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June 8, 2004

Andrew Sullivan's Straight Line for Reagan

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Yesterday morning, I bookmarked a Reagan speech to which John Hawkins linked on his main page, my intention being to read it while I ate lunch. Before that break had arrived, a layer of dispirited frustration had coated my general sense of loss as a result of Andrew Sullivan's telling and predictable emphasis while writing about Reagan. From his initial reaction:

he paid respect to religion but never turned Republicanism into what it is today - a repository for sectarian scolding

Expanded the next day, first in context of the Texas GOP's platform:

If you want to know why someone who loved Ronald Reagan can no longer support the Republican Party, then the extremism of George W. Bush's own party in his home state is Exhibit A.

Then, answering the question, "What does Reagan's legacy demand of us now?"

... he would not have played the anti-gay card that Karl Rove has; and he would never have recast his party into one where only fundamentalist Christians are ultimately, fully at home. Unlike Bush, Reagan was a man of ideas, an intellectual, a man who had thought long and hard about the world and developed keen ideas about what was needed to fix its problems. ...

It is a long road from [Reagan's benign, chuckling steeliness] to the dour cynicism of Karl Rove and joyless puritanism of John Ashcroft. There was always the old Democrat in Reagan's new Republican, a deep sense of civility, a wry sense of humor, a faith leavened with skepticism, a conservatism informed by liberalism's faith in the future. It is not too late to rescue this legacy from the clutches of today's acidic, sectarian GOP. But time is running out.

As did Ramesh Ponnuru, I saw this as an instance of the manifest and active desire of some "for a Reagan in their own image." The dispirited frustration mentioned above was not unlike the feeling a child has when, throughout the course of playing a game, his cousin simply claims all of the pieces for himself. There is no effort, on Sullivan's part, to take Reagan as common ground with those who oppose same-sex marriage and thereby to pursue understanding and resolution.

So then I ate lunch and read Reagan's 1984 remarks at an ecumenical prayer breakfast in Dallas:

I believe that faith and religion play a critical role in the political life of our nation -- and always has -- and that the church -- and by that I mean all churches, all denominations -- has had a strong influence on the state. And this has worked to our benefit as a nation.

Those who created our country -- the Founding Fathers and Mothers -- understood that there is a divine order which transcends the human order. They saw the state, in fact, as a form of moral order and felt that the bedrock of moral order is religion. ...

George Washington referred to religion's profound and unsurpassed place in the heart of our nation quite directly in his Farewell Address in 1796. Seven years earlier, France had erected a government that was intended to be purely secular. This new government would be grounded on reason rather than the law of God. By 1796 the French Revolution had known the Reign of Terror.

Is this merely an example of what Sullivan means when he writes that Reagan "exploited the religious right"? If so, his exploitation was thorough, gigantic, apocalyptically cynical.

The truth is, politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality's foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related. We need religion as a guide. We need it because we are imperfect, and our government needs the church, because only those humble enough to admit they're sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive.

Recall that, last June, Sullivan declared the Republican party mere steps from imposing theocracy because Bill Frist called marriage a "sacrament" that overlaps with the "legal entity of a union between... a man and a woman." Taking that as the measuring scale, Sullivan has a Lewisian choice: Ronald Reagan was either a wicked liar or a "theocon," by the Daily Disher's definition.

Now, Sullivan could point to Reagan's calls, within the speech, for tolerance of all religions and even of non-religion. Although requiring quite a reach to same-sex marriage, that would raise a valid field of discussion, essentially addressing whether such tolerance necessarily draws a distinction between Reagan and Frist — whether Reagan's insistence that we "mandate no belief" would have made the transition from private practice to public institution, or whether he would have sided with traditionalists in this instance of applying "moral teaching to public questions."

It would go beyond my knowledge, into presumptuous dishonesty, were I to claim to know. However, one needn't have extensive understanding of Reagan's views to observe that Sullivan assumes, as is his wont, that there are no exits before support for same-sex marriage from opposition, for example, to laws barring homosexuals from teaching in public schools. This simplistic progression is fine, as a personal belief, but a public intellectual ought to be able to trace the thinking of the other side in all of its complexity. Instead, Sullivan claims for his policy preference the inevitable cloak of "modernity," about which Reagan "was definitely more easy-going... than the current Republican leadership." But modernity, whatever its definition, changes from decade to decade.

