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The Purpose-Driven Rant: Andrew Sullivan Does Not Understand Rick Warren

Andrew Sullivan writes:

It's perhaps the most depressing fact of this campaign so far that the first major encounter between McCain and Obama will be presided over by a mega-pastor and in a church. Here's Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with the man who is taking American politics one step further away from the vision of the Founding Fathers. Take this particular piece of blather:

I believe in the separation of church and state, but I do not believe in the separation of politics from religion. Faith is simply a worldview. A person who says he puts his faith on the shelf when he's making decisions is either an idiot or a liar. It's entirely appropriate for me to ask what is their frame of reference.

The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs, is based on idiocy or lies? I wonder if Warren has ever read Locke, or Hobbes, or Machiavelli or would even understand the term secularism if it knocked him square off his pedestal.

It seems that Mr. Sullivan, a learned man with an Oxford and Harvard pedigree, does not fully grasp what Pastor Warren is in fact saying. Pastor Warren is not suggesting that the American government is not secular. He is making what should be an uncontroversial point: the secularity of the government, insofar as it is not under the authority of any extra-governmental ecclesiastical entity, cannot legitimately call itself "liberal" and "democratic" if it purposely sequesters the perspectives of religious citizens a priori simply because those perspectives are deemed "religious" by elites such as Mr. Sullivan.

Because the terms "religious" and "secular" are not adjectives that may be appropriately applied to assessing the quality of reasons and conclusions offered by citizens, these adjectives serve no purpose other than providing labels by which commentators like Mr. Sullivan can dismiss a priori any perspective they declare "religious." (Just as "brown" does not appropriately modify the number 2, "secular" and "religious" do not appropriately modify the terms "reason," "conclusion," and "argument." Those nouns are appropriately modified by terms like "true," "false," "valid," "invalid," "sound," "unsound," "strong," or "weak.")

If, for example, I offer an argument for the personhood of the unborn, and that position happens to draw its strength from a metaphysical account of the human person much more at home in a Christian worldview than a materialist one, how is any "secular" alternative made more plausible, or my view less compelling, by declaring the latter "religious"? What Pastor Warren is suggesting is that this cheap trick ought to be out of bounds in a society that calls itself liberal and democratic. But, sadly, it is not. For there are many people, including Mr. Sullivan, who believe that if you can show that a policy perspective is shaped and informed by a citizen's theological commitment it has no place in the public square. But what if, for example, someone counters my view with a policy perspective shaped by that citizen's commitment to a materialist view of persons, a view often associated with secularism and atheism? Both my view (the so-called ''religious" view) and the secularist's view answer precisely the same question: who and what are we and can we know it? Why should the latter citizen have a privileged position over the former in the public square, as Mr. Sullivan's point of view seems to suggest? It seems to me that each side should be allowed to make their best arguments without any metaphysical prior restraint. Thus, this is all that Pastor Warren is saying: everyone, including the Christian citizen, arrives at the public square with a cluster of beliefs that he or she thinks is rational and defensible. The fact that one is "religious" and the other "secular" should have no bearing on how we, the citizenry, assess their plausibility when we consider them while making policy.

Comments (20)

Its been many years since Sullivan wrote anything remotely lucid. All of his rants seem to boil down to the following syllogism:

Gay marriage is a moral imperative. Christians don't like gay marriage. Even a whiff of Christianity imperils gay marriage. That fellow has a whiff of Christianity, ergo...

It's telling that Sullivan leaps to the political theorists rather than American history and its primary documents.

If I were a British expatriate living in the U.S., I like to think I'd be reluctant to lecture Americans on what is and is not a departure from the American way of life.

Coincidentally, I have recently been reading Robert Audi's opinions on what he calls "religious arguments" (he even has a whole list of ways of dubbing an argument "religious" even when all appearances are to the contrary). I take it, Frank, from your post, that you profoundly disagree with his entire approach. So do I.

