Busted: Andrew Sullivan
Faith, doubt and the midterm elections. A conversation with the author of The Conservative Soul.
I was a Catholic in a Protestant country.
I was a gay boy in the Catholic church.
I’m now an immigrant English person who came and made his life in America.
I’m a conservative at war with the Republican party.
Ahhh…and you thought your life was complicated?
As the quote above makes clear, Andrew Sullivan resists easy categorization. Ever since rising to prominence in the early 90s as the outspoken editor of The New Republic, the author/pundit/blogger/public intellectual has been a provocative voice in the rough and tumble arena of political, cultural and religious thought.
In his essays for Time or the constant commentary he publishes on his enormously popular blog “The Daily Dish” or even on his frequent appearances on NBC’s “Chris Matthews’ Show” or HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher, ” Sullivan’s analysis of any number of issues in the public square is typically rigorous and highly intelligent. In a soundbite society, his wit and self-deprecation have made him a rare figure who manages to be equally comfortable—and credible—on CNN as he is on “The Colbert Report.”
But where Sullivan differs most from his colleagues in our ever-expanding punditocracy is in his ability to openly doubt his own judgements and actions. (Try imagining Pat Buchanan doing the same…Ok, you can stop now. I know, it hurts.)
While Sullivan has no problem passionately stating his opinons—usually conservative—the Harvard PhD is disarmingly revealing in his new book The Conservative Soul:
Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. In it he speaks candidly about the the frightening fundamentalist tone that characterizes the decision making, policies and governing philosophy of the Bush administration and his own misguided support for the President during much of his first term. Though some critics have made the case that Sullivan uses the term “fundamentalist” indiscriminately, The Conservative Soul makes a compelling case that this administration—with it’s huge deficits and interventionist foreign policies—is the antithesis of true conservatism.
But Sullivan’s focus is not simply on politics. He fixes a skeptical eye on himself as well as the Catholic Church he has loved, and struggled to find a home in, all his life. Ultimately, The Conservative Soul‘s greatest achievement is its ability to speak about conscience, truth, faith…soul in a way that makes sense wherever one stands on the political spectrum. Perhaps that is why Sullivan—who we’ve long wanted to speak with—is such an appropriate interview subject for BustedHalo.
BustedHalo: In addition to articulating what true conservatism actually means, your new book, The Conservative Soul also focuses on your own mistakes and misjudgments regarding the war in Iraq and the Bush administration. There’s almost a confessional quality to it. Was it difficult to scrutinize yourself so publicly?
Andrew Sullivan: You can tell I’m a Catholic. (laughter) Well the decisions that a pundit or blogger makes, the arguments he makes, as long as they are made in good faith, and mine were, can be subsequently understood as errors as long as you acknowledge the errors. But in this case the errors have led to horrible deaths in ways that I never foresaw but should have foreseen. And I’m not just talking about the terrible deaths and casualties and wounds, which we are also forgetting with these casualty numbers of American soldiers coming back with these terrible injuries. But I also mean the Iraqi civilians who trusted us to secure their country and whom we betrayed again. We betrayed them in ’91 and we’ve betrayed them now. And all I can say is that I generally feel remorse for having played any part in that decision. And I feel it incumbent upon myself to explain where I screwed up, what I misunderstood, and also not to drop it all onto Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Yes, I think a lot of it is their fault and I didn’t have my own CIA and I believe they are probably in the argument. But, in retrospect, I should have been more skeptical of what kind of people they were. So I’m desperately trying to learn the right lessons from it.
BH: What has it been like to talk about these issues to live audiences on your book tour?
AS: Well it’s very painful. But, I must say, I came back from the tour feeling extraordinarily uplifted by the response of people. Americans are a forgiving people and I think we all can forgive one another for mistakes we made as long as we take responsibility for them and acknowledge them and as long as one opens a dialogue up with sincerity. To tell you the truth, I think the blog, as a form, helps that because by it’s very nature it is provisional and constantly changing. So it actually facilitates the kind of discourse we are talking about in a way that a column that pronounces the truth once a week can’t do. Secondly, I have to also say, I think my own struggle with my faith for 20 to 30 years now around the question of my sexual orientation and also around the general question of where the church has been going in my life time. I was a child of Vatican II. I was born the same year as Vatican II, 1963. So in some ways, my whole life is lived within the post-second council Church. And I think we’ve also seen that these councils happen but the Church is an amorphous and dynamic entity and it also has evolved and it needs to be more honest about the terrible crimes that have been committed. I think ordinary Catholics as well, need to reexamine its doctrines and politics. I see a lot of lay Catholics doing this in their lives but the hierarchy has tried to squelch that journey the people need to take. And as you know, I don’t think doubt is an impediment to faith. I think it can be a part of a faith journey.
