Andrew Sullivan is back to touting religion

Andrew Sullivan’s weekly Intelligencer column is not as good as usual, though it’s always worth reading. And, as always, it’s tripartite, dealing this week with American tribalism—especially with respect to race—Alastair Stewart’s demonization (and firing) for using a Shakespeare quote containing the word “ape” when responding to a black critic, and Sullivan’s personal appreciation for a favorite band (his, not mine): the Pet Shop Boys. You can read the column by clicking on the screenshot.

The annoying part of the main discussion about tribalism is that it heralds Sullivan’s return to extolling religion—after a long hiatus when he avoided the topic. (He is a gay Catholic, which is really an oxymoron.) This comes after he discusses two books that, he says, make him pessimistic about healing the racial divide in America: Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement and Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized. I haven’t read either, but both appear to describe how racial tribalism, especially on the Left, arose as an unwanted consequence of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The consequences, as Sullivan describes:

The GOP became whiter and whiter; the Democrats more and more became the party of the marginalized nonwhites as the years rolled by. Blacks and southern whites ceased to communicate directly within a single party, where compromises could be hammered out through internal wrangling. In the aggregate this was, as Klein emphasizes, a good thing — because blacks kept coming out the losers in those intraparty conversations, and with civil rights, they had a chance of winning in a clearer, less rigged, debate.

But it was also problematic because human beings are tribal, psychologically primed to recognize in-group and out-group before the frontal cortex gets a look-in. And so the whiter the GOP became, the whiter it got, and the more diverse the Democrats got. Simultaneously, the economy took a brutal toll on the very whites who were alienated by the culture’s shift toward racial equality, and then racial equity. Klein recognizes that this racial polarization, is, objectively, a problem for liberal democracy: “Our brains reflect deep evolutionary time, while our lives, for better and worse, are lived right now, in this moment.” So he can see the depth of the problem of tribalism — and its merging with partisanship, which goes on to create a megatribalism.

If humans simply cannot help their tribal instincts, then a truly multicultural democracy has a big challenge ahead of it. The emotions triggered are so primal, that conflict, rather than any form of common ground, can spiral into a grinding cold civil war. And you can’t legislate or educate this away. One fascinating study Klein quotes found that “priming white college students to think about the concept of white privilege led them to express more racial resentment in subsequent surveys.” Anti-racist indoctrination actually feeds racism. So tribalism deepens.

As I haven’t read the books, I can’t speak to the acuity of their analysis, but there’s no doubt that tribalism in America, and in my beloved Left, is increasing, and increasing to the point where it gives a moron like Trump the opportunity to be President.

But what’s the cure? Unfortunately, Sullivan means “miracle” in his title literally (my emphasis). While he sees a growing backlash against “social justice warriorism” when it involves excesses of feminism and gender-touting, he has no hopes for race—except for religion. My emphasis in the following:

I have a smidgen more optimism. I see in the long-delayed backlash to the social-justice movement an inkling of a new respect for individual and creative freedom and for the old idea of toleration rather than conformity. I see in the economic and educational success of women since the 1970s a possible cease-fire in the culture wars over sex. I see most homosexuals content to live out our lives without engaging in an eternal Kulturkampf against the cis and the straight. Race? Alas, I see no way forward but a revival of Christianity, of its view of human beings as “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This means such a transcendent view of human equality that it does not require equality of outcomes to see equal dignity and worth.

Yes, I’m hoping for a miracle. But at this point, what else have we got?

First, I don’t see that “long-delayed backlash”, much as I’d like it to happen. There are some pushbacks against Authoritarian Leftism, and I do my best to help, but Wokeness is spreading like Australian brushfires among American, Canadian, and British campuses, as well as in the mainstream media. It’s even starting to insinuate its tentacles into my beloved University of Chicago.

