Monday, April 26, 2004

This is a religious war

Shortly after 9/11 (on October 7, to be exact), Andrew Sullivan penned a piece for the New York Times entitled "This is a religious war." His analysis is widely respected in some circles, and is certainly representative of a widespread viewpoint, which is why it calls for comment—especially as we are living in time of war, and a war waged against us in the name of Islam.

But before I evaluate his piece, you need to keep in mind that Sullivan is using our national tragedy as a pretext to settle old scores and advance an agenda.

For Andrew Sullivan is both a Roman Catholic and a queer activist. He would like to see his church liberalize its position on sodomy. And so he is using Islam is a stalking horse to target moral theology.

And if Sullivan is angry with his own church, which is, as a practical matter, notoriously permissive—otherwise Sullivan would have been excommunicated some years ago—you can only imagine how he feels about the conservative Evangelical community, which takes a far harder line than the wrist-slapping indulgence of Mother Church.

1. One of Sullivan's tactics is to define fundamentalism with a belief in absolute truth. In this, Sullivan is following the fashion of post-modernism. And his aim is to imply that belief in absolute truth leads logically to intolerance.

Let us admit that there's no small measure of truth in this equation. But it's a suicidal move on Sullivan's part, because Sullivan is a very moralistic immoralist who lobbies relentlessly for homosexual rights.

Yet if there were such a thing as homosexual rights, their warrant would need some notion of absolute truth. But truth is intolerant and untamable. Once you give entrance to absolute truth, it will resist domestication to a private agenda. Sullivan cannot justify queer rights without recourse to that pesky notion of truth, but what if queer rights fall on the wrong side of the truth ledger?

Sullivan is, of course, pandering to his liberal audience. The liberal view is that since all religious are either flatly false or far from having a corner on the truth, it doesn't much matter which one you believe in as long as you don't take any of them very seriously.

But if you come to the table with this attitude, then you don't know the differences because you don't think they're important, and you don't think they're important because you don't know them. This is a recipe for invincible prejudice.

2. Sullivan sets up a tension between fundamentalism and modernity. But this is very vague. What feature of modernity poses the sticking point? Is it technology? But except for the Amish, there has never been a broad fundamentalist opposition movement to modern technology.

Does he mean social morality? But every permutation of sexual practice and malpractice has been the subject of social experimentation for millennia.

Does he mean politics? If he thinks that fundamentalism equates with totalitarianism, he should read Samuel Rutherford's Lex Rex. The New England colonies were run by fundamentalists (as he would define the term), but they were not autocratic regimes. Every church member had a vote. Abraham Kuyper's tenure as Prime Minister of Holland was hardly equivalent to the Taliban or the Ayatollah Khumayni. And Calvin had to work with the town council.

What Sullivan probably has in mind is to insinuate a linkage between Medieval Muslim morality and a Medieval Muslim lifestyle, and then associate that with traditional Christian morality so that the backward lifestyle on the Taliban rubs off on the case for Christianity.

But this is a logical fallacy. It takes the form of saying that if A overlaps with B, and B overlaps with C, then A overlaps with C.

3. He warns against the danger of taking ancient texts too literally. Would he also include Euclid's Elements and Aristotle's Prior Analytics in his strictures? The problem with the Koran is not its date or import, but its moral vision.

A text means whatever it meant at the time of writing. To pretend otherwise is just a political ruse. Sullivan would feign that literalism is a flaw of Fundamentalism. This is a familiar ploy. You recast the issue from a debate over authority to a debate over exegesus. But this is disingenuous. What is Sullivan's alternative? Allegorical exegesis? Does he believe that Lev 20:13 is an allegory?

Sullivan's target is not the Koran so much as the Bible. Again, though, the meaning of Scripture is frozen in time. The only question is whether it's true or false. Scripture has a date, but Scripture is never dated. Due to divine inspiration, its morality is both timely and timeless.

Sullivan acts as if his strategy had never been tried before. But it is against this revisionary gloss that much of Islamic "fundamentalism" is directed. Muslims aren't a bunch of dummies. They can see through this sleight-of-hand. They know exactly what Muhammad meant.

3. One persistent source of equivocation is his effort to identify Islamic fundamentalism with Christian fundamentalism. And that forces him to disregard gaping historical and ideological differences.

The fallacy here is that Sullivan flies at far too high a level of abstraction. You can compare any two things if you indulge in stratospheric abstractions. You can equate Gandhi and Genghis Khan. After all, they were both politicians! You can equate Jonas Salk and Joseph Mengele. After all, they were both physicians!

He starts out by insinuating that monotheism is especially prone to intolerance. The reasoning seems to be that if you believe in only one true God, then you believe all other gods are false gods, which makes you intolerant of all other gods.

No doubt this is true, but its truth is either too trivial or too important to serve Sullivan's purpose. In the nature of the case, whenever I believe something to be true, I believe its contradictory to be false. Sullivan is no exception to law of bivalence. Nor does he wish to exempt himself. He believes that some things are true, and others are false; some things are right, and others are wrong. Why is his intolerance any better than mine?

