I n his new book, The Conservative Soul, Andrew Sullivan describes the awakening of the contentious debate with himself and the world when, as a precocious 11-year-old Catholic, he was sent to a school for gifted boys—an Anglican school, rather than a Catholic one. “I felt unmoored, displaced, traumatized. And in that period of insecurity, I turned what had been an effortless faith into a deliberate one,” he writes. “I became suddenly obsessed with doctrinal differences.” Then, God—he doesn’t describe the visitation in more detail—tested his faith by telling him where he could and couldn’t walk. “My pubescent obsession with avoiding cracks in the sidewalk was shadowed by my sense that evil itself was tempting me to go my own way.”
Sullivan has always gone his own way, using his rhetorical powers to clear a path. Although he’s long called himself a conservative, he’s also, in an important sense, a child of the sixties, with a complex multicultural identity (gay, Irish-Catholic, British, American, Gen X), none of which he’s ever felt the slightest inclination to give up. Juggling all of these conflicting strands has always been something of a parlor trick, an intellectual contortion that was a significant part of his cachet when he became editor of The New Republic in 1991 at age 27. His blog was one of the first with influence on the wider culture, and the medium perfectly suited Sullivan’s multifarious identity and predilection for doctrinal combat.
On its face, The Conservative Soul is a book about political apostasy. But who are the apostates? In typical table-turning fashion, Sullivan maintains that it is the fundamentalists, the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons, and especially the current administration, who have abandoned the faith, hijacked the conservative movement from the cheerfully secular Reaganites, and moved it into Jonathan Edwards territory, losing all fiscal restraint in the bargain. Sullivan offers a full taxonomy of the fundamentalist brain, its need for certainty, its reliance on natural law, its fear of the onrush of modernity. His invective is scorching, and one is happy Sullivan has turned on his former big-tent mates, but his insights mostly won’t be news to the reality-based community. He’s preaching to the converted and the unconvertible, speaking a language the fundamentalists and their allies don’t understand or at least aren’t likely to listen to (at one point, for instance, there’s a lengthy disquisition on the purpose of the penis).
In fact, Sullivan’s most interesting argument has always been with himself, the received wisdom of his Catholicism pitted against the facts of his postmodern existence. He’s concerned with his own soul and conscience, and with constructing a political world in which he can feel at home. There is the reflection of a memoir in this book, a lingering heat and passion that are the detritus of a personal struggle. Though he calls himself a Catholic, his crisis of conscience, his insistence on the primacy of his personal experience, always has a Protestant ring.
The Conservative Soul is really a kind of bildungsroman of Sullivan in the 9/11 years. For Sullivan, as for so many people, the attack on the towers was a Great Awakening, one that roused the absolutist within. On his blog, he became a poet of outrage, a fiery cheerleader for the war in Iraq, and a fierce attacker of his ideological enemies, searching for doctrinal deviation, barking loudly when he discovered it, dismissing those with whom he disagreed. But his absolutism has dissolved in the past five years—just as it had when he was a schoolboy—and the book contains a mea culpa for his excesses (“In retrospect I find the absolute certainty of my position at the time more than a little worrying,” he writes, before embarking on an exegesis of Bush’s wartime conduct that would warm Howard Dean’s heart).
The political philosophy Sullivan espouses in The Conservative Soul is chastened, based on doubt (as in, say, doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction), desiccated by design. He means to make government a dismal science, so people won’t love it too much. Tradition, he writes, using a metaphor from Michael Oakeshott, the British conservative philosopher about whom he wrote his Ph.D. thesis, is the placement of the pool balls on the table—not exactly a shining city on the hill, or even Mom and apple pie. And Sullivan largely forgoes policy prescription, leaving it up to “political actors, not writers,” in what is liable to be a very short-lived resolution.
Sullivan’s visit with Oakeshott, in Oakeshott’s cottage over a four-course meal in front of a coal fire, is like a scene out of Tolkien, a meeting with the wizard where Sullivan partakes of the sacred knowledge. Sullivan’s relentless shilling for Oakeshott makes him sound like one of those culinary devices sold on late-night TV (can Oakeshott core an apple? Yes, Oakeshott can core an apple) that seems miraculous in the salesman’s hands but that one can’t quite imagine revolutionizing one’s own kitchen.