Sullivan cites the public school example in his reply to Ponnuru. Widening the gap between the two issues is that California's 1978 ballot initiative Proposition 6 included, as public homosexual conduct, "advocating, soliciting, imposing, encouraging or promoting of private or public homosexual activity." As part of his statement against it, Reagan wondered whether even opposition to the proposition, if it had passed, might be considered advocacy. The distinctions are manifold. Surely there are people who opposed or would have opposed Proposition 6, then, who also oppose public recognition of same-sex marriage, now, and I'd argue that Reagan would have been among them.

In his speech at the prayer breakfast, Reagan traced the judiciary's assault on public expression of religion, beginning with the 1962 case in which the Supreme Court "banned compulsory saying of prayers" and expanding from there, until:

Today there are those who are fighting to make sure voluntary prayer is not returned to the classrooms. And the frustrating thing for the great majority of Americans who support and understand the special importance of religion in the national life -- the frustrating thing is that those who are attacking religion claim they are doing it in the name of tolerance, freedom, and openmindedness.

Such arguments are very much in line with those presented against same-sex marriage — particularly judicial imposition thereof. Isn't there direct route from Reagan's stated position on public religion in 1984 to opposition to SSM now? Aren't there lines crossed between standing up for homosexual teachers in 1978 and advocating for the redefinition of marriage now? Of course. Many conservatives — including myself — drew the line on the tolerant side of the sodomy issue.

Reagan expressed one more truth, on that August morning in 1984, that Sullivan seems to have forgotten:

When John Kennedy was running for President in 1960, he said that his church would not dictate his Presidency any more than he would speak for his church. Just so, and proper. But John Kennedy was speaking in an America in which the role of religion -- and by that I mean the role of all churches -- was secure. Abortion was not a political issue. Prayer was not a political issue. The right of church schools to operate was not a political issue. And it was broadly acknowledged that religious leaders had a right and a duty to speak out on the issues of the day. They held a place of respect, and a politician who spoke to or of them with a lack of respect would not long survive in the political arena.

Can Andrew Sullivan not step outside of his advocacy far enough to see, from a social conservative's perspective, the differences between America now and the America that watched Ronald Reagan leave office? Let alone the California of 1978. I think he can — or at least he once could — but that it requires a proximity of sympathy that his activism precludes.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 8, 2004 2:36 PM

Thank goodness someone else gets it re: Reagan and faith. Also, count me as one of the callous, since I'm devoid of "deep and inchoate" shame for the whole incident.

Posted by: Matt at June 8, 2004 3:36 PM

"Can Andrew Sullivan not step outside of his advocacy far enough to see, from a social conservative's perspective, the differences between America now and the America that watched Ronald Reagan leave office?"

No, unfortunately he can't. That's why he's remaking Reagan in his own image.

Posted by: Bryan at June 8, 2004 3:44 PM

My nephew emailed me the Prayer Breakfast speech and I reacted just as you did. The key to the issue is tolerance. The goal of the First Amendment was to promote religious tolerance and recognize the values religions give to our society.

I grew up learning to appreciate the ideals taught by religions other than my own. Today, religion is largely presented as a divisive force in society, compared to the Taliban, superstitious, etc. Atheism has become the de facto state religion.

As for Sullivan, his need for validation of his homosexuality has overwhelmed his reason. He generally understands why conservatism makes more sense than liberalism, but on this single issue he is lying to himself, by equating a refusal to support same-sex marriage with homophobia and denial of human rights.

I wrote to him once that I thought that pursuing gay marriage through the courts would bring Gays nothing but disappointment, because it will not bring the affirmation that he seeks. There will always be the haunting sense that the being married to another man is not the same as his parents marriage. What I fear is that this need will then drive gays back to the courts to demand that churches who refuse to perform gay marriages be stripped of the legal right to perform any marriages.

This could be a compelling legal argument if the courts have made gay marriage a constitutional right. The history of the government's forcing the Mormon people to abandon plural marriage proves that such an outcome is not beyond imagination. Mormons were stripped of citizenships, voting rights, the right to serve on juries, unless they renounced the teachings of their religion. The church finally gave in, but apostates continued the practice and are now seeking to have it recognized as a constitutional right by the courts.

Sullivan wrote back and said he would strenuously defend the rights of churches to refuse to perform gay marriages, but that doesn't give me any reassurance.

Gay marriage is always being compared to the civil rights movement, but it is comparable to a demand by blacks that the courts declare them to be whites, rather than to grant them the same rights as whites enjoyed. What gays are seeking is a declaration that there is no difference between two people of the same sex being married and two members of opposite sexes being married. It doesn't help that courts have recognized "gender reassignment." It begs the question of whether Michael Jackson is still African-American. Can I change my racial background legally so as to qualify for affirmative action benefits?

