseph, the token intellectual in her cabinet, was at least on nodding terms with both the man and his work. He also appears as the maddening but charming character Hugo in Under the Net by Iris Murdoch, who was one of the many women with whom Oakeshott enjoyed a famously crowded romantic life.
Central to Oakeshott’s thought was his conviction that reality consists in the unending swarm and confluence of intractable particulars and contingencies. So historians, reading the past backward from the present, impose on it illicit patterns dictated by their contemporary concerns, while politicians project on the future equally vain patterns in the form of grand schemes for the improvement of humankind. Oakeshott’s great abomination was what he called Rationalism (always with a capital R and with the emphasis on the ism), the dominant force, as he saw it, in Western politics since the Enlightenment, and the source of every collectivist attempt to build utopia by reasoning on the basis of “felt needs.”
By this measure, the framers of the American Constitution, Marx, Engels, and Hitler were all Rationalists, and Oakeshott’s catch-all list of dangerous Rationalist projects included the “so-called Re-Union of the Christian churches,” “the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” “the World State (of H.G. Wells or anyone else),” the Beveridge Report (blueprint for Britain’s postwar welfare state), the 1944 Education Act, and “the revival of Gaelic as the official language of Eire.” What on earth would he have made, one wonders, of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century? “The conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny,” Oakeshott wrote, and he likened the proper role of government to that of an umpire, there to ensure that the rules of the game are observed. In the ideal Oakeshottian world, as nearly all history would be shelved under Myth and Legend, so government would be conspicuous by its absence except when required to arbitrate on disputed line calls.
Oakeshott is a severe and witty critic of both history and politics, though it’s hard to imagine a practicing historian or politician reading him without suffering from an attack of extreme and paralyzing self-consciousness. For conservative political journalists like Sullivan, though, he’s a natural touchstone—a skeptic’s skeptic, who sets a standard of Olympian minimalism against which to calibrate governmental excesses. In The Conservative Soul, Oakeshott’s ghost is summoned as the first prosecution witness against the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq, its fiscal extravagance, and its doctrinaire refusal to recognize gay marriage as a de facto reality of our time.
What is baffling is why such an ardent disciple of Oakeshott came to sign himself up for the Bush program in the first place—a decision that Sullivan now says he finds “more than a little worrying.” For, from the moment of its declaration, the “war on terror” (“this crusade,” as Bush then defined it), by committing the United States to an indefinite future of hostilities against a shadowy and shape-shifting enemy, had all the hallmarks of one of Oakeshott’s most deluded Rationalist projects. Yet even as Osama bin Laden morphed into Saddam Hussein, and Paul Wolfowitz unrolled his great plan for the democratization of the Middle East by force of arms, Sullivan was a raucous cheerleader for the administration.
On September 11, 2001, Sullivan described the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as “the single most devastating act of war since Nagasaki.” In the days that followed, he excoriated liberal critics of the administration as “nihilists” and traitors. Sounding disquietingly like Joe McCarthy, he warned that “the decadent left in its enclaves along the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.” He denounced Susan Sontag as “contemptible” and “a pretentious buffoon.” He called on America to set a heroic example to the world: “We must show [other countries] as we have never shown them before that a deep humanity and an unremitting rage are not incompatible.” On September 16, he appeared to be on his way to the nearest army recruitment center when, having invoked Roosevelt and Churchill, he wrote, “the torch they raised is now passed to us. What a privilege. What an opportunity—especially for my generation and those younger.”
For more than two years, Sullivan relentlessly shilled for Bush and for the war on terror, including its “central front” in Iraq. It wasn’t until the early months of 2004 that he broke with the “shrewd,” “quiet,” “underestimated” figure of the President, first over Bush’s endorsement of a constitutional ban on gay marriage, then in moral repugnance at the evidence of government-condoned torture at Abu Ghraib. In October 2004, he “endorsed”—as he rather grandly put it, as if he were an editorial board—John Kerry as “the lesser of two risks.” Since then he has attacked the administration with all the vehemence he formerly lavished on its detractors. Nowadays, on Sullivan’s blog, Rumsfeld is labeled a “war criminal,” Bush a “boneless wonder.”
