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Review, Andrew Sullivan, "The Conservative Soul"

[Originally ran in the New York Post Nov. 5, 2006. Review of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How To Get It Back by Andrew Sullivan (HarperCollins, 294 pp.)

IF you went looking for some one to write a systematic or impartial account of the conflicts that are pushing America's conservative movement toward breakup, just about the last author you'd pick for the job would be Andrew Sullivan.

The British-born commentator's new book, like all his work, is engaged, quirky and personal, the view of a gifted outsider who can't go for long without circling back to gay issues. Yet "The Conservative Soul" will still resonate as one of the year's key political books, a free-associating literary polemic that well complements "The Elephant in the Room," the recent book by New York Post contributor Ryan Sager.

The "conservatism I grew up with," notes Sullivan, stood for "lower taxes, less government spending, freer trade, freer markets, individual liberty, personal responsibility and a strong anti-communist foreign policy." Defining figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher spoke regularly of human freedom as the great aim of political life. "It has long been a fundamental conviction of the Republican Party," declared the 1980 GOP platform, "that government should foster in our society a climate of maximum individual liberty and freedom of choice."

Somehow from there we arrived at the presidency of George W. Bush, whose pronouncement on the state's proper role - "When someone hurts, government has got to move" - owes more to LBJ than to Barry Goldwater.

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum brusquely waves aside "this whole idea of personal autonomy," this "idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do." Ex-Democrats of the McGovern-Dukakis era once popularized the line "I didn't leave the party, the party left me"; if the Santorums prosper, plenty of old-line Republicans will be ready to sing the same refrain.

Sullivan's prime target is a GOP (to quote George Will) "increasingly defined by the ascendancy of the religious right." Twenty-five years ago, mainstream publications on the Right didn't regularly use the word "secular" to sum up the positions they oppose, as do the National Review and Weekly Standard today.

Back then, conservative editors might have held at arms' length an elected official who described his goal in office as being to implement the divine will. Now they vie to promote the national ambitions of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who - in an astounding Rolling Stone profile cited by Sullivan - boasted of having but a single "constituent," as he pointed his finger skyward.

Much of Sullivan's point-scoring against personages on the Christian Right is forceful and well-taken, but you do wish he'd draw distinctions. He lumps truly radical figures with the merely hidebound as "theoconservatives" and, provocatively, deems "Christianism" an emergent counterpart of today's radical Islamism, if a "much milder" one.

Is it really useful to discard a century of accepted terminology so as to tag traditionalists in his own church, Roman Catholicism, as "fundamentalist"?

No, it's not.

In this respect, Sullivan's popular blog shows an advantage over the book format. When Sullivan says something unfair online, he gets and prints a barrage of reader response, and often revises his views. This book will go unrevised by ongoing customer reaction, but would have profited by it.

That aside, it helps open a crucial and timely debate.