BH: One of the insights that I like best in the book is how doubt is not an impediment in the least, but an organic and integral part of faith. As you describe it, the way fundamentalists try to expunge any sense of doubt is not really faith or belief at all.
AS: It’s funny, on the tour I actually came back to the fact that on the cross itself Jesus’ last words were almost, because we are told that his last words are ‘it is accomplished’ or ‘it is finished’ depending on the translation, but even Jesus, at the very end, doubts, ‘My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?’ And even He, at the moment of greatest power and sacrifice in a way doubted that His father had abandoned him. So to think of Christianity as a religion that knows no doubt, that doesn’t find strength in doubt when we see our Lord Himself doubting all along. That’s His humanity. That’s what makes the Gospel so gripping. We’re not reading a story of God as such. We are reading a story of God made man which is what gives it tension. And that’s why the tension between faith and doubt in one’s own faith is itself the faith. The book is multi-layered. In a way, it’s a political book. But really, deep down, it’s a religious book. But at the same time I think the two are connected because I do think our politics have become connected with religion in the wrong way.
BH: It seems to me that your book is finding a lot of common ground. I’ve been seeing a lot of people on your blog lately saying, ‘I’m a liberal but I had no idea I would agree with you so much.’
AS: Well I think what we used to fight about was big government/small government, high taxes/low taxes, those kind of things. I reminded people on those issues, I still am a conservative. But on the fundamental issues of freedom of conscience and of not abusing faith in a political context, I think we can all agree on that. And we can all agree, for example, that torture is a moral evil and that this is not something that we can avoid debating. This is something that we have to confront as Christians in our culture done in our name by our governments. I can’t believe we even have to discuss this but we do.
BH: This passionate engagement with doubt that is at the core of both your politics and faith is a provocative concept but I imagine it’s also a difficult sell.
AS: It is a difficult sell. When I actually explain what I’m talking about people get it. But it’s not a soundbite and the book is not…I mean my favorite review so far is someone saying, ‘If you like books by Anne Coulter, you are not going to like this book.’ Because it’s not a book where I know the truth. It’s a book where none of us know the truth but the desire to find it is where we come together. If we had not been chastened by the last few years of the country and if our church has not been chastened by the [sex abuse] revelations of the last few years then there is something wrong with us. We have not listened to the stories of the people who were abused by this church. We have not listened to or observed events that have unraveled in Iraq. We are not listening to the world as it is and we cannot move forward until we have addressed these questions and done so with painful honesty. And the painful truth about my church is that it has been complicit with some terrible things over the last couple of generations as far as we know. But heaven knows just how far back it went. I mean the abuse of power. And I say this as someone who, myself, has had nothing but truly wonderful experiences with priests and the Church and my own experience growing up in the Church was a very positive one. And I’m very sensitive to the fact that a lot of good people may be smeared in this process that had nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, we have to hold the Church accountable for its crimes and its sins. The fact is, I don’t think that even now we have done so.
BH: But how would this sense of doubt translate into the political and religious spheres? What would it look like?
AS: Well, pastorally, we as Catholics have this fantastic advantage of the sacraments. The sacraments we can perform and speak and engage in. And they themselves transform us. There are many times, I’m sure, that many Catholics have gone to mass and have felt nothing. There have been many times when we have gone through the motions and wondered why we are there. And there have been other times when we have been overwhelmed with how wonderful it is and how calming [communion] can be and everything in between. But as Catholics, we just do it.
The ritual and the sacraments we can come back to and repeat and repeat, even when we don’t quite understand them. So for us, this theological certitude at all moments is not necessary to keep going as Catholics. We can continue on our faith journey knowing that it is always a struggle, and knowing that we are going to fail but not give in. And by that, I don’t just mean moral failure in what we do, but spiritual failure in belief. I mean, do we really believe? When we say the creed each Sunday, do we really believe all that or have we become numb to it now? What does it mean to believe these things? It’s easy to say things, it’s hard to internalize them. And the process of actually examining our consciences and our faith, and seeing whether or not it is reasonable in certain contexts…Some of it will never be reasonable. It is not reasonable that a man would rise from the dead. That’s where our acceptance of mystery must come in.
