A provocative challenge to religious conservatives has been lodged by Time magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan in his new book, “The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.” A very publicly gay, self-identified conservative and former New Republic editor, Sullivan thinks conservatism in general and the Republican Party in particular have been ruined by “fundamentalists” and “Christianists.”
Before commenting, let me explain why I put those two words between quote marks. It is because they designate not real people, but boogeymen.
In English, “fundamentalism” has a specific meaning, designating a rigid insistence that every word in the Bible be interpreted literally. I’ve known many evangelical or otherwise traditional Christians who vote Republican because they believe the Democrats to be the party of secularism.
Yet in all my political travels, I have met exactly one genuine fundamentalist Christian. They are simply not a major feature of the American religious or political landscape, as evidenced by a new study from Baylor University finding that a meager 1% of Americans say “fundamentalist” is the “best description of their religious identity.”
However when used in the media, “fundamentalist” is more like an insult word, unrelated to its dictionary definition. It means “stupid,” “obnoxious” or “backward.” “Christianist” is also an insult word, though it connotes something different, intended to remind us of “Islamist” and calling forth associations with terrorism and Iranian-style theocracy. I have never met or heard of even one contemporary conservative Christian who believes in terrorism or theocracy.
Still, apart from such derogatory labels, Sullivan does have a serious-sounding objection to religious traditionalists — most notably President Bush, a Bible-believing evangelical Christian. The objection has to do with humility.
In Sullivan’s view, what “fundamentalist” Christians, Jews and Muslims have in common is the assumption that we’ve got it all figured out. We read our holy books and assume that gives us a direct and unambiguous link to God. We have no doubt about our religious beliefs. This breeds an arrogance that, in politics, results in disasters like the president’s conduct of the Iraq war.
We must understand, however, that such “complete religious certainty is, in fact, the real blasphemy.” What’s blasphemous, argues Sullivan, is that this simple-minded fundamentalism drags God down to our pathetic human level.
As an alternative, Sullivan advocates “spiritual humility and sincere religious doubt.” For him this means, for example, doubting his own Catholic religion’s traditional teaching against homosexual behavior. Sullivan’s “is a faith that draws important distinctions between core beliefs and less vital ones — that picks and chooses between doctrines under the guidance of individual conscience.”
He is saying that when it comes to deciding on the rightness of a behavior you find exciting and fulfilling but that your religion forbids, you may consult your “individual conscience.”
Convenient, but it’s hard to see how this is morally or intellectually superior even to Sullivan’s caricature of fundamentalism. The cartoon conservative Christian consults his Bible and nothing else — which at least is a source of authority outside himself. The religious liberal consults his conscience — which is not outside himself. It is himself. He is his own ultimate authority.
That’s humility? It sounds more like arrogance.
One of the things about traditional faith that’s both difficult and exciting is that it turns from subjectivism like Sullivan’s and proposes the existence of an objective truth that’s “out there,” as the tag line from the television series “The X-Files” once put it.
This isn’t to say that the truth is easily accessible. I’ve been an Orthodox Jew for 15 years, a very imperfect one, and there is so much about my faith that I don’t understand. While being, in my opinion, the best hope we have of discovering the truth about God, Judaism is also a big, beautiful, complicated mess of a religion whose inner tensions become more fascinatingly apparent the more you learn about it.
It is in contemplating those complexities that Jews find a road to inspiration. Deliberately searching for contradictions in texts and traditions, or between them and the world around us, and seeking a path in Torah to their reconciliation, is the ancient Jewish method of religious study. We, like traditional Christians, believe our religion is true, all of it, though we may not understand how that could be so or exactly what it means. Understanding becomes a lifelong project.
Sullivan has given up the hope that his religion is true. When he finds a contradiction between tradition and experience, he jettisons tradition and appeals to himself.
What a sterile, uninspiring faith that is. No wonder religious “fundamentalists” are filling up the churches and synagogues, and the Republican Party. To wish they would all go away, or that religiously informed political movements would disband, is to misunderstand traditional faith, its nature and its appeal.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).