As for the cherry-picked Biblical quote used to sell Christianity as a solution to racial tribalism, we all know it won’t work, if for no other reason than religion is on the wane in America. And, as we know, Democrats tend to be even less religious than Republicans. It will be a cold day in July when Christianity helps bring blacks and whites together, especially if the whites include Republicans. Here’s a confected letter to Sullivan (maybe I’ll tweet it to him):

Dear Andrew:

Your New York Magazine columns in the last year or so have been beacons of rationality and paragons of clear thought, and I tout them often on my website. But in the latest one you promote a return to Christianity as a way to cure racial divides. That proposed fix seems to me a non-starter, especially given the rising percentage of “nones” in America, which is higher among Democrats than among Republicans. And, of course, there is not the slightest evidence that Christianity is true. If we must embrace falsehoods to heal our divides, we are truly lost. It’s time for you to jettison your Catholicism and join us secular humanists—the only “religion” that makes sense.

Your friend,
Jerry Coyne

And then I was told that Michael Shermer had also responded to Sullivan, pointing out a Biblical misinterpretation!

h/t: Simon

41 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    …a revival of Christianity, of its view of human beings as “neither Jew nor Gentile”…

    Is Sullivan completely clueless? How can he write a phrase with this kind of internal contradiction with a straight face?

  2. docbill1351
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    “view of human beings as “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one”

    So, why can’t you do all this without the mumbo jumbo? To paraphrase Leplace, it seems that you could implement this without need of cette hypothesis!

    Intellectual fail, Sullivan.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothése là” Pierre-Simon Laplace, a brilliant polymath that escaped the guillotine, in his answer to Napoleon about the role of God in his theories. About the best riposte ever.

      • docbill1351
        Posted February 4, 2020 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Worth learning French just to say that properly! Indeed, best riposte ever.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I agree that his solution – religion is not going anywhere unless he thinks the entire country should mass around the phony religious one in the white house. The problem is not all racial either. To concentrate on that as the cause for all our problems is too simplistic. The one percent has taken over this country and they really do not care which party you pray to or for. As long as they control all of the levers it does not matter.

    That is why I think all the liberal out there who are looking for a Biden or some other middle of the road democrat is not going to fix our problems. It is too moderate and back to the old ideas of Clinton and Obama. It does not really fix anything.

  4. Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Christianity is definitely the answer. Look how it helped before keeping those uppity coloreds in their place. /s. Really, is he unaware of any history at all?

  5. Muffy Ferro
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I like the tweet from Tom Mock: “The solution to tribal problems? Why, of course, it’s for everyone to join my favorite tribe. As we all know, Christianity has never been plagued by even a shred of infighting.”

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    (He is a gay Catholic, which is really an oxymoron.)

    Tell it to the lavender mafia found at all levels of the Catholic clergy.

    One consequence of the deforming effect of the requisite vow of celibacy.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      The lavender mafia would fit so nicely into a Monty Python sketch.

  7. Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I suspect that Sullivan wasn’t hoping for a literal miracle. He’s just one of the many people that view their religion as the sole source of moral goodness in the world. He’s calling for everyone to take the principles behind racial equality to heart and believes that religion, Christianity in particular, is the way to do this.

    What he fails to realize is that the church no longer leads but follows, at least in the last few centuries. The world needs to adopt the moral principles he’s talking about because they are good ideas from a secular perspective.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Blacks and southern whites ceased to communicate directly within a single party.

    Blacks and southern whites never communicated directly. The only communication allowed between southern blacks and southern whites in the pre-Civil Right Act Jim Crow south had southern blacks cast in a subservient role in an apartheid state.

    Northern blacks and southern Democrats never so much communicated as shared a common economic interest — a common economic interest that evanesced with the dissolution of FDR’s New Deal coalition.

  9. Roo
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I think Sullivan is something like a Catholic mystic these days, and spends a lot of time meditating and smoking weed. I can get similarly dewey eyed about the unifying effects of religion until I really think back to what small town churches are like. Petty feuds and cliques often abound – and I think that could easily include identity politics. So do I think that’s the ‘cure’? Probably not.

    When it comes to woke politics, I think that is very fad-ish in nature and, like all fads, will burn itself out eventually. I do think there is some backlash against this already, as now you see some eye rolling references to “Wokeness”, which you really didn’t even five years ago. As with all passionate youthful trends, I predict it will fade away once it’s a) So stale that it’s a self parody, not a sign of being cool or in the know and b) Said youthful generation gets older and suddenly the pressing reality of marriages, mortgages, and kids take precedence over online activism.