But there are other doctrines that the Church teaches on a variety of questions—whether it be capital punishment or abortion or the end of life issues which I deal with in the book—they can be and must be subject to reasoned arguments and inspection. An unexamined faith is not worth having it seems to me. That is not something that we should be afraid of. I fear that the hierarchy has become afraid of it because I think they got panicked by the Second Council and what happened afterwards, and the thought that they were losing authority and losing control. And one can understand that. But, at the same time, I think there comes a point where one would have to say, ‘Maybe they need a little more humility in letting go a bit and opening a respectful dialogue within the Church about some of these questions, which are open to legitimate faithful discussions.
In my book, when I write about, for example, what sexuality is about, I don’t think I’m dismissing what the Church is saying. I’m asking really whether it fully makes sense on its own terms and how the Church itself has changed. It changed on end of life issues. It became much more rigid than it once was. As I point out in the book, it has changed on even the abortion issue and it’s become much more rigid than it once was. Actually, on the sexual orientation issue, it has changed and changed back. In 1975, it seemed to be genuinely wrestling with the question here and the way in which our new understanding of who gay people are should inform what we teach about them. And yet now, I really grapple with that question of sexual orientation and I do so within the context of the Church and its arguments. I’m not coming at it from outside. I’m actually saying, ‘O.K. let’s take natural law and let’s think it through.’ And that is what the book tries to do as well.
BH: One of the things that is intriguing about your approach is that—whether it’s conservativism or the Catholic Church—you are constantly trying to change institutions or movements from within.
AS: I don’t think there is anywhere except from within. I don’t think, for example, we would have a doctrine at all if the Church as a human institution had not survived through the centuries of time. And even our Bible, even our New Testament, we get it because some Irish monks copied it down at some point. We are all culturally embedded and historically embedded as human beings. So, therefore, everything is from within. These arguments are constantly within us, within our own traditions, which is why, for example, I’ve been very clear that I’m not sure that Catholicism has within its own resources the ability to say how the sacrament of marriage for gay couples. I think that may be completely beyond its current resources. It may have to come up with some other way of understanding gay people but it can’t do that. The way it has constructed its own theology makes that impossible. But that is a different argument, a civil argument. But yes, I don’t know any other way to be. I think it might a little bit about my biography because I’ve been slightly displaced from where I am. I mean I was a Catholic in a Protestant country. I was a gay boy in a Catholic church. I’m now an immigrant English person who came and made his life in America. I’m a conservative at war with the Republican party.
BH: Did you ever think you might actually enjoy this sense of displacement?
AS: I think you could put it this way: I don’t know whether I like it or dislike it. It has given me a lot of pain and a lot of strife in my life, but why not turn it into good ends? Why not use my own experience of being forced to think things through? I had no choice, why not turn it into something that other people can relate to? That is what I really feel. I feel that really we all have ministries in different ways. And we all have different talents and we all are thrown into situations. What matters is what we make of them. My mother very much insisted on the parable of the talents. What you have been given, you have a moral obligation to use for good as best you can. And if you haven’t, if you fail to do that, or if you make mistakes in doing that—which you will—all you can do is try and be honest and self-correct. No one is going to come out of the blue to give you everything. Peoples’ lives have to change from within.
BH: The self-correction sounds like it would be a great lesson for many people in Washington if they could do it in their own right.
AS: Well yeah, but there are also a lot of decent people in Washington and I think lots of good people. Unfortunately, few of them are in politics.
BH: You have been encouraging people to vote for Democrats on your blog. You’ve also been out and about on the talk-show circuit with the elections coming up, what is your feeling of the mood of the country?
AS: I’ve been asking for people to vote for Democrats or abstain unless they have a Republican senator or congressman whom they really think is terrific. This is not a national election in that sense. I really think we need to send a message that what is going on has to stop and it has to be corrected because I think they have completely lost perspective and they have abused the powers that they have been granted by the public.
BH: Do you think those folks who doggedly supported President Bush in 2004—despite the revelations about the mistakes in Iraq—have changed their minds about the Republicans?
AS: My sense is yes. On the tour, I sense a huge shift but I don’t know whether or not that is a dillusion because my audience is self-selecting. One of the things about the conservativism of doubt is realizing that you may only be seeing part of the reality. Part of the reality that I’ve seen suggests that we are going to have a landslide against the Republicans, but, that’s just a partial reality I see. But we’ll see, I may be wrong. I may not know that they have this brilliant turnout. I may be wrong that some of these people will still follow this man into the abyss if need be. So I have to say that provisionally.
BH: Some of the criticism of the book has been focused on whether you still believe in objective truth and that you have become a relativist of late. How do you respond to that?