...which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs...
Distancing the truth from political affairs describes Mr. Sullivan's approach pretty lucidly. (Note that the term "absolute" adds nothing here except the postmodern implication that there is such a thing as incommensurate "my truths" and "your truths": in other words, a denial that there is any truth).

Pontius Pilate should sue modern liberals for copyright violation.

I guess I didn't realize that the entire basis of Western secular government rests on "the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs." In fact, I'm not even really sure what that means. The only interpretation I've been able to come up with is that if you happen to be one of those religious people who actually believes in absolute truth, when it comes to politics you should act as if you don't believe that. I guess this is sort of like a political counterpart to methodological naturalism in the science classroom. Call it methodological secularism in the political arena.

Can anybody explain to me why that should be what the entire basis for government rests on?

Secularists can't believe in absolute truth?

Well, I've never thought that's logically necessary, but if it is, that's a reductio of secularism!

I think, John, that the Sullivans of the world would say that's the necessary basis for government because people who believe in absolute truth think they can murder anyone who disagrees with them, so they have to set it aside, or they aren't fit to live with. Okay, maybe he wouldn't say it that starkly, but I think he believes that in his heart.

Lydia, yes, I do disagree with Robert Audi. In fact, I reviewed Audi's book a few years ago in Faith & Philosophy. You can find my review here: http://homepage.mac.com/francis.beckwith/AUDI.pdf

Like the rest of you, I find this comment by Sullivan to be incoherent: "The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs."

If he is suggesting this as a first principle, then he is offering an absolute, which makes his view self-refuting. On the other hand, the Founders' Western secular government is in fact based on several unassailable truths, including the claim that human beings have certain inalienable (absolute?) rights by nature.



"Pontius Pilate should sue modern liberals for copyright violation."

You didn't know Pontius Pilate happens to be the Patron Saint of Relativism?

Just had a chance to skim the review, Frank. Good review. There are even other things in Audi's book that are astonishingly tendentious, in my opinion. For example, he defines even an argument that is totally secular in content and force as "religious" if it has a causal etiology, as made at some time or as found persuasive at some time, that traces back to some religious belief. So, if there is a causal story behind your making the argument that includes your (or someone elses?) religious beliefs, the argument is "religious" on this historical definition, regardless of content and regardless of how strong it is. Also, he considers an argument (as actually made at a particular time) "religious" if the person is making it from a religious motivation, even if the argument itself has no religious content or conclusion and depends on no religious proposition for its force. He also insists that if one would not be motivated to pursue a policy regardless of one's religious beliefs, that is if one's secular reasons are not motivating one strongly enough by themselves, then one is not acting according to civic virue if one proposes the policy. And finally, he says that even if one can make a cogent indirect argument for a policy that "passes through religious territory"--that is, even if the religious premises themselves are fully defensible evidentially by publically accessible reasons--this is still a "religious" argument, because some citizens might not _want_ to go through "religious territory" to come to public policy conclusions.

What strikes me about all of this is that it is so _strong_. He could have written interesting material on this subject without thus giving the impression that he is straining and including highly dubious personal biases and intuitions in order to be sure that _cogent arguments_ are excluded from influencing one's policy proposals if they can be dubbed in these weird ways "religious."

Lydia, I think you may be right. They're afraid of us. Although when you think about, who should you really be more afraid of: someone who believes in moral absolutes (including "do not murder") or someone who believes there are no absolutes? But they may just be afraid that we'll outlaw all the things that they really want to do.

Wasn't it Locke who was against allowing avowed atheists to hold public office because they have no basis for ethical and moral behavior? Not that a policy like that would do any good - even Democrats "get religion" during election season.

But Zippy - Andrew Sullivan is a conservative!

He says so himself!

We need to stop letting these people refer to "secular" as if it were the absence of religion, when in point of fact it is a religion, or more specifically a theodicy. (See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory)
To use their (sophomoric) language - why do they get to impose their religion (secularism) on me?