    When it comes to race relations in this country, I think it’s important to remember that they’ve likely improved tremendously on the whole, even though we see troubling examples of specific problems in the news every day. Desegregation is not that far behind us. I don’t think we’re trending in the troubling direction that Sullivan sees, I think this is an example of the 24 hour news cycle highlighting the negative over the positive, so that larger trends are obscured. For example, when I was growing up, interracial marriage was scarce enough that “Jungle Fever” was considered a controversial film. Now people don’t think twice about it. I think there are many examples like that if you look for bigger trends.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      I think Sullivan is something like a Catholic mystic these days, and spends a lot of time meditating and smoking weed.

      Andrew Sullivan, neo-Gnostic. 🙂

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      While race relations have improved, I always got the feeling that the improvement in the law, policing, education, etc. has come at a much faster pace than the that of actual minds. The deplorables still had racial thoughts but they were suppressed as being unacceptable to the powers that be. This created a pent-up resentment that Obama’s election sent into overdrive. Trump took advantage of that and here we are. Improvement will be gradual but we’ve just taken a big step backwards. I’m hoping the next forward step comes quickly: November of this year with any luck.

  10. rickflick
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I’ll believe it when I see Jerry Falwell Jr. walking hand in hand, arm in arm, with minorities and refugees. That’ll be the day.

  11. RPGNo1
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    The Pet Shop Boys are one of my favorite band. Their Remix of Rammstein’s “Mein Teil” is exceptional.

    🙂

    • darrelle
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Never heard of this but I will definitely be giving it a listen after work.

      I saw the Pet Shop Boys in LA sometime about the mid to later 80’s. I always felt bad about this, but I was disappointed in the show. It was at the Coliseum and their stage show and style of music (everything electronic in this era) just didn’t work very well in a stadium size venue. But I continued to like them!

  12. Kenneth Kukec
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Democrats tend to be even less religious than Republicans.

    To which I can add naught but Thank Gawd! 🙂

  13. Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Its hard to summarize the causes of the increasing divide between the left and right, but I don’t see how one can summarize the movement on the right without bringing up Fox News. That has been a very powerful and effective uniter of the political and social right like nothing else I know.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, that and talk radio. Together, they but the path by which the creature slithered from its fever-swamp.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        “cut the path”

  14. darrelle
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Southern whites and southern blacks have always been among the most devout Christians. It always interesting to me to see a person who can think quite clearly and well on many subjects suddenly have a brain fart like Sullivan had here. I suppose this is yet another example of how religion poisons everything. A veritable cognitive scotoma.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      It’s often said that Sunday morning services were the most segregated time of the week in the Jim Crow South.

      Black preachers (including most prominently, of course, the Rev. Dr. King) were among the leading proponents of the civil rights movement. Southern white preachers, on the other hand, often scoured scripture to justify segregation. As was written by the trial judge in Loving v. Virginia (the case in which SCOTUS eventually struck down anti-miscegenation laws) in his 1964 opinion upholding the Virginia statute:

      Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

      • darrelle
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        See, now that’s real-deal Christianity right there. As wholesome and comfy as Ma’s apple pie.

  15. Mark R.
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    For me, religion is the root of all evil (including racism), especially Christianity. And Sullivan is proof positive that religious thinking is and always will be failed thinking.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      The Hitch would have agreed with you, no doubt.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Although he would not have singled out Christianity. He was (as I am) fiercly anti-Islamic too.

        • Mark R.
          Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I too am fiercely anti-Islamic; since I was raised as a Xtian, I tend to obsess on that particular religion.

  16. Jon Gallant
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Ezra Klein wisely points out that tribalism always lurks in the human subconscious; we should be reminded of this by some recent sudden and appalling outbreaks, as in the civil conflicts which ended Yugoslavia. Incidentally, that terrible outbreak—involving the Roman Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks—suggests that religious belief is not exactly the cure-all that Sullivan prays for. Looking back at that case, one is inclined to think that current American tribalism isn’t nearly as bad as it might be—or as it might turn into, with bad luck.

