We're not all secularists now

barackWhen I interned at The New Republic, an editor there told me something about Andrew Sullivan that I have been turning over in my mind ever since. Sullivan doesn't care about Christianity, he said. He does care about Catholicism, but only because he grew up in the faith. For years, I failed to grasp what this editor meant. But after reading Sullivan's panegyric on behalf of Barack Obama and reflecting on it, now I do. Sullivan is a secularist. For all of his love of Catholic rituals, he rejects and, in a few instances, disdains its morality and theology, not to mention its authority. If Sullivan had reported his story thoroughly, talking to those familiar with Obama or digging through his old files, as Ryan Lizza did in a profile of Obama, his secular biases might have been tempered. But he did little more than interview Obama and refer to his two books. In consequence, Sullivan's secular worldview reduces the story to a glorified press release for the Obama campaign.

Sullivan's thesis is that only the Illinois Democratic senator can end the nation's cultural war. By dint of his uniqe background, Obama can, finally, unite the country around important issues, not those that have bogged it down for two generations.

It isn't about his policies as such; it's about his person. (Many Republicans and independents) are prepared to set their own ideological preferences to one side in favor of what Obama offers America in a critical moment in our dealings with the rest of the world. The war today matters enormously. The war of the last generation? Not so much. If you are an American who years to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today's actual problems, Obama may be your man.

Sullivan's dismissal of the culture war is more than a little suspect coming as it is from a leading advocate for normalizing homosexual relations. In any event, few religious traditionalists would agree with his assessment. Take the issue of abortion. For religious traditionalists, all human life, regardless of its quality, has intrinsic value. So the fact that more than 45 million unborn children have been aborted since 1973 is a modern-day Slaughter of the Innocents.

Sullivan's claim that Obama can transcend the culture war is partly based on the candidate's religious background. Raised in a secular humanist household, Obama converted to Christianity as an adult. From this fact, Sullivan contends that Obama can unite secular and religious Americans, who are presumed to be Christians. As he writes,

(Obama can) deploy the rhetoric of Evangelicalism while eschewing its occasional anti-intellectualism and hubristic certainty is as rare as it is exhilarating. It is both an intellectual achievement, because Obama has clearly attempted to wrestle a modern Christianity from the encumbrances and anachronisms of its past, and an American achievement, because it was forged in the only institution where conservative theology and the Democratic Party still communicate: the black church.

What Sullivan overlooks is that on cultural issues, Obama's Christian denomination is more secular than religious. The United Church of Christ supports unlimited abortion rights and homosexual marriage. As Pew notes, opposition to both is strongest among religious traditionalists.

More generally, Sullivan claims that Obama's brand of faith sits astride two great fault lines in Western life. On one side are the secular totalitarianisms of the 20th century -- fascism and communism. On the other are the existing religious totalitarianisms -- Pope Benedict's "doctrinal absolutism," "fundamentalist Protestantism," and "extreme and antimodern forms of Islam." In the middle is Obama's intellectual, genuine, and moderate faith.

This is a sly move on Sullivan's part. He has repackaged liberal Protestantism as the centrist faith of the modern world. If he were writing about the early-to-mid 20th century, his claim would be arguable. But considering the worldwide decline of mainstream Protestant churches, his claim is silly.

It's a pity. Occasionally in his rhetoric, Barack Obama does come across as a healer, not a divider. He talks of the common good as well as social and personal obligations. But from Sullivan's piece, you would never know it.

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