In The Conservative Soul, he attributes his change of heart to a belated return to rigorous Oakshottian skepticism, and as he expounds Oakeshott, gracefully and in satisfying detail, one is almost won over. Certainly Oakeshott’s strictures on the dangers of overweening government power, harnessed to Rationalist dreams and visions, apply very well to the high-handed, high-spending near tyranny of the Bush administration before the midterm elections checked its progress, and Sullivan deserves thanks for bringing Oakeshott into the argument.
But his journalism belies his vaunted skepticism. There is in Sullivan’s makeup a most un-Oakshottian quickness to take passionate sides, a schoolboy tendency to hero-worship (Thatcher… Reagan…Oakeshott…Bush…and now it seems he may be warming up fast to Barack Obama), and an Oxford debater’s ready access to the rhetoric of condescending scorn. Where Oakeshott stood self-consciously aloof from practical politics, Sullivan splashes excitedly about in them like a dog in a mud puddle, snarling ferociously at any other dog who challenges his position du jour. He’s less a skeptic than a mercurial, and somewhat flirtatious, born believer.
So it is—unsurprisingly—on matters of religion that he’s at his most persuasive. The book is grounded in Sullivan’s tenacious Catholicism, and, as a staunch atheist, I’m impressed by his ability to write plainly, unmawkishly, even movingly, of the intermittent presence of Jesus Christ in his life. He reveres the antiquity of his church, loves the mystery and beauty of its rituals, cherishes the play of nuance and paradox in its theology, but is engaged in a running battle with the present occupant of the Episcopal Palace in Vatican City, Benedict XVI, over the issues of abortion, homosexuality, and, crucially, the role of individual conscience. His Catholicism is so personal and selective that it amounts almost to a kind of Protestantism, specifically Anglo-Catholicism, or High Anglicanism, in its affectionate retention of the forms of the old church while rejecting its authority.
Once upon a time, very long ago, Sir David Frost was capable of being funny. In 1964 or thereabouts, when Sullivan was barely out of diapers, Frost fronted a spoof commercial for the Church of England on the television show That Was the Week That Was. Arriving at the punch line, his face a triumphant car-salesman’s leer, Frost nasally intoned: “And if you want transubstantiation, you can have transubstantiation, and if you don’t want transubstantiation, you needn’t have transubstantiation.” Something of this accommodating spirit informs Sullivan’s religion: what he wants, he takes, and what he doesn’t want, he doesn’t have. He emphatically does not want to submit to the rulings of the man he calls “the fundamentalist pope,” whom he effectively excommunicates from his version of the true church. His point is that his beliefs, founded as they are on personal conscience, personal interpretation, shades of meaning, and a necessary embrace of contradictions, are entirely compatible with pragmatic, Oakeshott-style conservatism, while “fundamentalist” beliefs, Catholic or evangelical, are inimical to liberal democracy. It’s an argument worth following, even as one notes the amount of special pleading that goes into its construction.
Sullivan’s own church, painted in many hues and richly furnished with childhood memories, is seen warmly, from within; those of the American evangelicals are regarded coldly, from without, as when he betrays frank aesthetic distaste for the vulgarity of their architecture—“mega-churches that look and feel like shopping malls and football stadiums.” Every age gets the ecclesiastical architecture that its social and political concerns warrant, and it’s worth remembering that the great churches of pre-Reformation Europe, which Sullivan loves, look and feel like towered and battlemented military fortresses. Then, churches were built like castles, to intimidate; now, like shopping centers and sports arenas, they take entertainment rather than war as their model, which some might construe as a humanitarian advance of sorts.
Yet Sullivan’s alienated eye allows him to probe fundamentalist Christian theology with impressive clarity. Moving among the born-againers like an anthropologist among Yanomami Indians, he breaks their faith down to a nicely lucid series of propositions.
“For the fundamentalist,” he writes,
…there is one moment of real conscience, the moment when he makes the decision to conform his mind and will to an external authority. After that, his sole task is obedience, or, at best, being the best student in a class where there is only one set of right answers, prescribed beforehand (and you’re allowed, in fact compelled, to see the answers in advance).
