Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Andrew Sullivan’s "Crisis of Faith"

Andrew Sullivan has a BIG ARTICLE in TNR purporting to explain the fissures within the "conservative coalition." Time was, I might have expected to learn something from reading Sullivan. He was, and is, smart and learned. Time was, his energy, intelligence, and learning were not simply devoted to grinding his axes. Time was....

Here’s what we, ahem, "learn" from Sullivan. There are conservatives of faith (bad) and conservatives of doubt (good). The latter include "devout Christians who embrace a strong separation of church and state," as well as "Oakeshottian skeptics, or Randian individualists, or Burkean pragmatists, or libertarian idealists." I’m pretty sure that Sullivan studied with Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., so I’m going to interpret Sullivan’s silence. Notice who’s not included in his list of conservatives of doubt: no Jews, no Straussians, and no neo-conservatives. Of course, in contemporary demonology, all three categories overlap, so to name (or not to name) one is to name (or not to name) them all.

Interestingly enough, Sullivan doesn’t use any of these categories in discussing conservatives of faith either. The demons in that group all belong to the religious right, whose members, according to Sullivan, are sure they know the answers to all the questions and, consequently, are unwilling to "allow error to flourish--and immorality to become government policy."

These dichotomies are so oversimplied and misleading--features that might be excusable in a 600-word op-ed, but not in a 3,000+ word feature article--that I’m not sure where to begin. For the moment, I’ll pick on two aspects of Sullivan’s argument that I’m unwilling to attribute either to confusion or ignorance (I’ll leave it to my readers to decide what the cause of these problems is). First, there’s the oversimplification with respect to the opposition of faith and doubt. Everyone I know argues that faith and human fallibility are connected. In other words, a conservatism of faith leaves a good bit of room for fallibilism and for the disagreement of reasonable (and fallible) people. Yes, there are things that are certain (given by Scripture or natural law), but they are few. Of course, it may be the case that in our times, those few certainties are at the center of some people’s agendas; hence our "culture war." So to the uninformed and thoughtless (neither adjective easily applicable to Sullivan, though he may think of his audience in that way), it may APPEAR that conservatives of faith are "dogmatic" about everything. Nope. And of course anyone as well-informed as Sullivan is would also know that one can "faithfully" or "rationally" regard something as morally wrong without devoting all the resources of the state to stamp it out. There is some (fallible) prudence involved here, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in his advice to Catholic voters. So conservatives of faith are also conservatives of doubt, but not about absolutely everything.

The conservatism Sullivan prefers is problematical in other ways. Consider this pasage:

The defense of human freedom offered by conservatives of doubt, on the other hand, is founded on more accessible and less contentious arguments. Such conservatives can point to the Constitution itself as the basis of U.S. political life, and its Enlightenment concept of freedom as sturdy enough without extra-Constitutional theology. (The purpose of the Constitution was to preserve the Declaration of Independence’s right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The word "virtue" is not included in that phrase. Its omission is the single greatest innovation of the U.S. founding.) They can point to the astonishing success and durability of the U.S. experiment to buttress the notion that the Constitution is a much more stable defense of human equality than that inherent in any religion. The Constitution itself has far wider support among citizens than any theological argument. To put it another way: You don’t need an actual religion when you already have a workable civil version in place.

This line of argument comes from a man, who, a few pages earlier, was willing to deploy this contention against conservatives of faith:

[Conservatives of doubt] understand that significant critiques of human reason--Nietzsche, anyone?--have rendered the philosophical quest for self-evident truth even more precarious in the modern world.

If Nietzsche and his progeny render self-evident truths precarious and problematical, what becomes of the civil religion on which Sullivan would have us rely? If it becomes a self-conscious "article of faith" in the face of corrosive post-modern ironism, it will either wither away or become an object of weillful and passionate devotion. It will become, in other words, either an inoperative dead letter or an article of faith unchecked by any sense of human finitude and fallibility, an example of "fanatical obscurantism."

In his own terms, then, Sullivan’s sober conservatism of doubt either withers away or becomes a conservatism of faith in no way checked by any sense of a divinity who puts human beings in their place.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Andrew Sullivan once made this odd comment about Allan Bloom: "How I wish I’d had the chance to meet him - the ultimate Nietzschean conservative. The novel, Ravelstein, by Bloom’s friend, Saul Bellow, made me long to have been at some point within Bloom’s world. But hearing Kirkpatrick reminisce made it worse. " (here)here

Sullivan is right in that the Constitution is a civic Bible of sorts. What he does not consider is that there are 9 high "priests" now on the Supreme Court "divining" the meaning of the Constitution, like mullahs in Iran. These nine persons are using their interpretation of the Constitution to tell us how to live. Sullivan notes that the word "virtue" in not in the Constitution, but neither are the words "right to privacy." The secular part of America needs to be wary that they rejected one god, only to submit themselves to another one.

Janice Pavel
Attorney at law
Chicago, IL

As what Sullivan would call a ’Randian Individualist’ I am in a position to argue his allocation of us to doubt. In fact, he has to use his word (Randian) rather than the word Rand herself used: Objectivist. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is most certainly one of certainty, NOT of doubt. Thus its title of Objectivism. Granted it doesn’t neatly fit into ’faith’ either, but the construct is really about moral relativism, and in that regard, as an atheistic objectivist, I find myself with a position much closer to an evangelical Christian than either a wishy washy wannabe conservative or what Sullivan really is, at least on a basic philisophical level: a kantian so called liberal.

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