Rod Dreher Argues with Andrew Sullivan So I Don’t Have To

Rod Dreher Argues with Andrew Sullivan So I Don’t Have To April 5, 2012

Every Easter, it is de rigeur for the MSM to do something to attack Christian belief. And every Sunday, Andrew Sullivan holds forth with his views on faith which more or less boil down to “Who really even knows anything about all this religion stuff anyway? But I am totally sure that Jesus would agree with me and tell the Church off when she gets in my way. Maybe I’ll go to Mass today. Or may I’ll just read the NY Times. Meh.” This is what passes for passionate engagement with issues of faith in the MSM. So naturally, this year, Newsweek hired Andrew Sullivan to write a piece how everybody needs to follow him Jesus and not the Church. In the course of it, we discover that Jesus believes and teaches what Andrew Sullivan does on absolute sexual license.

We also discover He’s apolitical. I actually agree with that, but define it differently than Sullivan. By “apolitical” I mean that Jesus, being God, isn’t much interested in submitting to earthly political agendas that defy Him and the good of the human person. These include agendas which exalt appetite above love and fruitfulness. In contrast, by “apolitical” Sullivan means that Jesus is not a Republican, but is thrilled at using the power of the state to legislate gay “marriage” and is also thrilled at creating a political culture that will allow Andrew Sullivan absolute and total sexual autonomy and license to use drugs and indulge whatever other pleasure center activities Andrew Sullivan desires.

Not coincidentally, we also discover from Sullivan that the Church is obsessed with sex on precisely those points where it differs from what Andrew Sullivan constantly perpetually harps on about concerning sex. In much the same way, I used to discover from my children that I “always” go on and on about the need to do their homework precisely at those time they want to blow it off and watch “Star Trek” reruns. In fact, I talked about nothing else. Ever. (I have since matured and found other things to talk about as their grade picked up.)

It’s uncanny how the Church–which pours forth teaching on all manner of things from war and peace, economic justice, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the nature of the Trinity, interreligous and ecumenical conversation, the philosophy of the human person, biblical studies, the arts, the sciences, and liturgical worshop–*only* talks about sex, judging from the MSM which isn’t, you know, obsessed with sex or anything.

Anyway, Rod Dreher rolls his eyes at this rather unconvincing article that is what passes for intelligent commentary on Christianity at Newsweek. Sullivan’s piece will, of course, be hailed as profound and he will courageously face the applause for the now white-whiskered assumption in our post-Protestant culture that Jesus and his Body are opposites. One can only arrive at that view by ignoring large amounts of what Jesus himself says (“He who listens to you listens to me, and he who listens to me listens to him who sent me” is but one such teaching of Jesus that doesn’t get much MSM press). But since virtually nobody saying “I think Jesus is okay, it’s his followers who have it all wrong” actually knows anything about what Jesus said or did and would be shocked if they did, that’s not surprising. Sullivan deals with this problem by the expedient of hailing Thomas Jefferson for scissoring out of the New Testament anything that gets in the way of what Andrew Sullivan wants. In a culture that takes The Da Vinci Code as sober history (while lecturing Christians on their gullibility) we should not be too surprised then that Sullivan is a prophet suitable for our age.

For me, the curious thing about the conflict between Sullivan and Dreher is that, in addition to everything else, it seems to me to illustrate something I noticed a while back about the difference between cradle Catholics and many converts. Namely, that cradles tend to approach the Church on a familial basis, while many converts approach her on a doctrinal basis. Doctrinally, Dreher (who has, in fact, left the Catholic communion over the abuse scandal and other things) is closer to the Church (and Jesus) in his understanding of consistent obedience to her moral teaching than Sullivan is. Sullivan’s preposterous Jeffersonian cut and paste job is convincing only to himself and like-minded people who just want a frisson of Faith as a cover for their narcissism.

But at the same time, Sullivan remains closer to the Church on a familial basis (i.e, ecclesially), like a son who can’t stand Mom but would never think of changing his name or disowning the family.
So it’s interesting that Sullivan, for all his hostility to the Church, can’t bring himself to leave her as Dreher has. It reminds me of Evelyn Waugh’s connection of the action in Brideshead Revisited with “The Innocence of Father Brown”:

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, a quote from the Father Brown story “The Queer Feet” is an important element of the structure and theme of the book. Father Brown speaks this line after catching a criminal, hearing his confession, and letting him go: “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” Book Three of Brideshead Revisited is called “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” and the quote acts as a metaphor for the operation of grace in the characters’ lives. They are free to wander the world according to their free will until they are ready and receptive to God’s grace, at which point He acts in their lives and effects a conversion. In the miniseries made by Granada Television adapting Brideshead, the character Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom) reads this passage aloud.

Of course, grace can work both in those who relate to the Church familially and those who relate to her doctrinally, and none of us is especially obedient to her when she gets in the way of what we want, so we are in no position to judge either man. But I find the conflict interesting.