In addition, intolerance takes many different forms. There's intellectual intolerance as well as legal intolerance. The former doesn't necessarily entail the latter.

Again, his theory flies in the face of the facts. Hasn't he every heard of Hindu nationalism? Hinduism doesn't have an orthodoxy, but it does have an orthopraxy. And, historically, Buddhist regimes are hardly beacons of political or religious freedom (e.g. Tibet, China, Japan). Yet neither Hinduism nor Buddhism, be it in their philosophical or folk forms, are conspicuous for their fanatical adherence to strict monotheism.

But to bring the matter closer to home, inasmuch as Sullivan regards himself as a Roman Catholic, is he or is he not a monotheist? And if not a monotheist, then what kind of Catholic is he? An atheist? A pantheist? A polytheist?

4. As a sodomite, Sullivan is naturally quite hostile to what Christian and Islamic traditions have to say about sodomy, not to mention the measures taken by the Taliban.

This is entirely predictable on his part. What is striking is what he leaves out of sight. To begin with, the Taliban were cracking down on the cult of pederasty among the Pashtun.

What is more, as a well-connected queer Catholic, Andrew Sullivan cannot be unaware of the homosexual subculture in the Catholic Church, resulting in the sexual abuse of thousands of underage boys.

Why does Sullivan's disapproval stop at the shoreline of pederasty? Apparently he's comfortable with this practice because the seduction of minors is a fixture of the queer lifestyle. If so, some of us would regard this, not as an argument against the OT penalties, but as an argument for their reinstatement.

At the same time, the mission of the church is always to extend an open hand to penitent sinners of every strip. And the church has a mission to criminals as well.

It also needs to be noted that what was criminal in the OT was not homosexual attraction, but homosexual behavior—just as what was criminal in the OT was not heterosexual attraction, but illicit forms of heterosexual behavior (e.g., adultery, rape). In Scripture, every sin is not a crime.

5. As expected, Sullivan has to trot out the Crusades and the Inquisition. This incessant evocation of the Crusades in the context of the current conflict is surely ironic, not to say morally blind. The Crusades were, in no small part, a counter-offensive to Islamic expansionism and militarism. Why is it that people like him can't see the parallel between the Crusades and the present war effort?

6. As to the Inquisition, I'd say the following. To begin with, Catholicism represents his chosen theological tradition, not mine.

But I would also say that this is example is endlessly paraded by opponents of Christianity without any sort of thoughtful analysis. What, exactly, is it about the Inquisition that people like Sullivan find so objectionable?

Is it the fact that the Catholic Church had doctrinal standards of membership? But that is hardly distinctive to the Catholic Church or Christendom in general. Is he opposed to ideological organizations? Is he opposed to such organizations laying down terms of membership? What if David Duke applied for membership in the Anti-Defamation League? What if Jerry Falwell applied for membership in NARAL?

Is it the fact that the Inquisition employed torture to extract confessions and recantations? Okay, I'd oppose that as well. But, historically, such methods were not limited to church courts.

Now I would grant that the Spanish Inquisition was a pretty nasty affair. I wonder, though, if it wasn't politicized and radicalized by the Islamic conquest and occupation of Spain.

But if Sullivan is so bothered by torture, why doesn't he take on the heavy-leather crowd within his own subculture? After all, sadomasochism is a fixture of the queer underworld.

7. But let's press the analysis of Catholicism a little deeper. Why is this such an authoritarian institution? Is it due to a commitment to absolute truth? I would suggest a more historical explanation. Roman Catholic polity is authoritarian because the Church of Rome came of age during the era of authoritarian civil government. Indeed, there's an obvious parallel between the Roman Imperial chain-of-command and the Roman Catholic command-structure. The Pope takes the place of the Emperor, while the episcopate takes the place of patriciate or nobilitas.

And I think that this also accounts for the iron-fisted measures by which the Roman Church used to suppress dissent. In a highly stratified society, with an emphasis on ascribed status, the lower classes are supposed to submit to their social superiors. And the laity were the equivalent of the lower classes. Indeed, the two were often coextensive.

8. The Reformation, by contrast, with its emphasis on justification by faith, the universal priesthood of believers, and the right of private judgment, introduced a note of individualism. Just taking the word of Mother Church didn't cut it anymore. Mass conversion and implicit faith didn't cut it anymore. Contrary, then, to Sullivan's broad-brush treatment, the logic of Protestant fundamentalism doesn't entail coercive measures.

9. Sullivan is naturally eager to add the so-called Wars of Religion to his multi-count indictment. But what was the source of this conflict? Was it religion, per se? Was it a grass-roots phenomenon?

Monarchs of that era felt that religious pluralism was politically destabilizing. So they tried to enforce a one church/one state policy: Cuius regio, eius religio. For most monarchs, the only creed was to back the winning horse. Such conflicts were instigated from the top-down, not the bottom-up, and for reasons of political rather than religious expediency.

10. His characterization of the "blind recourse" to a sacred text, with its "the subjection of reason and judgment and even conscience to the dictates of dogma" is, of course, a tiresome and oft-refuted caricature of pious faith. Such a depiction is, by turns, true or false depending on the religious tradition and the religious adherent.