    I was struck by one sentence of Sullivan’s: “This means such a transcendent view of human equality that it does not require equality of outcomes to see equal dignity and worth.” The adjective “transcendent” seems a little grandiose here. For those of us close to disabled individuals, this view of things doesn’t seem “transcendent”, it simply goes without saying. I can’t help wondering whether programs to mainstream developmentally disabled children in regular school programs might not help to elicit and spread a viewpoint like this amongst the general population.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      “Looking back at that case, one is inclined to think that current American tribalism isn’t nearly as bad as it might be—or as it might turn into, with bad luck.”

      I think the only thing that prevents episodes like the civil conflicts which ended Yugoslavia is government and its institutions that a large majority of the population trusts to be more competent and fair than not. To my mind this includes / entails / requires that the government and its institutions be robust. It is when government does not or can not provide those services and institutions that people look to a government to provide (for example rule of law, economic oversight, etc.) that the degree of trust begins to wane, and that’s when the bigots and extremists will become less inhibited to act on their hatreds more openly.

      The bigots and extremists that perpetrate and instigate violence are always there in any society. The only difference is where a given society is on the spectrum from strong equitable government to failed state.

  17. Roger
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    How does Andrew not know that everyone cherry picks Bibles how they want, therefore rendering all Bible quotes moot.

  18. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    “Alas, I see no way forward but a revival of Christianity, of its view of human beings as “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This means such a transcendent view of human equality that it does not require equality of outcomes to see equal dignity and worth.”

    Periodically, I delve back into the history of religions, particularly that of Jews and Christians. And, as usual, I am reminded that neither have ever proposed or practiced equality.

    Look at all the disagreements among the Jews on the way from Egypt to Judea. Look at all the splits in the 12 tribes on the trip and the change of the sacred site of worship from Mount Gerizim in Samaria to the temple in Jerusalem and the hatred of the Jews for the Samaritans. Many changes were incorporated after the diaspora to Babylon that caused much disagreement. Then, at the time of Jesus, there were numerous different flavors of belief among the Jews, some of which included a hereafter and some of which didn’t. Some of which had such rigid rules that they had comparatively few followers.

    The beginning of so-called Christianity was a strictly Jewish belief system. After the death of Jesus, it was continued in its Jewish form in Jerusalem under Jesus’ brother, James (and Peter.) Paul carried the message to the Gentiles where it had to be modified so that one didn’t have to convert to Judaism and follow all its’ laws in order to become what later was called a Christian. Had this not happened, Christianity would not have spread as it has.

    From the beginning of so-called Judaism and Christianity, there has never been a consensus of belief, just as there still is not. Whatever Sullivan is ingesting or smoking, there can be no Christian “equality” now as there never has been one. Sullivan’s pipe dream.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      There is no evidence the Jewa ever lived in Egypt, no Exodus, there is no evidence ‘Jesus’ even existed. But for the rest I can agree with your broade claim that humans tend to divide into factions, no ‘equality’..

      • Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for your correction about the lack of evidence for Jews as slaves in Egypt, and the existence of Jesus. Although I haven’t read all the sources on both sides, I have read pros and cons for both. I’d be interested in any books you can suggest that prove your points.

        Since Moses was thought to be mythological, it is easy to discredit the story of his leading enslaved Jews out of Egypt to the Holy Land. An article about “The History of the Jews in Egypt” in Wikipedia indicates that “Israelites first appear in the archeological record on the Merneptah Stele from between 1208-1203 BCE at the end of the Bronze Age.” It is suggested that they were “Habiru” from around the Jordan River that were Levantine nomads of varying ethnicities and religions. They might be considered to be or to include “Hebrews”. Apparently, there were Jews in Egypt around 597 BCE and also 495 to 399 BCE. During the Ptolemaic era, there were numerous Jews in Alexandria from the foundation of the city in 332 BCE. The Septuagint was translated by Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria from about the 3rd century BCE until completion in 132 BCE. So, there were plenty of Jews in Egypt but, I don’t know when Moses and the enslaved Jews were purported to have been there

        As to the historicity of Jesus, historians have come down on both sides of that debate. I tend to believe he didn’t exist. But, if he did, he was a Jew following Jewish religious requirements of whichever sect he may have created or been part of. However, I do tend to believe that James, the so-called brother of Jesus, existed and was head of a Jewish sect in Jerusalem. If Paul existed, he had meetings with James and Peter over differences in sect beliefs of Jews vs. Gentiles.