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  • dpt

    “It’s uncanny how the Church–which pours forth teaching on all manner of things from war and peace, economic justice, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the nature of the Trinity…”

    Amen. When it comes down to it, critics of the Church are the ones who are focused on “pelvic issues.”

  • An Atheist

    I have more respect for religious people who actually buy into the doctrines of their religion (as ridiculous as I find most of said doctrines) rather than those who don’t even agree with half of it but say they’re members of the religion anyway.

    If Sullivan wants smells and bells and a pretty liturgy but also wants to be openly gay there’s a perfectly good option for him–it’s called the Episcopal Church.

    • Maiki

      I don’t think you understand Cradle Catholics at all then — no wonder, there is little analog for the Catholic Church as Church in an Atheist Western worldview. It is easy to relate to the fact of a set of doctrines you don’t agree with — the feeling is mutual. It is harder to understand the idea of a relationship being as real as an idea.

      It isn’t about the smells, bells, structure, etc. Plenty of Catholic churches have shoddy architecture, no bells, and poor music. But to quote St. Peter — “Where else shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” If the core truths are believed — that the Church is apostolic and founded by Jesus, who died to save us — there *is* nowhere to go, even if you disagree with the Church on darn near everything else. It is family.

      Christianity is not just a set of propositions — it is a relationship. The Trinity is not just about the idea of God, it is about the love of God.

      • pol

        Amen. SOMEONE here gets it!!!

    • Thomas R

      In fairness to Sullivan, who I don’t like at all so I like this article on him, there is the issue that he’s from England/Britain. For an English Catholic to become Episcopalian can have a connotation of betrayal that’s not the same as for an American Catholic. I read a story once where G. E. M. Anscombe said something hostile about John Donne for leaving his recusant family for the Anglicans. For English Catholics the Anglicans were the people who oppressed them. So it’s maybe like leaving your Mom and then moving in with a woman who used to assault her on a semi-regular basis.

      For us Episcopalians are almost just “Catholic lite” with little or no historical/cultural baggage. And I mention that because I think he got the “why not become Episcopalian question” and he kind of hinted at this issue.

      Anyway I’m getting pop-ups here so I might not return, but before I leave what I know of Sullivan I think Shea’s also right on the familial issue. Sullivan does explicitly say it’s a “home/family” to him. It’s not so much a religion for him as a culture. Although we should remember that we’re not discussing absolutes as “cradle Catholics” vary. I’m a “cradle-Catholic” myself, but my Dad is a convert and I was born in Arkansas which is one of the least Catholic states in the nation. So I have a bit more of the “it’s a doctrine” view too as do some “cradle Catholics” who sort-of left for awhile than came back. Although I admit if I came to disagree with the doctrine I think it would be harder for me to leave than it was for Dreher. (Not that Dreher’s issues, so far as I can tell, were primarily doctrinal. I think they were initially more organizational and aesthetic) It is a part of my life-history, a part of what molded me as a person.

  • Mark, I very much appreciate the balance you strike between unwavering orthodoxy and an acknowledgement that the Faith amounts to far more than a set of propositions. A lesser writer would have concluded the post (which, by the way, I very much agree with) by rhetorically casting Sullivan out of the Church.

  • I agree that the church should be apolitical – but I think the church is apolitical. When government decides to enter into doctrines on which the church has spoken for millenia (homosexuality, abortion, freedom of religious worship, etc.) as ours now does – it isn’t the church entering politics so much as it is politicians entering into religion – a place about which their ignorance is total.

    • Ted Seeber

      I don’t agree that the Church should be apolitical. It is by its very nature political. What I find interesting though, is that Dreher has as big of a blind spot for wealth as Sullivan does for gay sex, and thus I posted in Dreher’s blog:

      “You wrote “Third, aside from the prosperity gospel people, who really are a threat to the integrity of Christianity, nobody is trying to deny Christian orthodoxy and Gospel teaching on wealth. ”

      I disagree. While you’re quite correct that on the liberal side there are plenty of people inside and outside the church denying the sexual teachings, there are plenty of people inside and outside of the church trying to deny Christian Orthodoxy and the Gospel teaching on Wealth as well. Just read what Thomas E. Woods has published against the Pope’s _Caritas In Veritate_, or for that matter, the HUGE amount of money spent to keep the United States basically indentured to Wall Street.

      There is evil on both sides of the fence- The Way is very much in danger from both sides.”

  • Brent

    The dichotomy is the same in Judaism.

  • kevin

    “Maybe I’ll go to Mass today. Or may I’ll just read the NY Times. Meh.”


  • Ahhh, the “Twitch Upon a Thread” metaphor is one of the most poignant metaphors. It often gives me hope for family and friends who have left the Church . . .