These answers all relate to eschatology, to the foreordained apocalypse of the “End Times” and the “Rapture,” the ultimate event when living Christians will simultaneously go to Heaven to be with Jesus. To such believers, the course of future history is mapped out in the Bible like a one-way escalator to Doomsday and salvation. (It should perhaps be said that a preoccupation with the fulfilment of ancient prophecies—“that which is written”—is embedded in both the Old and New Testaments, and shapes the thinking of all Christians, not just fundamentalists.) So the millennialist view of the world comes into violent collision with that of Oakeshott, for whom the future was, by definition, incalculable and unknowable. Ironically, Oakeshott would surely have seen the Christian right as Rationalists of the first order.
“Rationalist politics…are the politics of the book,” wrote Oakeshott, and Sullivan borrows the phrase to climax a passage on the conflict between his kind of conservatism and the Weltanschauung of the fundamentalists:
For the born-again, there is the life before one is saved and there is the life thereafter. Every fundamentalist life pivots around this bright line. For the 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. If conservatism is about preserving one’s own past, fundamentalism is about erasing it and starting afresh. If conservatism is about the acceptance of imperfection, fundamentalism is about the necessity of perfection now and forever. If conservatism begins with the premise of human error, fundamentalism rests on the fact of divine truth. If conservatism is about the permanence of human nature, fundamentalism looks forward to an apocalypse in which all human nature will be remade by the will of a terrifying and omnipotent God. If conservatism believes in pragmatism and context to determine political choices, fundamentalism relies always on a book. Or rather the Book….
Reading this, a cardinal from Sullivan’s church might well sniff heresy (“life…has…no ultimate truth but the one we give to it” sounds particularly dodgy), but it’s an eloquent dissection of the underlying rifts in the marriage of convenience between the old right and the religious right—a couple with so little in common at heart that they must lay awake at night in their shared Republican bed, each dreaming of divorce from the other.
In October 2001, Sullivan published an essay in The New York Times Magazine, titled “This Is a Religious War.” The essay, boldly for those days, likened Jerry Falwell and his fellow American theocrats to Osama bin Laden and the Wahhabist strain of Islam for their shared fear of pluralism, their intolerance born of insecurity, their “blind recourse to texts embraced as literal truth,” and their attempt to fuse religious and political authority. That argument is broadened in The Conservative Soul, where George W. Bush’s narrow religious certitude mirrors the by-the-book certitude of bin Laden and his followers:
It was…impossible not to see, even in the beginning, the incipient dangers of a fundamentalist mind-set grappling with a huge, complex, and terrifying problem: Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. The absolutism of one almost inescapably triggered the absolutism of the other. 9/11 became, for the president, his second “born-again” moment. Just as a born-again Christian fixates upon a moment on which his entire life now pivots, the born-again presidency redefined itself entirely in terms of an absolute commitment to fighting an abstract enemy, easily conflated into a single entity, readily accessible to the fundamentalist psyche: evil.
That’s well said—though if it was really “impossible not to see, even in the beginning,” the dangers of the face-off between “Christianists” and Islamists, I’m at a loss to explain why Sullivan so unreservedly signed up for the President’s crusade.
As a homosexual, he brings warm personal indignation to bear on the tyranny of “natural law” as it is expounded by conservative Christians such as Robert P. George, the Catholic professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and adviser on bioethics to the Bush administration, who argue that, in Sullivan’s words, “human beings have a common, fundamental nature by which they should and must be judged. That nature is given by the Creator and is the arbiter of how we are supposed to live our lives.” If our sexuality has a single, divinely ordained purpose, that of procreation, then clearly Sullivan’s own sex life has been one long transgression against natural law, and he mounts a sturdy argument in defense of the wide diversity of human sexual experience, practices, and meanings, which makes the natural law theorists sound as dogmatic and disdainful of the empirical evidence as young-earth creationists. He then lucidly extends the same argument to counter the absolutist zealotry of the zygote’s-right-to-life brigade, and of the life-at-any-cost-by-whatever-technological-means doctrine to which Tom DeLay and Bill Frist adhered in the Terry Schiavo case.
