The Corner

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Detailing Andrew Sullivan’s inconsistencies is a job for an encyclopedist. Writing about George W. Bush’s faith, in 1998, was a terrible journalistic sin; in 2006, it’s a journalistic duty. Stem-cell research that kills one-celled human embryos? Once Sullivan could think of no worse evil. The more recent Sullivan thinks it is concern about said embryos that is extreme, fanatical, etc. I’m not 100 percent sure which Sullivan will review my book, but on past form he won’t acknowledge the existence of the other one—and whichever one he is, he’ll be self-righteous and overwrought.


But there is a special kind of rhetorical ploy that Sullivan uses–a close cousin of inconsistency–that makes reading him occasionally entertaining. And that’s his habit of inventing some tiny distinction on which the future of civilization supposedly hangs. So, for example, in 1998, people who favored impeaching President Clinton and removing him from office were “puritans,” “scolds,” “moralists,” “radical theocrats,” and so on. Calling for the president to resign, on the other hand, as Sullivan did: Well, that was no big deal. Now there may have been a good argument for resignation and against impeachment—although, if there was one, Sullivan didn’t make it. (His gift, which he sometimes chooses to use, is for perceptive observation, not cogent argument.) But to write as though one were just part of normal political debate and the other a mark of dangerous extremism. . . well, that’s part of the Sullivan method.


Now Sullivan is trying, again, to defend his calling religious conservatives “Christianists.” Here’s the key passage of his piece in Time:


The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque. Not all Islamists are violent. Only a tiny few are terrorists. And I should underline that the term Christianist is in no way designed to label people on the religious right as favoring any violence at all. I mean merely by the term Christianist the view that religious faith is so important that it must also have a precise political agenda. It is the belief that religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.


But the terms aren’t at all parallel. If “Christianist” is truly to be the equivalent of “Islamist,” then it has to refer only to a tiny number of people who call themselves “Christian reconstructionists” or “theonomists”—people, that is, who think that American governments should impose Biblical law. If, on the other hand, “Christianist” is to refer to people who think abortion should be outlawed, same-sex marriage should not be accorded legal recognition, public schools should include prayer, and so forth, which is how Sullivan actually uses the term, then the parallel isn’t to “Islamists.” It’s to the vast majority of Muslims.


In one of his most recent posts, Sullivan tries to maintain that the problem isn’t the positions of the “Christianists,” but the explicitly religious arguments they make for them. The same problem obtains, since, again, the vast majority of Muslims support various policies on explicitly religious grounds. But it’s obviously not true that Sullivan objects only to social conservatives’ rhetoric. Making non-religious arguments against early-term abortion has, for example, led him to label me a “religious fundamentalist.” Here, again, we have a case of the spurious tiny distinction on which everything hangs. It’s okay for Sullivan’s opposition to the death penalty to be informed by his religious views. But the minute you take a religiously informed view that he does not share, you’re a theocrat. 


Note also that Sullivan has recently taken to asserting that these “Christianists” are not “real” Christians, or religious believers. (See, for example, here.) I have never said, and would never say, anything similar about Sullivan. I would say that he is a Christian who is seriously misguided about some things. I would also say that he is a voice for intolerance in our public life; and one who deludes himself that he is the opposite.


I predict that the word “Christianist,” if it takes off, will follow the same trajectory as “theocon.” It was invented as a polemical term of abuse, to present religious-conservative intellectuals as something more ominous than merely, well, religious-conservative intellectuals. The insinuation, popularized by Sullivan, was that these people were either theocrats or near-theocrats. Over time, the term lost its shock value. Some religious conservatives adopted it themselves, without meaning to endorse theocracy. If people who share Sullivan’s views (circa today) adopt “Christianist” more widely, it will become clear before too terribly long that it merely refers to Christians who support school prayer, oppose abortion, etc. And then Sullivan, having struck out with “theocon” and “Christianist,” will have to invent some new term.