Another Perspective

In Defense of Andrew Sullivan — And Christianists

Having it both ways (and neither way).

By 6.26.06

Send to Kindle

Seizing the middle ground is a sure-fire way to lose an audience, and, in so doing, lose a debate. Compromise is cowardice these days. The major issues of our time cut cleavages so deep that the difference cannot be split. Like being pregnant, one cannot be half at war, to take one example. For that matter, one cannot half have an abortion; and along similar lines one cannot half support gay marriage or half assent to gay weddings, no matter how dedicated a federalist or an Episcopalian one strives to be.

It nonetheless feels to me entirely unsatisfactory to go whole-hog for either Andrew Sullivan's or R. Andrew Newman's position on the Gay Union Question -- in spite of and because of the fact that both Andrews succeed where the other fails. (I should mention here that I have met Sullivan once and Newman zero times, which I suspect is primarily a function of living in the same city as the first and not the second.)

Rather than the muddle of the middle, I propose we seize upon each Andrew's rhetorical extreme. There, oddly enough, their truths find their centers of gravity. What each misses about bigotry and religion the other hits like a nail. Newman portrays Sullivan as thinking that all Christianists are bigots, but Newman himself refuses to admit the possibility that any of them are. In truth of fact, we must not be afraid to admit that some Christians are bigots, even as we reiterate that the Christian religion has no monopoly on bigotry.

In short, Sullivan is right that Christianism exists. But he is wrong to imply that every Christianist is a bigot. And though Newman is wrong to ignore Christian bigotry, he is right that even Christianists are not necessarily bigots. If Christianism as Sullivan defines it is to be attacked, it must be attacked on other grounds.

Ending up with the idea that bigotry is indeed bad but Christianism may not be, we begin with Newman's description of Sullivan's attitude: "It's only that Christianists have hijacked Christianity like Islamists have hijacked Islam. Except," Newman writes, "they haven't slammed a plane into the Pentagon, leveled walls on homosexuals, stashed women in burqas, or rioted because Jesus appeared on the funny pages. But beyond that, I'm sure he has a point. Somewhere."

Alas, he does. It's posted on Sullivan's website -- often -- and here is one of its phrasings.

We have the first truly sectarian, religious administration, appealing for support on theological grounds, and relying on churches to sustain it. I find this deeply troubling both for government and for religion. If support for a president rests on his religious faith rather than a judgment of his policies, then civil, secular politics -- whether on the right or left -- is finished. Faith cannot be debated; it can merely be asserted. If it is the core basis for politics, as we see in Iraq or the Balkans or Northern Ireland, a multi-faith society ceases to function as a democracy. Conservatives, while respecting religious faith, should nonetheless strongly resist this temptation to turn politics into religion.

True to Sullivan's spirit, this thesis of his can be debated. It may be agreed or disagreed with but not disinvented. He has a complementary thesis -- that there are Christians who want to wield Christianity as a political force, and conform the rules of state to those of their religion. This thesis cannot just be debated but is certainly true. No true Christian can tolerate laws that are directly contrary to the Judeo-Christian ethic. This is something to be proud of. And certainly there are Christians who are proud to insist upon the public display of the Ten Commandments and the minting of the motto "In God We Trust" because those things reflect the expressly Christian heritage of our country. To oppose abortion because one considers it, like slavery, to be an unacceptable crime in the eyes of God is to wield one's religion as a political force. Abolitionism and, indeed, the civil rights movement are points of light in the glaring and successful American tradition of what Sullivan terms Christianism.

But Christianism, like every ism, comes in degrees. There are varyingly intense forms of Islamism. What goes in Kuwait does not go in Iran. What goes in Kuwait, indeed, didn't go this time last year: ism is not an on/off switch. There are total racists, total socialists, and total fundamentalists, and if the ruthless destruction of Trotsky is any indication it is possible, for example, to be half communist. Sullivan's definitions of Christianism could be read to exclude "soft" Christianists, but I don't think it does. Surely he speaks of a broader group than those in favor (and I have met some) of establishing a Christian monarchy.

The debate is not about an American Falange, but rather about Christians who wish to preserve the still-prevailing moral order of the United States -- by, among other things, enshrining it overtly in the Constitution. Newman is on firm ground when he switches from offense to defense; the trouble is he does so little of it. But the subtext shines through: not all Christianists, surely everyone can agree, are bigots. It is possible to hold, as an article of faith, that gay relationships are wrong enough to ban -- without having hate in your heart. It is also possible to do so, however, with a freightload of hate in your heart -- or condescension, cruelty, ignorance or anything else.

Newman does not admit these possibilities. Sullivan says quite convincingly that "I feel that my own relationship is a gift from God. I cannot alone in my conscience before God believe otherwise," and Newman's reply is that, somewhere, "Martin Luther is wishing he'd had a better intellectual property lawyer." That is not the full story, and I would challenge anyone to deny it. A Christian may despair or condemn another Christian's revelation, but he cannot make it go away. This is the lesson of two thousand years of Christian history, and it has been propelled by the raw power of faith.

The question, as I see it, is whether Christians have a spiritual duty to love all -- and beyond that, a duty to wield their faith as a political force for that universal love. I suspect I am not alone in thinking that another ism is born of the prospect that both duties exist. For this reason I acknowledge the seriousness of Sullivan's gay marriage federalism. And because I see virtue in a federalism of Christianities, I also acknowledge the seriousness of those who seek to love sinners but to hate, and outlaw, sin. There is a point at which this passion runs afoul of the Constitution, but it is not at the get-go; Prohibition suggests how successful, and how unsuccessful, Christianism can be at the national level.

But it is mistaken to think that even all Christianists feel the need for a nation under Christian law. For many, it is good enough to live in a state that prohibits behaviors at fundamental odds with their faith. Sullivan's federalism, if not his faith, can tolerate the spread of bigoted state law. And one aspect of Newman's conservatism, if not another, can tolerate the spread of Sullivan-style Christianity. This is the beauty of that old and true conservatism that allows us to see eye to eye, to take -- or leave -- one another's extremisms as we find them. It permits us whatever duties we choose but mandates for us all the indispensable freedom -- of distance.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.