AS: I specifically address that in the book. On the contrary, I am specifically not a relativist. I absolutely believe there is one God and there is one truth but I think the nature of our humanness is that we see through a glass darkly and therefore just to say that we cannot see the truth doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There is a huge difference between skepticism and relativism. And I think all I’m asking for is a return to more skepticism, not complete skepticism about everything, but more skepticism that we have had. For goodness sake, just the assertion of authority within the Church or these Manichean absolutes in politics have obviously not been the answer. They are not the answer. So we have to find another way of having dialogues and discoursing and thinking. And what I’ve tried to do in the book is return to those very basic fundamentals.
BH: Was Abu Ghraib your conversion moment as far as the war in Iraq and George Bush was concerned?
AS: Yeah. I think it was building. I was confused as to why there were not more troops going into Iraq. But I saw [Abu Ghraib] and then was asked by the New York Times to review all the documentation and could see—as any objective person will see—a direct line from the president’s own office to those abuses. In that sense, there are things I do know. I do know that torture is wrong. But nevertheless, I think that understanding what torture is and debating that and subjecting my own positions to scrutiny is part of the process.
BH: You began your career on the conventional print media side and now you’ve got one of the most popular blogs in the world. What do you see as the future of the blog and how is your relationship with a huge media behemoth, Time magazine, worked out?
AS: So far, it has worked out amazingly well. They haven’t touched me and they have given me this wonderful platform. And they have also provided the infrastructure to make it work like video and photographs and readership. My readership has doubled in the last year. There are many more things to come. I have all sorts of ideas about things to do with this and how to take it to a different level, a newer level: interactivity, media, video. We are all going to have our own TV channels soon. We already do. Youtube has revolutionized that. But I’m also very keen that the point of a blog is a very personal thing so that people really feel that they are relating to a human being, not some entity or corporation. And I’ve reached a point now just in terms of scale in which that very personal relationship is becoming difficult without some help. So what we are trying to figure out now is how to keep the blog as personal as possible while handling it at the kind of level it is at. And we’ll figure it out. I’ve learned from this whole process, by the way—and again it’s part of my general philosophy—I try to let the internet tell me what it wants to do. I think that at first, when people started using the internet, it was like when TV first started and they put radio shows on television. They had a whole panel of people talking into microphones. They didn’t know anything else. And the blog form has emerged as a dominant mode for good reason because I think it takes advantage of the medium more than almost any other way writing on the web. But it’s a different kind of writing.
BH: If we are all going to be broadcasting at some point will anybody be receiving? How do you think this atomization is going to affect our already-strained sense of common ground in the US?
AS: I think that as long as a blog can appeal to different people with different views, as I try to do, and as long as it self-corrects, then I think it is not necessarily polarizing. It can be polarizing but all technology can be. I’ve been doing it now for six years which makes me prehistoric but at the same time, I feel like every day it is changing. And unless you are constantly alert to those changes, your blog will die. But also, I really feel that if you are a public thinker or intellectual, it’s a fantastic resource to be able to think out loud in this way and to reach so many people. I’ve seen it on both sides. I edited a weekly magazine on paper that we had to publish every week and send out to 100,000 people. Well, I reach the same number of people everyday now on my blog that I did every week at The New Republic. That’s amazing. And I have no overhead in terms of office or staff. So, I’m just still amazed at my good fortune.
BH: How do think it will ultimately change the traditional media industry?
AS: I have no idea. I can only believe that more freedom and more input and more power for readers and writers is a good thing. I see no reason why disabling the owners and corporations who really control media is bad. I mean, if you want to be a writer, you have to suck up to some editor and publisher. I spent five years fighting the owner of the magazine and other editors just to do what I do. That’s part of the process. Let alone, I would say 40% of my time was cutting things to fit on a piece of paper. To have that gone is just fantastic.
BH: But I would also argue that on some levels the editorial process can be helpful for getting it better.
AS: Yes. That’s why the readers have to be my editors. If I really screw up, they have to correct me. And if that means a little bit of public humiliation every now and then, that’s the price you have to pay for no editor. Also sometimes the editor doesn’t save you from humiliating yourself either. But I think once you let go of that humiliation and fear, and a lot of what my book is about is letting go of fear, and part of letting go of fear of God. I think fear keeps us from the love of God. We are afraid that He loves us. It would be too much for us to bear, to really experience the full love of God. So we protect ourselves from it.
BH: As a gay man who is HIV positive in the Catholic Church, it sounds like you probably have an interesting perspective and a personal connection to that sense of fear.
