Andrew Sullivan’s Ghost of Liberalism Present

Andrew Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny. But his Christianity is too beholden to modern gods.

In his final moments with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge sees a young boy and girl, whose monstrous, “wolfish” appearance terrifies him. The ghost explains that the boy and girl are Ignorance and Want, and without transformation of society’s attitude toward the poor, they will be doomed to a desperate fate. “Have they no refuge or resource,” asks Scrooge. The ghost then quotes Ebenezer’s own words from the opening chapter back at him: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” The ghost vanishes, and Scrooge is left alone, condemned and exposed.

A Christmas Carol is a story about a man who gets a rare mercy: A chance to see himself and the world as both truly are. The story is an evergreen classic precisely because it narrates a fundamental human experience of understanding. For we creatures who look in a glass darkly, to see the true end of our ideas and actions is a kind of personal eschaton. Mostly, we expect to be justified, and are shocked when we aren’t.

I wonder if some ghosts have been haunting Andrew Sullivan lately. His latest essay on the way Americans have replaced religion with politics reads like someone trying very hard to see the world as it really is, but lamentably turning his eyes to the wrong place at the most crucial times. While reading it, I wanted to join the Ghost of Christmas Present and scream at Sullivan, “O Man! Look here!” The problem for Sullivan is that I would be pointing at him.

Sullivan laments the thinning out of organized religion in American life. “We are a meaning-seeking species,” he writes, and meaning cannot come from material wealth or scientific conquest. In lieu of the meaning-bestowing propositions and practices of Christianity, Sullivan fears that Americans are juicing their sense of transcendence out of politics and tribalism. This could be thought of, Sullivan argues, as the conclusion of (classical) liberalism-for-liberalism’s-sake:

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.

That’s an outstanding final sentence, and gets to the heart, I think, of how American life has transformed in the past 30 years. The postwar solidarity that was the unseen casket next to George H.W. Bush’s this past week was a solidarity bought and paid for, in a real sense, by American Christianity. Cultural Christianity is a major problem for believers who take the euangelion literally and not just liturgically, but it does bestow certain benefits. What Sullivan rightly fears is the emerging anti-solidarity generation, an American era without shared religious experiences or thought-forms, that transfers the metaphors of sin, judgment, and salvation from the spiritual to the social. There’s good reason to be afraid of that era, and writers like Sullivan, Marilynne Robinson, and Jordan Peterson are not speaking to the whirlwind when they warn us that politically conscious secularism may be costing us something we won’t be able to get back.

But Sullivan’s prophetic mantle is a bit too see-through. Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny, even as he’s spent the better part of his public life rigorously advocating for a Christianity that reinvents itself in the image of modern gods. For years Sullivan was one of the most influential and impassioned advocates of legal same-sex marriage, and his “conservative case” for radically redefining matrimony drew extensively on his progressive Catholic sensibilities. During the George W. Bush administration Sullivan eviscerated traditional evangelicals over their stance on LGBT issues, even coining the term “Christianist” to evoke Islamic extremism when describing Christians to the right of him.

Sullivan doesn’t appear to consider whether the neutered Christianity that bows to politics might bear any genetic resemblance to the doctrinally plastic faith that frames his celebration of Obergefell. Indeed, it is extraordinarily telling that Sullivan thirsts for a Christianity that transcends politics, only three years after using “It is accomplished”—the Greek τετέλεσται uttered by Christ on the Cross in John 19:30—as the title of his blog announcing SCOTUS’s decision. Does Sullivan truly want a Christianity that talks down to politics? It’s difficult to know, only because there seems to be a lot of confusion in his own mind over which political issues deserve equivalency with the Atonement, and which don’t.

What Sullivan calls for in his essay is a Christianity that can bestow meaning, revelation, and identity across any political experience. Every believer should want this too! We American Christians are far too given to letting social and political categories set the agenda for the church. But as in the parable of the sower, merely wanting the message to implant and bear fruit isn’t enough. The problem for modern Westerners is that even our desire for transcendence outside politics is lethally dosed with our own desire for theological autonomy. We want Christ to tell our political opponents to find their identity in Him rather than their ideas, but we want Christ to tell us, “You guys have it right. You’re good.” We want to crack the whip at the fundamentalists changing money (and ballots) in the temple, but resist the “legalism” that scowls at our ethically-sourced porn. We want, in other words, the risen Christ to shape our deepest desires, but to retain the final say as to what those desires actually are.

Sullivan’s lifelong advocacy for same-sex marriage represents a lifelong resistance to the unanimous teaching of the Christian church and the overwhelming judgment of the Scriptures. What kind of culture-shaping transcendence can really come from a faith that has been so gutted? Asking for Christianity to be exalted over politics may not be a request Sullivan is ready to have fulfilled. The same is true for many of us, left and right, fundamentalist and woke. The vacant pews of mainline Protestantism testify to how the human heart responds to the separation of theological authenticity from authority, just like vacant worldviews of many American evangelical leaders.