Sullivan swashbuckles his way through these issues with what seems to me an enviable command of both the relevant science and the relevant theology. When he suggests that if Bush’s “theoconservative” spiritual advisers were to have their way, the United States under the present administration would darkly resemble Spain under the Inquisition, England under the Puritan dictatorship of Cromwell, or Afghanistan under the Taliban, he manages to make such comparisons carry a good deal more weight than that of mere rhetorical flourishes.
Montaigne, the third person of Sullivan’s trinity, is held up as the shining example of wisdom rooted in humility, curiosity, and wonder. Like Oakeshott, Montaigne saw the circumscribed littleness of human knowledge—the future unforecastable, the present and past imperfectly, myopically perceived. His motto “Que sais-je?” might well have stood as the epigraph to Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics. Sullivan quotes from The Apology for Raymond Sebond:
Since a wise man can be mistaken, and a hundred men, and many nations, yes, and human nature is mistaken for many centuries about this or that, what assurance have we that sometimes it stops being mistaken, and in this century it is not making a mistake?
Later on, Sullivan slangily adapts Montaigne for his own purposes:
A conservative is defined primarily by his profound grasp of the limits of human understanding. He knows we are always screwing things up; he knows that an idea that seems inspired one day may seem like the dumbest thing on earth a year later.
This may explain Sullivan’s painful about-face on the liberal-imperialist conquest of Iraq, but hardly excuses it. It is a self-serving conceit to claim, as he does, that in the days leading up to the invasion, all decent people (excluding the aforementioned nihilists and traitors) were in the same boat, equally misled by what later proved to be defective intelligence on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction:
I can see the comedy and tragedy of an entire debate almost all of which was premised on what turned out to be a falsehood…. This falsehood was taken as fact by every major intelligence agency and by both supporters and opponents of a war to depose Saddam. We were all wrong.
No we weren’t. Many of us at the time preferred to trust the skeptical conservatism of Hans Blix, who had inspected five hundred Iraqi sites by March 2003 and asked for more time, rather than Colin Powell’s “These are not assertions…[but] facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” We were roundly jeered at by Sullivan for doing so. Montaigne’s remarks on the infinite depth of human fallibility were not meant as a license to embrace the one-day inspiration only to reject it as “the dumbest thing on earth” when it turns out badly.
Here, as elsewhere, Sullivan is an opportunist in argument, and sometimes an unscrupulous one. (Shades of the Oxford Union again.) Summoning Thomas Jefferson to prove a point on page 48, he writes, “He did not consider himself a ‘secular humanist.’ He was a believing Christian.” Requiring Jefferson to make another point on page 131, he quotes him: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classified with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Petty consistency is not a hobgoblin that troubles Andrew Sullivan’s mind, and he likes to chalk up his inconsistency to his conservatism, because it is a hallmark of the pragmatic conservative to know himself to be frequently mistaken.
Yet in its exposure of the contradictions entailed in being Andrew Sullivan, The Conservative Soul rather brilliantly exposes the contradictions of the Republican Party as it is today. If two randomly selected voters who supported Bush in 2000 and 2004 were to be sat in a room and asked to unpack the contents of their heads, each would likely be appalled by the entrenched beliefs of the other. The worldviews of the Christian fundamentalist, the project-driven neoconservative theorist, and the small-government free-marketeer are, as Sullivan shows, dramatically incompatible on both religious and philosophical grounds. Clever as it was of Karl Rove to patch together his grand electoral alliance of radically unlike minds, the arrangement has always had in it the potential for schismatic pandemonium and, since last year’s midterms, we’ve been seeing the stirrings of sectarian warfare in Congress and elsewhere.
As to the question raised in his subtitle—how to “get back” the soul of conservatism—Sullivan predictably urges his readers to return to Oakeshott’s exceptionally modest vision of the scope and power of politics and government. But if his advice were to be followed, a Republican Party in possession of its restored soul would equally alienate the followers of Jerry Falwell and those of Bill Kristol, which, though it may be the stuff of liberal daydreams, is hardly likely to appeal to party strategists. What is so timely about Sullivan’s book, and why it should be read closely by liberals as well as conservatives, is its embedded firsthand report on the widening ideological cracks in the house that Rove built—a building that Rove used to boast was permanent and impregnable, and that Sullivan now makes look like a tottering fixer-upper.
April 12, 2007