AS: Well I’ve felt fear so profoundly. My second book, Love Undetectable, is really about coming through that fear and understanding that you just have to let go and let God. And I don’t think that any of my writings would be the way they are were it not for that, confronting my own mortality and the mortality of my loved ones so early. I think all of my faith and all of my writing is affected by that understanding. I was not supposed to be alive right now. I was supposed to be dead. And you either accept that as a liberating gift or you buckle under. And I felt God trying to tell me, ‘Don’t. Happiness is an option and love is an option.’
BH: That’s an enormous gift to have been given that.
AS: Well I think that many other people have been given these things. I feel very grateful, in some awful way, to have been told very young when I was the “It” thing for a while, and be shaken at the height of that by God and told, ‘You could die tomorrow. Don’t forget what matters. Listen to me.’
BH: How do you remain in an institution that a lot of gay people believe has been hostile to their presence?
AS: Well, for a while I couldn’t. I had to leave for a while. And I can’t say that I go as regularly as I used to. I mean it used to be every Sunday without fail that I would go to mass. And then the Church child abuse crisis hit and I couldn’t go anymore. I have slowly gone back more and more. And of course, your faith life is not only in the actual church building. It’s among the people you love and you meet. So I’ll explain it this way. I really don’t have much of a choice. I’m a Catholic, grew up one. And not only that, I don’t have a choice about my faith in God. It’s there. It won’t let me go. The only real choice that I have ever faced in my faith life is not whether God existed or not, which I have never doubted, but whether He was evil or not. That’s the big question.
BH: During the AIDS crisis?
AS: During the AIDS crisis. I write about it in Love Undetectable, that was my real spiritual crisis. Was good really triumphant? Did He really rise? If He did, did He really win? Does love win? And that is what I had to ask myself. And I think that other people in different circumstances are forced to ask that question. And my answer is yes. And that is called faith. And they can throw any doctrine at you or trip you up, but that is what faith is. It’s yes. And that’s all it is, really, in the end. And it’s all Jesus asks.
BH: What are you interested in writing about next?
AS: I’m wrestling with a couple of questions, but right now I’m so tired. Don’t hold me to this because I may not have the energy, but I’m thinking of writing a short book with three words in the title, Against All Torture because I think that although people think they know why torture is wrong, I don’t think they thought deeply enough about why it really is one of the greatest evils.
BH: All torture of humans alone?
AS: Well I’m also very interested in animals. That’s another question that I find increasingly hard to grapple with in my own life. I think I’m living a lie. Matthew Scully’s book, Dominion, is a beautiful book. If you haven’t read it, I really recommend it. It’s a spiritual book about our obligation to the planet and to the Earth and to our fellow creatures as Christians. I think that maybe one day in the future, they will look back at our hog farms and see something really quite appalling about our culture. I’m not an animal rights extremist but I am troubled morally by that phenomenon.
BH: Should the government, or the Church for that matter, get involved in those sort of issues?
We do have standards of treatment. So yes, there has to be when we are dealing with stuff like that and I do believe government has a role in that just as government has a role in stopping people from raping other people or abusing their children even. Yes, there are limits to liberty when it affects other people. Now the question is, what moral standing do animals have? And what basis do we put that on? And as a Christian I look back to St. Francis. What was he saying? And nature, our obligation to the planet, which seems to be another crisis emerging. So, to answer your question, I have no idea. I am in a process of evolution and right now, I’m in a process of exhaustion. I hope to continue the blog and am in the process of negotiating a new year. The contract with Time ends on December 31. So we are now renegotiating what we are doing. It’s the first time an independent blogger has come to an arrangement with a mega corporation, so we are in completely virgin territory. We are pioneering this stuff as we go. And I’ve had a wonderful time with them. I have no reason to believe I won’t continue but we have to figure out where we take this next, whether I’m going to get an assistant or how much video to use, all sorts of things. But I don’t know. I have no idea. The great T.S. Eliot quote is, ‘We will not see from exploration. At the end of our exploring we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ That’s Eliot.
BH: It’s fitting that our conversation has gone from your experience as a British writer who has adopted the United States to Elliot who was the Anglophile American writing from England. So, once again you’re moving forward despite your doubt.
AS: There’s great phrase from [twentieth century British political philosopher] Michael Oakeshott, ‘the pursuit of intimations.’ That’s the title of my Ph.D dissertation, Intimations Pursued. That’s how you navigate life from within an existing tradition, from pursuing the intimations that are already there.