  • guinevere

    I thought the article was fascinating. I’m not a theologian and I don’t have a divinity degree. Is the Jeffersonian bible real? If so, I would find it interesting. It is distasteful to me how the Evangelicals use the bible to justify some ultra conservative positions.

    • Mark Shea

      If the Jefferson Bible is fascinating, why do you condemn Evangelicals for ignoring parts of the Bible to suit their tastes? That’s all Jefferson did. If you read Scripture merely to confirm your own prejudices, why read Scripture?

      • Ted Seeber

        In fact, to me that’s the entire purpose of the Lectionary- to prevent preachers from picking and choosing their favorite verses in scripture and avoiding their favorite sins.

  • SouthCoast

    “Every Easter, it is de rigeur for the MSM to do something to attack Christian belief. ” Verily, it is so. I actually bit last night and, with hopeful, bated, breath, switched to a Nat Geo presentation on The Disciples. The first thing I saw was a group of costumed actors walking across a desolate landscape (that might have been down here in Anza-Borrego, for all I know), with a voice-over didactically declaiming how the disciples hoofed it over to Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. Or, rather, how the disciples “may or may not”, etc., there being no “historical evidence” (other than the Apostle’s own testimony, not mentioned) that this ever happened. Followed by a cut to the reptilian smirk of John Crossan. What Crossan said, I do not know. I turned it off. Same as it ever was…

    • Rosemarie


      I no longer bother watching anything about Jesus or the Bible on cable stations like Discovery, History, NatGeo, etc. I’ve seen too many in the past that were just a load of bull.

      A related thing the MSM loves to do this time of year is trot out those small fringe groups whose members crucify themselves every Good Friday. Sure, the story adds the obligatory disclaimer that the Church condemns this activity, but that doesn’t stop them from giving this bizarre little practice worldwide publicity. Talk about “If it bleeds it leads.” Forgive me if I suspect this isn’t an underhanded way to say, “Look at how weird all those Christians are!”

  • There’s a bit of a difficulty with the idea of Dreher out of the Church and Sullivan in, I believe the Pope disagrees. Both Orthodoxy (in its patriarchs) and the Papacy agree that we are one Church, Orthodox and Catholic, but grievously wounded and with impaired communion.

    Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good description of Sullivan too.

  • I will never understand how — in the face of so much evidence throughout the years, from the very men who walked with him down to the bishops they appointed — how anyone could contort Jesus’s teachings into anything more than what the deposit of faith says they are. So many people’s search for Jesus just ends up being an exercise in building an idol…

  • Frank

    I read Andrew Sullivan’s article; I didn’t like it. But I’m really puzzled why you (Mark) are describing it this way. Though Sullivan’s mostly wrong, he isn’t really wrong in the way you describe. For one thing I didn’t read anything in the essay where he asserts his understanding of sexual ethics over that of the Bible or the Church. Did I just overlook it? Can you give me a quote?

    Also, regarding the Jefferson Bible: to me it was clear that Sullivan wasn’t endorsing Jefferson’s approach; he was using it as a provocative way of saying we need to focus on Jesus’ ethical teachings. The fact that Sullivan wrote of St. Francis at such length — and put him in the same category as Jefferson — demonstrates this. Now it’s true that Jesus’ ethics can’t be separated from his identity or from the Church’s faith in him; Sullivan is wrong, at least in emphasis, to imply that it can. (Sullivan essay is not academic, so he tends to be vague about many things, which makes it impossible to say for sure whether some of the flaws in the piece are matters of doctrine or emphasis.)

    On the matter of politics, Sullivan simply does not argue for an apolitical Jesus. He argues instead for following Jesus rather than shouting “Jesus! Jesus!” in every public forum — in other words he’s attacking the abuse of religion in politics. Sure, this is mostly a Republican thing, but Democrats do it too. And the only reason Dems don’t do it more is that they haven’t found it as politically useful. But almost everyone in politics uses and abuses religion for partisan purposes. That’s what Sullivan is attacking, and he’s right to do so.

    He then goes on to advocate what he thinks is the proper role for Christian faith in politics. As far as he goes there, I’m in total agreement with him — I just don’t think you can separate that kind of ethical teaching from faith, as Sullivan does.

    But the essay doesn’t even mention gay marriage — where did you get that from? Again, did I miss something?

    To me Sullivan’s piece was just the usual bland bit of verbal artistry you see in places like Newsweek and such places — it had a few good moments (such as the stuff on Francis), but was essentially forgettable.

  • Can I see where you get the catholic church’s not only statements, but deeds? Because, while I’m a catholic, I really denounce the Vatican, it hasn’t done enough to stop the sex abuse scandals, it’s denigrating to homosexuals (though definetley not to the same degree as fundie evangelicals) and like it or not, it is to be held culpable of AIDS spread, and I’m really skeptical to every statement that makes them seem in a good light. I’m just like that.

    • With statements and deeds I mean the ones where you said “from war and peace, economic justice, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the nature of the Trinity…”