Christianity, for one, has a tremendous apologetic tradition. We are only blind in the sense that a blind man will take the hand of a sighted man to walk his across a busy intersection. To follow divine injunctions above all else is not the subjection of reason to unreason, but the service of lower reason to higher reason.

Of course, Sullivan doesn't believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture, but if he did, there would be nothing irrational about obedience to omniscience; rather, nothing would be more irrational that disobedience to divine wisdom.

Again, it's not as though the case for God and God's word has not been made time and again. And if Sullivan doesn't believe that, in what sense is his a believing Catholic?

The simple truth of the matter is that many Christians fall into fideism because many Christians are not intellectuals. Fideism is their default setting. But the same is true of many unbelievers. Many unbelievers are not high-level thinkers, and so they fall back on secular forms of fideism.

11. Believing that abortion is murder does not entail vigilantism. There was abortion in the Roman Empire, but Christ and the Apostles did not call on Christians to resort to take up arms, even though the OT condemns abortion as murder, and classifies abortion as a capital offense (Exod 21:22-25).

Christ and the Apostles understood that, in the providence of God, the faithful are often out of power and in the minority. God has not put them in a position to forcibly leverage their will upon the unwilling masses. The logic of the Zealous is futile, for it commits him to a losing battle.

But, in time, the church was able to outlaw abortion because believers came to outnumber unbelievers—and all this by peaceful means.

Sullivan alludes to the Mosaic theocracy, but offenders were never tortured to death under the law of Moses.

12. Except for Dispensational theology, which is a mid-19 innovation, the Christian philosophy of history doesn't promote paranoia. Didn't he even read Augustine's City of God in parochial school?

13. Sullivan also has a habit of rewriting history to suit his agenda. Cromwell was not the Talib of his time and place. By the standards of the day, Cromwell was quite tolerant—much more so that Bloody Mary and Charles I. And the one and only civil war we ever had was not over religion, but nationalism.

14. The founders never erected a stark wall of separation between church and state. To begin with, Sullivan doesn't distinguish between the Pilgrim Fathers and the Founding Fathers. So he peremptorily writes off 150 years of Colonial American history. Hasn't he every read Bradford or Cotton Mather?

He tries to convert the Establishment clause into a disestablishment clause. Yet what the Establishment clause prohibits is not an established church, per se, but a national church. The Colonies had established churches before the Revolution, and they retained established churches after the Revolution. That, indeed, was the original intent of the Establishment clause—to respect the religious autonomy of the sovereign states. It was not a restriction on the states, but on the Federal government.

15. Sullivan insinuates that belief in the afterlife fuels fanaticism. But it should be unnecessary to point out that this cuts both ways. Disbelief in the afterlife can just as well lead to a reckless lifestyle. Such a person can reasonably say, "Why should I care about the future when I don't have a future? Since life is a one-shot deal, I'm going to grab whatever I can get my hands on, and by whatever means!"

Indeed, the stereotypical criticism, a la Gibbon, is that Christians were too heavenly-minded for any earthly use. Despising the world, they had no stake in the world. They had no sense of civic duty, of the old Roman virtues.

I cite this to show that armchair reasoning can take an ethical premise is all sorts of opposing directions that have little or no contact with the facts on the ground.

Again, I can imagine an unbeliever mounting a contrary argument. In a life without an afterlife, there's no margin for error, for there's no compensation in the world to come. Hence, there's no room for secular dissent. In fact, there are unbelievers who reason that very way.

Coming from a self-styled Catholic, his attack on the afterlife is a little puzzling. As a Roman Catholic, does he or does he not believe in the afterlife? If so, has this led him to persecute unbelievers? If not, in what sense is he a believing Catholic?

16. Having tarred "fundamentalism" with his sloppy, sopping wet brush, he then admits that secular ideologies like Marxism and National Socialism can be just as tyrannical. So his original thesis dies the death of a thousand caveats.


  1. your use of the term "queer activist" makes you sound ignorant you bastard

  2. Your whole case falls when you use phrases like "because the seduction of minors is a fixture of the queer lifestyle". Where is your proof that this is the case. What you are trying to do is to tar everyone with the same brush. Admittedly there are homosexuals for whom minors are an attraction, but then so are there heterosexuals for whom minors are an attraction but no one goes around saying that "seduction of minors is a fixture of the heterosexual lifestyle" because everyone is aware that pederasty is part of the make-up of only a small proportion of heterosexuals. The same is true of homosexuals - most of whom have no interest in pederasty. Your use of the term 'lifestyle' also shows your own true colours. Very few people would use the term 'lifestyle' to describe the natual behaviour of heterosexuals. Faced with the attitude of most of society who would willingly choose to be homosexual? Only if being homosexual is a deliberate choice would it be fair to describe the interpersonal relationships of homosexuals as a 'lifestyle'. For all but a very few homosexuals their attraction to their own sex is something over which they have no control. If you believe that we are made in the image of God then, looking around this earth, you have to accept that he has some very diverse physical images, in skin colour, hair colour, height, width, facial features ... etc etc, so why can't you accept that differences of sexuality were also one of the ways in which God planned for a very diverse human nature.