Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back by Andrew Sullivan








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Andrew Sullivan’s new book, The Conservative Soul, provides a calm and reasoned exposition of how fundamentalism has overtaken American conservatives, and the virtue of doubt that was one the strength of conservatives has become anathema to the neo-cons. Considering that the decibel level, especially in politics, has been at a very high level, this reasoned and calm approach is likely to fall on deaf ears. Sullivan proposes that faith and doubt can sit by side. It will be interesting to see if anyone listens. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 4, “The Bush Crucible,” pp. 119-123:


“We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts,

government has got to move.”


                        —PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, September2003


For the true fundamentalist, political life is extremely simple. Fundamentalist politics demands that the truths handed down by revelation or “nature” be applied consistently to govern all citizens. How could they not be? For the fundamen­talist, there is no secular truth independent of religious truth; and there is no greater imperative than saving souls. If there is an inevitable disjunction between the demands of Heaven and the brokenness of Earth, the role of politics is to narrow that gap as far as possible. It is to conjoin ultimate meaning with a monopoly of force.

The ultimate face of fundamentalist politics can be seen throughout history. From the Catholic Spain of the Inquisi­tion to the Puritan dictatorship of England’s Oliver Cromwell, the same fanaticism and conflation of dogma and law crops up again and again. In the hideous tyrannies of Afghanistan under the Taliban or of Iran after the fall of the shah, you can see what happens when religious truth merges with modern po­litical power. The secular equivalents—regimes constructed to Propagate and disseminate an inerrant doctrine and to find and punish all error—are the dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin, and, at the most extreme, Mao and Pol Pot. Sometimes the doctrine is entirely modern—such as the North Korean doctrine of Juche, concocted by the mass murderers, Kim Ii Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. These vicious regimes tend not to last too long. Built on the banishment of all human freedom, and resting on religious or pseudo-religious doctrines that cannot brook any compro­mise with existing reality, they are bound to fail in the end. But while they last, and they can last decades, they are the vehicles for some of the worst brutality, evil, and criminality that the world has ever known.

To equate the astonishing rise of evangelical and Catholic fundamentalism in the contemporary West with these mon­strous regimes would be absurd. There are a few fringe groups in America—the Christian Reconstructionists, for example— who would like to replace the United States constitution with biblical law, a Christian version of sharia. But they are marginal, extremist, and largely disowned by the fundamentalist main­stream. Evangelical and Catholic fundamentalists have largely engaged in America in completely legitimate and democratic activity: voting, organizing, campaigning, broadcasting, per­suading. Even where they disagree with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution, they do not question that Constitution’s legitimacy (although a few have indeed walked to the brink of declaring the United States an illegitimate “regime” because of the court’s rulings). They constantly use religious language to defend their political positions—but so did Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. The political methods of the new fundamentalists are overwhelmingly democratic ones. They are not, properly speaking, theocrats, if by that we mean explicitly religious rule by religious figures with no constitutional safeguards for minorities or individuals. A person who believes that society should be governed only by laws consistent with his religious faith is not a theocrat if he merely tries to persuade majorities of his case, and restricts himself to constitu­tional, legal, and nonviolent activity.

But this much can nevertheless be said of the new American fundamentalists: they deny the possibility of a government that is neutral between differing views of what the meaning of life truly is. They reject the whole idea of the law as a way to create a neutral public space, to mediate between competing visions of the good, to provide an umpire for a game between competing visions of what is moral, right, or true. They reject, in short, the entire premise of secular democracy: that religion should be re­stricted to the private sphere, and the law should be as indiffer­ent as possible to the substantive claims of various impassioned groups of true believers.

They are extremely clear on this point. Robert George ar­gues that “there can be no legitimate claim for secularism to be a ‘neutral’ doctrine that deserves privileged status as the na­tional public philosophy.” It’s worth insisting here on the proper meaning of secularism. It is not antireligious, as is now often claimed. Definitionally secularism merely argues that public in­stitutions and public law be separated from religious dogma or diktats. A secular society can be one in which large majorities of people have deep religious faith, but in which politics deals with laws that are, as far as possible, indifferent to the religious convictions of citizens, and clearly separated from them.

Some evangelical Christians have thrived under secularism. Think of the astonishing career of someone like Billy Graham, a man who sought to bring millions to a fundamentalist faith but who didn’t construct a political movement as such. Or think of the work of a group like the Salvation Army that, in a secu­lar society, channels fundamentalist faith into social action and helps so many people in real need. It’s possible for evangelicalism to coexist with secularism—and, indeed, for much of American history, that has been the case. But it is no longer the predomi­nant view on what we might call the “religious right,” or within the Republican Party as a whole.

In fact the key premise of secular neutrality is precisely what the Christianist right now disagrees with. Senator Rick Santorum affirms, “I don’t want a government that is neutral between virtue and vice.” Elsewhere Santorum writes that defenders of secularism “are trying to instill a different moral vision—one that elevates the self, the arbitrary individual good, above all else. And frankly, this moral vision amounts to nothing less than a new religion, a polytheistic one in which each individual is to be his own god to be worshipped.” For Santorum, the alterna­tive to a politics responsive to one God is a politics responsive to many, with no mechanism to distinguish between them.

I should mention in passing that, in this conviction, Santo-rum has philosophical allies on the left. Left-fundamentalists also discount the whole idea of government neutrality and want to use government power and the law to insist on their own values: racial justice (by affirmative action), enforced tolerance (through restrictions on free speech and hate crime laws), direct public funding of deeply controversial areas like abortion, and the use of public schools to inculcate the dogmas of multiculturalism in children. The two overlap in some areas. Restrict­ing pornography, for example, is a top priority for the religious right and the fundamentalist left. The point here, however, is their mutual disdain for the idea of public neutrality. For the fundamentalist left, it’s a mask designed to obscure systematic oppression of various kinds; for the fundamentalist right, it’s a sham created to obscure a “secular humanist” agenda and even, as Santorum would have it, polytheism.

Classical liberals and secular conservatives differ. They cling to the notion that government can try to be above the fray, that it can aspire to be the mediator for very different people who have to live alongside one another with radically divergent ideas of what is good or true. These limited-government liberals and conservatives believe, as a critical part of this notion of poli­tics, that there is a clear distinction between what is public and what is private. The law can allow for different moral choices, they argue, without privileging one over the other. So a law that permits abortion merely allows some women to choose it and others to refuse it, according to their own views of what is right and wrong. And a law that allows for legal pornography simply lets individuals make their own decisions, and takes no stand on the underlying issue itself. A law that allows gay couples to marry does not forbid straight couples from marrying. The law, in this sense, is indifferent to what any couple or person might choose. It just grants them the right to choose it, and provides the mechanisms to defend the choice.

Fundamentalists reject this idea. For them, neutrality is a sham. In any law, they argue, someone’s values are asserted. A law that permits abortion is a law that says abortion is morally permissible. It is de facto pro-abortion, not pro-choice. A law that allows pornography or legal contraception is not neutral with regard to these alleged moral evils. It abets them, approves them, legitimizes them—and all the immoral behavior they imply.


For those who have become disillusioned during the past decade, reading The Conservative Soul may bring some hope. For those interested in politics from any point of view, The Conservative Soul is a gem of philosophical reasoning.


Steve Hopkins, December 18, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2007 issue of Executive Times


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