        It is thought that much of what’s in the Bible is mythological and/or incorporated from other myths and religions. So much of what’s in the Bible has been cobbled together from oral history of different groups at different times and places, with an effort to make them coherent. There are very many places that this just doesn’t happen. And,
        the materials have been interpreted variously ad nauseam ever since.

  19. Eli
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    I have to disagree with your imagined response to Sullivan, Jerry. It may be that Christianity makes false claims about the world but so does liberalism nowadays (read “the Blank Slate” by Pinker if you think otherwise). And of course, the egalitarian philosophy of leftism has its own unproved claims about the world underpinning it. (the Marxist progression of history, anyone?)

    It may well be that any sufficiently broad and all-encompassing philosophy of human equality makes some claims about the world unsupported by evidence. Yet we need to believe in something. Yes, it’s the “belief in belief” position widely disparaged on this website. But it is true – all Americans believe in something called the United States which is only an idea, not a factual claim about the world. All of society is built on such beliefs (economics on beliefs about currency, social relations on beliefs about morality, legal systems on beliefs about justice). So if we need to bring in yet another belief system to maintain social cohesion, we might as well choose among the available ones (religion, untethered individualism, class consciousness) and make the trade-offs accordingly. I am not sure Christianity in its current modern form will be the worst choice.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and if liberals make false claims I call those out, too, as I often do with woo, with claims that men are psychologically and physically identical to women, and so on. So what are you kvetching at me for? I am an equal opportunity critic when someone makes claims resting on assertions without evidence.

      The U.S. is a country, and so yet, I believe it exists.

      I’m sorry, but belief in religion is different from many other claims based on no evidence, for, as I say in Faith versus Fact, it has pernicious side effects. Would you say the same thing if Sullivan were a Muslim and said that Islam would rescue America’s racial divisions?

      And pray tell me, which of my own unevidenced “beliefs” is as harmful as Catholicism.

      You have offered the readers a prime example of “whataboutery”. Catholicsm and Islam make false claims that are harmful, but so does blank-slateism? What’s your point? You don’t have to choose any of them.

  20. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    What is it with Sullivan? He appears so intelligent and yet…. Alzheimers? Tertiary syphilis? Or what? How can an obviously intelligent man write such piffle?

    • rickflick
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      Catholic upbringing poisons everything?

  21. whataspecies
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Has there been any human project for the past 5000 years more divisive and tribalistic then religion?! In-group/out-group psychology has a deep-rooted scriptural foundation in religion – it creates and reinforces identity around it. The only reason i can find that smart, educated, and otherwise rational people find their religion so compelling is something called ‘governing sentimentality’. They have been so indoctrinated, injected, and enamored with theological mumbo-jumbo from birth onward that even though they may know better intellectually their emotional sentiments will override reason almost every time.

  22. whataspecies
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Has there been any human project for the past 5000 years more divisive and tribalistic then religion?! In-group/out-group psychology has a deep-rooted scriptural foundation in religion – it creates and reinforces identity around it. The only reason i can find that smart, educated, and otherwise rational people find their religion so compelling is something called ‘governing sentimentality’. They have been so indoctrinated, injected, and enamored with theological mumbo-jumbo from birth onward that even though they may know better intellectually, their emotional sentiments will override reason almost every time.

  23. Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I found one quote glaringly incongruous and not at all logical: “One fascinating study Klein quotes found that “priming white college students to think about the concept of white privilege led them to express more racial resentment in subsequent surveys.” Anti-racist indoctrination actually feeds racism. So tribalism deepens.” This is shared as evidence that you cannot educate away the problems of tribalism.

    So…one ill-considered and poorly justified attempt at “education” with an inherently racially loaded concept triggers resentment and that’s it, they throw their hands up? And this (among other things, to be fair) leads Sullivan to conclude that we need to “return” to a set of ideas that are fundamentally tribal in nature, and which raise the stakes of disagreements to (supposedly) eternal levels…as a way out of divisiveness? I’m a fan of the notion of a transcendent view of human equality, but can’t see any religion as producing such a thing. I think frank nihilism would be more effective, to be honest (not that I’m actually suggesting it). At least there everyone and everything would be equally pointless.


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