Just like Scrooge, our fate depends much on how well we see. Sullivan sees an American public square fraying at the edges and hollowed out at the center. Many of us see the same thing. But what he doesn’t see is the lordship-shaped cavity in the heart of American Christian churches. The idol of politics is too strong to yield to the idol of self-determination. For Sullivan’s sake and ours, I wish he would reconsider his own role in the gutting of American Christianity, and turn to a solution more ancient, and more spiritual, than ever before.

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The Phone and His Boy

Reflections on one of the most important essays you’ll read this year.

Andrew Sullivan’s latest essay in New York Magazine is one of the essential pieces of reading I’ve come across so far this year. Partly, I suppose, because it is the essay that I’ve been trying and failing to write for the past year. The title according to the URL slug of the article is “How Technology Almost Killed Me,” and the headline chosen by the magazine to appear in social media shares is “My Distraction Sickness–And Yours.” But the headline I personally love is the one that appears directly on the page:

“I Used To Be a Human Being.”

This is the essence of Sullivan’s essay. What if our endlessly connected lives, empowered by mobile technology and sustained by an ever-demanding social media age, are actually making us less like the people we are created to be?

As Sullivan reminds us, he spent more than a decade professional enmeshed in the online world. At its height, Andrew’s blog was updated at least a dozen times per day, often with nothing more than links and summaries of what he and his team found around the web. It was lucrative business, but it came at a cost. Sullivan’s physical, mental, and emotional health eventually spiraled downward, culminating in his announcement two years ago that he was leaving the blogosphere for good.

All that to say: When a man whose online presence has earned him money and reputation tells you that digital addiction is a major threat, you should probably listen.

Here’s an excerpt, but I cannot urge you enough to read the entire piece:

…as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.

And what a constant diet of “shadows” does is spread our emotions and attention so thin over our lives that we lose the ability to connect deeply with the biggest moments, the most fundamental truths, and the most important relationships. Everything becomes digitized so that life itself is defined down. We are never fully here because we are never fully anywhere; our thoughts are continually spliced up between the earth and the ether.

I’ve seen this play out in my own life. My iPhone offers the security and comfort of never having a bored moment. Twitter means I’m never more than 140 characters away from letting peers know I still matter (virtue-signaling, anyone?). The constant, agonizing pull to grab my phone in any moment of stillness or quietude is a daily experience. The temptation to keep checking notifications or blog stats, sometimes doing nothing more than refreshing the page or switching between tabs for an hour, is a daily experience.

And I’ve felt the consequences: Reading is harder for me because I can only go a few pages without needing something newly stimulating, and writing is even worse. I’ve found it more difficult than ever to meditate on Scripture for more than a couple minutes, or to immerse in focused prayer. Several times over the past year I’ve come home and told Emily that, despite my “output,” I still feel like the day has been wasted–or rather, that the day has evaporated like steam, while my back was turned for a few minutes.

Should I dismiss this struggle as an unavoidable feature of life in the information economy? Should I chalk up my hitting the wall in prayer and meditation to a lack of spiritual delight? It’s possible, of course. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more likely that while many evangelicals have been running around proclaiming that technology is morally neutral–“it’s just how you use it”–the “neutral” technology has been shaping me and many others in ways that make it harder to pursue faithfulness.

One last thought: I’ve been seeing many people respond to Sullivan’s essay with frustration that he doesn’t seem aware of how closely tied many people’s jobs are with online connectivity. Some have criticized the piece for idealizing a sort of seamless transition from online life to disconnected solitude, when an increasing number of people in Western culture pay their bills through jobs centered around the internet.

As someone who has one of those jobs, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this critique. It’s true that many people have careers that wouldn’t tolerate a total retreat to online monkishness. I haven’t the foggiest idea how that truth is somehow incompatible with Sullivan’s warning sign. For every person who is online 24/7 to support themselves or their families, there are at least 50 others who are online that much and have no idea why. If you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without endangering yourself or loved ones, God has grace for your situation. If, on the other hand, you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without exposing yourself to the frictions and foibles of flesh-and-blood reality, let me encourage you: I think it’s worth it.

Kill the Comments Section

Online trolling has obliterated the value of allowing anonymous comments.

Once upon a time, open, anonymous commenting sections were a staple of online journalism. The vast majority of digital publications made allowance for readers to respond to content directly on-site. This had multiple benefits for the sites themselves; traffic increased as users engaged not only with the author but with each other, and authors developed “followings” of particular commenters who practically guaranteed that no piece would perform poorly.

One notable exception to this trend was Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan, who pioneered blogging in the early 2000s and has since retired from it, was well-known for his refusal to host comment threads directly on his site. Sullivan invited readers to contact him directly and would regularly publish the best emails. But he believed firmly in not making his own site a place for users to spar publicly.

In 2016, Sullivan’s thinking appears prescient. More and more publications, blogs and news sites are either scrapping commenting altogether or, in the recent case of Tablet magazine, charging readers a fee for the ability to leave comments on posts. Reasoning for each of this closures vary as much as the sites themselves, but one reason comes up in virtually every case: Trolls are killing online forums. Continue reading “Kill the Comments Section”