The Conservative Soul: Book Review

by Jeff Walsh

In "The Conservative Soul," blogger Andrew Sullivan (profiled in Oasis back in 1999) makes a heartfelt case for being a conservative. Now, before you start getting defensive, Sullivan says the term conservative has been hijacked and attributed to a set of political beliefs and ideologies that don't even resemble its origin, which he says is rooted in loss and doubt.

"The regret you feel in life at the kindness not done, the person unthanked, the opportunity missed, the custom unobserved, is a form of conservatism," he writes. "The same goes for the lost love or the missed opportunity: these experiences teach us the fragility of the moment, and that fragility is what, in part, defines us."

Sullivan spends a lot of time in The Conservative Soul exploring fundamentalism, and outlining one of the most simple reasons to which I have always attributed its popularity, which is the inherent comfort there is not having to question the truth. By living within strict rules, there is a surrender that is liberating. I think one of the biggest fallacies of fundamentalism has always been that it is simplistic when to its adherents it is the answer to eternal questions.

Sullivan also shows how if you were fundamentalist and living in the Middle East, it would seem to be a conflict that you did everything Allah asks, yet the West with its multiculturalism and seeming godlessness is the most prosperous, abundant culture on the planet. Of course, the fact that Islamic fundamentalists have flown airplanes into buildings isn't meant to set them apart as very different from our own fundamentalists back home. They just have different motivations and goals.

Take this quote: "My faith frees me... Frees me to make decisions others might not like. Frees me to do the right thing, even though it will not poll well. Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next."

The quote is from Christian fundamentalist and U.S. President George W. Bush from his own 1999 book. It seems to also explain his lack of concern about budgets, costs, or the validity of his impulsive decisions, which makes sense, seeing that they come from an external, unerring source.

The other fundamentalist dilemma that Sullivan explores is that a system that requires complete, inerrant purity will always be flawed. When something breaks down, it results in an even stricter code of conduct to atone, which presents a cyclical, unsolvable dilemma. As a fundamentalist dieter and novel writer, I can assure you that Sullivan is right on this count, as I am not finished with my novel or at goal weight, but I get a lot of credit for being more disciplined than anyone else I know.

For me, though, Sullivan's book really got going in Chapter 5, when started making his impassioned case for conservatism.

"The defining characteristic of the conservative is that he knows what he doesn't know... The conservative is content to say merely that his grasp on (the truth) is always provisional," Sullivan writes. "He may be wrong. He begins with the assumption that the human mind is fallible, that it can delude itself, make mistakes, or see only so far ahead. And this, the conservative avers, is what it means to be human."

Sullivan's conservatism is rooted in a world of acceptance of doubt coupled with a pragmatism that guides it.

In one anecdote, Sullivan notes that he acted in Shakespeare's Hamlet when he was in high school in a minor role. In college, he saw another production of Hamlet where he finally understood it on a deeper level. In graduate school, he played Hamlet. And, in subsequent years, he saw it again and found humor in lines where it didn't exist before.

"My conclusion?" Sullivan writes. "Over four decades, I changed, and the play changed. Each time, Hamlet was different and I was different. ... If this is true of a play, how much truer is it of life itself? How much of the outside world can we truly know?"

Sullivan charges that man's relationship with God is "all projection; and there is nothing wrong with that -- so long as we do not mistake it for something else, namely real knowledge of something that be definition is ineffable."

"In this nonfundamentslist understanding of faith, practice is more important than theory, love more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle," Sullivan writes. "This is the Christianity that the conservative clings to; and it is a form of Christianity the fundamentalist rejects. That is his right and his prerogative. But it is the great lie of our time that all religious faith has to be fundamentalist to be valid. There is another way."

There is a lot to be said for Sullivan's passion and knowledge, which is on brilliant display in the book.

"A conservative likes his life vivid and his politics dreary," Sullivan writes. "In fact, he is very often conservative in his politics so he can be securely radical in his own private life. When you're off on a private adventure, you want to make sure there's a grown-up minding the public store."

As much as I have absolutely no problem with a world full of Sullivan's version of conservatives, I don't know if it's a realistic pursuit. And, if it is, can that word ever be reclaimed?

The Conservative Soul is a well thought-out book that lays down one gay, HIV-positive man's belief in politics, life, and God in a way that makes you think, empathize and care. So, it's definitely worth checking out if these are issues that you'd like to explore further.


Shenlong the Arcane's picture

I think I'm going to have to

I think I'm going to have to get this book.

theonechickcagelle's picture

deosn't he write for TIME?

deosn't he write for TIME? if it is, he wrote this incredible essay on gay marriage, i think i still have it...

"It's like Dillinger once told me, 'It's always darkest just before they turn on the lights!'"

jeff's picture


He writes for many publications, Time being one of them.


"Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there." -- Josh Billings.

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5thstory's picture

I think I may really like

I think I may really like this book. At least someone else is conservative.

" . . . The sun does not shine upon this fair earth to meet frowning eyes, depend upon it." Charles Dickens