"Like the rest of you, I find this comment by Sullivan to be incoherent: "The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs.""

Sullivan's entire argument reminds me of Richard Weaver's essays about nominalism in Ideas Have Consequences. Peculiar argument for a political philosopher to make -- that politics is "just words" distanced from "absolute truth".

Sullivan embraces a distinctly continental and 19th Century kind of liberalism that demands religion stand back from political life. It is the kind of liberalism that forbids priests to wear their clothing or have festivals in an aggressively secular nation like Mexico. The Founders never embraced "secularism" contrary to the claims of Sullivan or even aggressive neoconservatives like Victor David Hanson. It is a long road from frowning on an established Church when a multitude of Christian sects take root and demanding that we hermetically seal our religious life from our social, moral, and political life.

Off topic but I just read Mr Beckwith's recent book on abortion and wanted to send him my appreciation and a comment or two on roe vs wade. On this blog a e-mail is given but I can't access it with my computer (or knowledge of computers) nor can I access the editor of this blog.
So I thought to interfere here would do the trick.
Please could someone type this info of either address and send it to my e-mail or write here on this blog thread where I can find it. I presume this is public info.
Lord bless to you from Canada.

Mr. Byers, I will send you Frank's e-mail, the one he gives here at What's Wrong with the World, from my own e-mail. Perhaps the problem is with your copy of Outlook Express, as the e-mail addresses you mention are clickable and should come up with Outlook Express when you click on them.

This is yet another unfortunate example of Sullivan's sloppy writing (which is an indicator of sloppy thinking). The best that can made of his "absolute truths" remark is that while he accepts the self-evident (absolute!) truths of the Declaration of Independence, he follows Enlightenment liberals who tried get statesmen out from under the thumb of clerics who proclaim metaphysical truths on almost every topic under the sun in order to exert maximum influence (i.e. priestcraft).

On the other hand, it's puzzling for someone who styles himself as some sort of Burkean to be so violently hostile to political decisions being informed at least in part by long-standing religious traditions (even Locke employed religious arguments at least instrumentally for his political arguments).

Sullivan's brand of "Burkean" conservatism amounts to labeling any innovation on the part of radicals like himself the new face of "tradition," and then arguing that we cannot possibly be wise enough in our present state to oppose or roll back the latest radicalisms. It's a conservatism that seeks only to conserve revolutionary changes in society by re-casting them as the New Normal. It's deeply stupid and dishonest stuff.

Actually, the statement: "The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs." seems pretty simple to me...he states what many of us feel in our gut - that's there's not much truth in politics. :)

Because the terms "religious" and "secular" are not adjectives that may be appropriately applied to assessing the quality of reasons and conclusions offered by citizens, these adjectives serve no purpose other than providing labels by which commentators like Mr. Sullivan can dismiss a priori any perspective they declare "religious."

In The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, William T. Cavanaugh digs into this quite deeply, arguing that the whole 'secular'/​'religious' dichotomy was a construction by power, not one based on truth. A further investigation can be found in John Milbank's Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Finally, you might like USD law prof Steven D. Smith's The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse:

No one expects that anything called "reason" will dispel such pluralism by leading people to converge on a unified truth—certainly not about ultimate or cosmic matters such as "the nature of the universe" or "the end and the object of life." Indeed, unity on such matters could be achieved only by state coercion: Rawls calls this the "fact of oppression."[36] So a central function of "public reason" today is precisely to keep such matters out of public deliberation (subject to various qualifications and exceptions that Rawls conceded as his thinking developed). And citizens practice Rawlsian public reason when they refrain from invoking or acting on their "comprehensive doctrines"—that is, their deepest convictions about what is really true—and consent to work only with a scaled-down set of beliefs or methods that claim the support of an ostensible "overlapping consensus".[Political Liberalism, 133-172, 223-227] (14–15)

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