My Happy New Year to Andrew Sullivan

There are few public intellectuals whose writing I admire more than I admire Andrew Sullivan’s; and few who are more likely to drive me nuts. In the positive, hopeful spirit appropriate to the arrival of a new year, let me say something about what drives me nuts.

Most of the time, you would be hard-pressed to find someone more reasonable and fair-minded towards his opponents than Andrew, but every now and then someone crosses an invisible line, and then Andrew’s kindly Dr. Jekyll immediately gives way, without any intermediary stages, to Mr. Hyde. This happened a year ago, for instance, with Jonah Goldberg: see this. I don’t think Andrew’s tone towards Jonah has veered from the contemptuous since then — though I must say that on some issues I very much agree with him against Jonah.

(I don’t know either of these man, but it seems that everyone calls them by their first names, so I will too.)

But most of the people who have crossed Andrew’s invisible Hyde line are his fellow Christians, and when they do cross that line he, generally speaking, stops arguing with them and starts calling them “fundamentalists” and — his favorite term of abuse — “Christianists.” Now, given that the issue at stake is almost always sexuality, it’s easy to understand Andrew’s frustration. Plus, many conservative Christians are even more contemptuous of Andrew than he is of them, which is especially sad given the care and seriousness with which Andrew has made many of his arguments about Christianity and sexuality. So I get Andrew’s impatience, and probably wouldn’t be any more patient if I were in his shoes. But still, the problem with the habit of dismissing people with a single contemptuous word is that it’s an addictive habit, and it gets easier and easier to wave away more and more people, on an ever-wider range of issues, with the same dismissive gesture.

So, for instance, today Andrew quotes one Mark Dever, writing in Christianity Today, who says of evangelism, “It's important to understand that the message you are sharing is not merely an opinion but a fact.” After the reading the whole article, I think Dever’s point is simply that Christians are supposed to act as though Christianity is actually true, not something which they have a mild inclination to credit. A reasonable point, I think, though I wouldn’t have put it in the way he does. (“Fact” is not a helpful word in such a context.) But Andrew simply calls this “the voice of fundamentalism” and sneers, “No need to apologize for insisting on your version of the truth.” And that’s it.

Andrew’s standard line on fundamentalism is that it’s marked by an unwarranted certainty, a failure of (pardon my French) epistemological humility. But look: also today Andrew responds to Mike Huckabee’s opposition to gay marriage in this way: “It is the antithesis of the Gospels, where Jesus clearly and unequivocally preached solidarity with every human being and championed and embraced the socially marginalized as the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.” Now tell me this: Is Andrew’s understanding of the Christian Gospel any more tentative, skeptical, or humble than that of the guy from Christianity Today that he mocks? Does he any more than Mark Dever think that his view is merely an opinion, merely “his version of the truth”? Of course not. (And I would add: nor should he.)

There are significant differences between Andrew and most Christian conservatives, but those differences don’t have anything to do with different theories of knowledge. On the things he most cares about, Andrew isn’t any more skeptical — any more Oakeshottian — than Christians he despises. Their differences don’t involve the manner in which ideas are held; they involve the actual substance of beliefs. So I’d love for Andrew to make a New Year’s resolution: to develop a scale of disagreement, instead of simply writing people off once they cross that invisible line; to (this is putting the same point in another way) respond to people’s actual ideas rather than caricaturing them with simplistic all-purpose terms of abuse. Given his great (and well-earned) influence, he could provide a real service to his readers and to the public sphere by abandoning this one bad habit.