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Andrew Sullivan And Classic Liberalism, Voxplained For Ezra Klein


Vox founder Ezra Klein has taken issue with a recent column by writer Andrew Sullivan. Normally, the response to such a dispute might recall Henry Kissinger’s reaction to the Iran-Iraq War: “It’s a pity both sides can’t lose.”

Unfortunately, when Andrew Sullivan almost seems sane, you know we’re crazy. Sullivan’s column, “America’s New Religions,” argues that science, art, history, and politics cannot replace religion as a source of meaning in our lives. Along the way, he dings Klein’s creation:

The banality of the god of progress, the idea that the best life is writing explainers for Vox in order to make the world a better place, never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper. Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.

Klein claims Sullivan’s argument displays the very sort of tribalism Sullivan attacks. Yet here is Klein’s summation of that argument:

To put this more simply, Sullivan is saying that Christianity lowers the stakes of political conflict. A politics moderated by Christianity is merely procedural because the fundamental questions of human dignity have been answered elsewhere.

Absent the calming effects of Christianity, he continues, Americans look to politics to find their meaning, and that escalates the stakes of political conflict. Politics ceases to be procedural and becomes fundamental. Boundaries must be drawn and tribal membership policed. This is Sullivan’s diagnosis of our current divisions.

“To put this more simply,” Klein grossly oversimplified. Since he started from the wrong place, it’s no surprise that he wandered off into a tedious rehashing of Howard Zinn’s version of American history.

In an episode of “The Long Game” podcast, Sullivan acknowledges religion is not an unalloyed good, but adds context:

Christianity, whose doctrines of the individual salvation of the soul, and the primacy of the individual person in his or her relationship with God, is in some ways the root of liberalism. Toleration is not really something that comes along with religion in general, and it hasn’t with Christianity for many periods of time, but Locke really nailed it in that. He used Christianity to argue for toleration. He fused the two, and I think the question is whether a liberal democracy based on individual dignity and conscience from the Christian tradition can survive when its essential metaphysical architecture that holds it up has disappeared.

Sullivan is likely thinking of the philosopher John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration,” which states:

The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light …I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.

In fairness, Locke’s letter is intolerant of Catholics, “Mahometans,” and atheists. Nevertheless, as National Review writer Jonah Goldberg observes in “Suicide of the West,” Locke’s principles were transmitted to Americans by pre-Revolutionary pastors. Thomas Jefferson took those principles to their logical conclusion in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which extended freedom to all faiths.

Sullivan argued “this separation is vital for liberalism,” which Klein overlooked and thus avoided a key aspect of Sullivan’s argument. Lockean tolerance, based in Christianity, is also the foundation of post-Enlightenment politics. Requiring tolerance in the public square limits appeals to divine authority and deters dissent from being conflated with and punished as heresy.

As Max Weber observed: “Politics is the art of compromise.” Religion, generally speaking, is not. The devout do not compromise with evil.

Sullivan is not claiming that “Christianity lowers the stakes of political conflict.” Rather, he is claiming the Lockean idea of tolerance allows political conflict to replace (or separate from) religious conflict in the philosophical sense.

Also, Sullivan is arguing (as he has before) that intersectionality is a religion. A belief system that “the personal is political” is not only religious (in rejecting the private/public distinction), but also totalitarian (the less polite term for “holistic”). The implications of that sort of religious belief were aptly described by writer Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker: “It is not merely that an assault on an ideology is different from a threat made to a person; it is that it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.”

A belief that all attacks are personal and that one’s opponents invariably represent an evil with which there can be no compromise is not politics at all. It leads, as religious extremism often does, to the desire to suppress the free expression and thought of others.

Fanatical intolerance also fuels the desire to destroy institutions protecting the heretics. This is why Klein’s website promotes “The case for abolishing the Supreme Court,” and attacks the Senate and the Electoral College. Moreover, elevating group identity over the individual leads to the left’s current disregard for the presumption of innocence and other basic tenets of due process. It leads to the illiberalism Sullivan describes.

Sullivan is arguing for a small-l liberal politics built on Lockean pluralism. The left’s currently fashionable alternative is a totalitarian identitarianism wrapped in scientism––a combination recalling some of the worst chapters of the 20th century. It is a mildly depressing debate, but one necessary to win.