Voxplaining Andrew Sullivan to Ezra Klein: Liner Notes

Busy week! I have yet another new column up at The Federalist, “Andrew Sullivan And Classic Liberalism, Voxplained For Ezra Klein.” It’s about a significant debate between the Wonk and the Wanker, even if you care for neither personally.

What got left out for space? Most of what Klein had to write in his lengthy critique of Sullivan. My column is an explainer of Sullivan’s point. Klein misinterpreted it to a degree that much of his argument is not really a response to Sullivan and thus not useful in illuminating Sullivan’s argument.

Rather, Klein critiques the influence of Christianity on our history, and American history generally.  It’s a fairly typical example of so-called progressives being obsessed with looking backward through the telescope. He seems to think we became a more small-l liberal society despite Christianity, rather than because of it, even while begrudgingly conceding the history is a lot more complex than that.

Sullivan was not defending the historical record in toto; he was making the case that the Lockean take on Christianity — which incorporates religious pluralism and the separation of church and state — is what makes reason-based, post-Enlightenment politics possible. And that if we rid ourselves of that religion in favor of another, like intersectionality, the edifices built on the former ultimately collapse. 

Klein’s major mistake is failing to understand that when Sullivan is discussing religion and politics, he is considering the nature of each, rather than reducing them to historic and sociological phenomena. And it’s particularly absurd of Klein to do so when Sullivan’s column explains why this sort of argument fails, even when presented at length by Christopher Hitchens.

Moreover, while I mention Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West for a historical point, it’s also important to this debate thematically. Jonah’s argument is that the “Miracle” we are currently enjoying rests upon ideas and institutions that do not come naturally to humans, whose brains come preloaded with all sorts of tribalist software. Locke’s take on Christianity, as refined by Jefferson, is one of those key unnatural things we destroy at our peril. This is a second irony of progressivism: it is obsessed with condemning the past, but imagines a future based on pre-Enlightenment psychology won’t repeat the mistakes and horrors of that past.

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