Sometimes I Just Don’t Get Andrew Sullivan

Usually, it’s pretty easy to parse Andrew Sullivan.  He has some very good instincts — see e.g. Palin, S. and torture for two very passionately argued correct calls — and some bad ones (he appears to be innumerate, and he has shown some willingness to use real sleight of hand in arguing with science he dislikes).  Mostly, I see him as evolving the idea of a blog as something between an online review and a genial post-prandial mostly-monologue about the state of the world, and though I often swear off his work, I just as often check back in.

But in an exchange with self-described “obnoxious and flamingly anti-religious atheist” PZ Myers, he said something I truly don’t understand:

Christianity flees power as Jesus did; Christianism seeks it above everything else. And there is nothing more powerful than killing others, except for torturing them. Hence my distinction, which I make from no authority. I merely think that declaring a homeless, apolitical, non-violent hippie in first century Palestine as someone who would bless a twenty-first century terrorist militia in North America is a bit of a stretch.

I’m not going to argue doctrine or dogma here, just history.  And in this wrangle, history could not be more on PZ’s side.  What I don’t get is that there is no way, just none, that Andrew Sullivan, B.A., Oxon, MPA, Ph.D, Harvard could possibly be ignorant of that past.

That is:  Jesus may have fled power, but his followers have not, for almost the full two millenia since the death of that dangerous religious dissident in the Roman province of Judeaea.

Just to focus on that part of Christendom to which Sullivan explicitly pledges faith, it can’t be news to him that from the conversion of Constantine in 313 c.e., and the start of official tolerance of Christian worship in Roman territory, to Theodosius’ decision, seven decades later, to establish Christianity as the state religion of the empire, the church, its hierarchy, and its community of believers became an integral component of the structure of legitimacy and even adminstration for the civil power.

Flash forward to 800, and the willingness of Charlemagne to accept the right of the Pope to crown him Holy Roman Emperor, and  you promote the notion of divinity in kingship, and its corollary: that the religious potentate may exert divine authority over monarchs.  Leap again to the papacy of Gregory VII, 1073-1085, and you see the doctrine of Papal supremacy over civil rule taken to its extreme.

And so on…Popes ruled as feudal magnates; they levied armies, formed alliances and so on.  National churches embedded themselves in power structures, and everyone was afraid of the Spanish Inquisition.

The beat goes on — I’ve just been reading Francisco Goldman’s chilling The Art of Political Murder about the assassination of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi, slaughtered after shepherding a devastating report on government and military human rights abuses in his home country.  In Goldman’s telling Gerardi was the kind of man Sullivan has in mind, I think, as a leader who stands up to power rather than embracing it — but Goldman also documents the history of members of the hierarchy embracing the brutal political/military ruling powers, which is to say that people almost anyone but Sullivan would recognize as Christians enmeshed themselves in the web of power, even when it involved killing and torture.

Obviously, this isn’t to say that all those who are revered by the Church embraced the structures of power.  But for everyone of these:

There is one (or more) of these:

I don’t think this point needs a lot more words, even for so logorrheaic a writer as your humble blogger.  But the Catholic Church, as is common to major religious organizations, has from its prehistory engaged with state power.  And that embrace has extended to torture, murder and much more besides.

Again, this isn’t to deny the existence of that part of religious experience, the imitation of the model of Jesus, that Andrew Sullivan sees as the royal road to leading a good life.  It does say, though, the long record of the Church in this vail of tears includes lots of people who meet any reasonable definition of the word “Christian” and yet have performed acts and practices that Sullivan and I both see as hateful.

To define away that millennia-long element in Christian history as inauthentically part of the Christian experience is magical thinking.

I can understand why Sullivan would like to think that the tradition that gives him such a wealth of internal experience is not stained with all the brutal reality of history.  But wishing it were so cannot make it so, as I tell my nine year old almost daily.

Why does this matter?  It doesn’t really; Sullivan’s hopes and dreams aren’t my problem.  But this was an example of profoundly sloppy writing and thinking, and, though it’s still no business of mine, I’d offer him this bit of  unsolicited advice:

Be very careful.

It’s just too damn seductive to let desired conclusions dictate the facts you become willing to know.

Down that road lies the particular intellectual pathology that Sullivan himself, as it happens, has observed in former friends over and over again.

Images:  attibuted to Giotto, “St Francis’ sermon to the birds.” before 1337.

El Greco, “Portrait of the Cardinal-Inquisitor Don Fernando Niño de Guevara,” 1596-1601

Explore posts in the same categories: History, religion, Unsolicited Advice

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7 Comments on “Sometimes I Just Don’t Get Andrew Sullivan”

  1. Ian Preston Says:

    I’d parse him at his word as regarding nothing as really Christian unless it would be blessed by “a homeless, apolitical, non-violent hippie in first century Palestine.” (You can doubt, of course, how much of even the apolitical church would pass that test.) I imagine he’d say that the Church when hungry for power was failing to behave in what he’d call a truly Christian way, that only a personal faith, unpolluted by political engagement, recognises Jesus’ message. That doesn’t strike me as arising from magical thinking or historical ignorance but more from insistence on dogmatically contrary terminology. That sort of appeal to the authenticity of a particular favoured attitude seems similar to me to the semantic trick he’s playing when insisting, for instance, that only certain conservative positions count as real conservatism. Much, like you, as I often admire his blog, this is an occasional rhetorical strategy of his that I find annoying.


  2. No true Scotsman…

  3. Ted K Says:

    I still read Andrew Sullivan and still enjoy him. But trying to make logic out of his view of the world is near impossible. Here is a guy who thinks sticking your penis into another man’s rectum fits in with being Catholic. It does not nor will it ever. I am not Catholic myself–but this is just fact. It is like Kim Kardashian telling us she is a member of the Boy Scouts of America because she decided their dogma and rules have been misinterpreted. HE CAN DO AND BELIEVE ANYTHING HE WANTS, BUT HE IS NOT CATHOLIC.

    And of course his definition of Christianist vs. Christian is based upon his own subjective judgements and I would almost say “whim”. I suspect this is where the line of demarcation is between Sullivan and Tom’s above post.

    He is very good with words though.

    • Ted K Says:

      I want to add, I like the fact Andrew Sullivan is very very honest with his readers. I feel he reveals his true thoughts in the blog. This may be why he contradicts himself somewhat ideologically because I think all humans have contradictions. So I respect him a great deal for his honesty and sincerity with his readers. It is nonetheless ridiculous for him to label himself Catholic.


    • Even though I’m also not a cardinal, much less the pope, let me say that by this definition a substantial part of the hierarchy of the Catholic church is also not Catholic, a result that most thinkers would regard as reducing the definition to obvious absurdity.

  4. tdd Says:

    His protestations might be more believable if he was a quaker or something, but being a Catholic just makes his argument look silly.

    I think he just likes the dresses and hats.

  5. jre Says:

    Hah! Lovable liberal and John Quiggin beat me to it.


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