Posted by: AST at June 8, 2004 7:08 PM

Sullivan long ago remade God in his own image. Why does it surprise anyone that Sullivan is having no problem doing the same with Reagan?

Posted by: Jody at June 8, 2004 8:29 PM

I happen to think Sullivan is right... it's hard to think that RR would bring down the weight of a Constitutional Amendment to "protect" marriage from the supposed harm that some fraction of 2-3% of the population could do just because nobody will speak the truth... that the reason marriage is in trouble is because a large segment of the other 97% of the population can't keep a promise or keep their pants on.

Tell me again the percentage of children born out of wedlock? And tell me again the percentage of school children from single-parent households? Or the number of school children with a step-parent?

I suspect that RR would not support SSM but I don't think he'd view it as the defining issue of our time.

Posted by: R Todd at June 8, 2004 9:17 PM

R Todd,

Well, if one believes that opposing SSM is essentially a matter of hoping to halt the dissolving of marriage before the changes become definitional in nature (as opposed to loosening of implication), as I do, then it is easy to follow the line from social conservatism of the '80s to support for an amendment now.

I've written before that, just as that 2-3% of the population doesn't have the power to make same-sex marriage a legal reality, the effects of the change wouldn't be limited in force commensurate with that percentage. To the extent that anybody takes it to be a "defining issue of our time," it's because those advocating for it are making it so in order to gain momentum beyond their numbers.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 8, 2004 10:14 PM

"To gain momentum beyond their numbers." That just sounds like the old, "The Jews are plotting to take over the world."

Posted by: Joel Thomas at June 8, 2004 11:33 PM


And your response is meaningless. It's just a reality of democracy that 2-3% of the population cannot effect sweeping change without appealing to a broader group. That's not evil or wrong; it's how the system works. Simply amazing. Somebody says such small numbers of people can't affect the society, and my attack my noting that they can and are as some sort of Nazi echo.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 9, 2004 6:46 AM


I gave an honest response to how you sound. Anyway, half the time I have no clue what you are really getting at in your writing.

Posted by: Joel Thomas at June 9, 2004 10:32 AM


Perhaps how I sound to you has implications for our inability to connect through my writing. If you hear "genocide" when I say "democracy," it's understandable that what I'm getting at will often not be clear to you.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 9, 2004 10:59 AM

From Sullivan: "... and was the first president to have an openly gay couple sleep over in the White House. He and his wife were no strangers to male homosexual company .... His biographer, Lou Cannon, wrote that Reagan was "repelled by the aggressive public crusades against homosexual life styles which became a staple of right wing politics in the late 1970s."

I noticed those were not mentioned in your post. I can understand not referring to events in which you disagree with Reagan during this time. It puts you above many other pundits who are either using this time to criticize his policies (i.e.: Reagan hating liberals) or redefine Reagan in their own image to suit their political agenda (i.e.: Sullivan)

But while I think Sullivan is wrong to try and take political advantage here, it is also hypocritical of you to ignore those parts of what Sullivan said while attacking him.

If those are true (big IF), it certainly does not mean that Reagan would have supported SSM, but it certainly does imply that Reagan did not have the same view towards homosexuality that you and some SSM-foes do.

All I am saying is that while Sullivan is exaggerating parts of Reagan's record to support his agenda, there are also those who are ignoring parts of Reagan's record to support theirs.

Posted by: Mark Miller at June 9, 2004 11:31 AM

I suspect Reagan would have been compassionate, inclusive, supportive of diversity, and passionate enough about "traditional marriage" to also support a FMA. Much like GWB has been.

Posted by: Marty at June 9, 2004 5:07 PM


I noticed those were not mentioned in your post. I can understand not referring to events in which you disagree with Reagan during this time.

I only mentioned one of Sullivan's examples because my point was the same for all, and that was the most concrete. Not knowing circumstances, and not having time to research them, I didn't want to comment on the gay couple in the White House. (I'm not even sure it's something with which I'd strenuously disagree.) As for Reagan's being against the "aggresive public crusades," I'm inclined to adjust it somewhat to account for the fact that it's a biographer's characterization, and I'd like to know what counts as an aggressive crusade. Depending what it means, I might be against it, as well.

At any rate, in neither of these circumstances is it untrue, as I said of the other example, that there are ideological exits between them and SSM.

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 11, 2004 10:41 AM