Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor for _The New Republic_, knew his audience. He did not come to proselytize; the crowd at McCosh 50, he well understood, needed little convincing that gay rights deserve support. Instead, he led us between left and right, alerting us to the political arguments which have shaped the gay rights movement. We should “try to think, rather than feel, about this topic,” he reminded his audience early in his speech. And he constructed this speech methodically; his rhetoric was not purely objective, but sensibly subjective. He divided his talk into four neat segments: Prohibitionism, Liberationalism, Conservatism and Liberalism, which together, he discerned, comprise the politicization of homosexuality. But let us start at the end and slowly work our way backwards to the apex of his provocative analysis: at his compelling discussion of the religious right and the Catholic Church.
Liberalism, Sullivan proposed, seeks to treat gays as an enclave of society deserving of special civil protections. These laws, such as hate crime laws and anti-discrimination employment laws, create a debilitating social atmosphere. And while these endeavors are benevolent, they stratify society and foster resentment within each sect. Sullivan maintained that minorities should arm themselves with confidence and courage, as did the drag queens at Stonewall who fought against abusive police. He suggested that these laws can infantilize a protected group. More importantly, government should never seek to criminalize intolerance. As he emphatically reified the importance of the first amendment, he reminded his audience that “freedom for the bigot is also freedom of the prophet.”
Conservatism involves a reserved approach to sexuality, Sullivan noted, and a reluctance to truly explore and contend with gay rights. This American breed of Conservatism is silent and furtive, avoiding social disquietude and abhorring dissension. But in his speech, Sullivan suggested that such retraction is impossible: “the closet has collapsed” and there is no going back. Rather, the conservative movement should welcome the changing tides. In America, the ousting of closeted politicians has become farcical in nature, and conservatives still contend that gays can be “cured.” Yet, elsewhere in America, groups such as GoPride seek to reconcile conservative ideas with LGBT issues. And in Britain the Conservative Party actively seeks support from the gay community in the upcoming elections.
Then there’s the second segment of his explanation: Liberationalism. This argument is void of religious rhetoric. Rather, these political fractions see homo- and heterosexuality, as social constructions. Under the intellectual aegis of figures like Michel Foucault, this group rejects the existence of a fundamental human nature. Homo- and heterosexuality are simply monikers for neutral, sexual acts. While they vehemently oppose the oppression that gays incur, Sullivan suggested that they perpetuate it themselves; they oppose gay civil rights, as they oppose all such liberties, because they believe such legal contracts to be constraints. Instead, they operate under the term “queer liberation,” which, Sullivan suggests, dilutes the importance of sexuality. Sexuality involves a bond both corporeal and sentimental; to call it a sexual construction is to deny that, “you really can’t help what turns you on.”
At last Prohibitionism, the first aspect of this politicization process which Sullivan discussed, and the first on the minds of the audience. This traditional, fundamentalist notion contends that homosexuality is simply wrong. As Sullivan explained, this notion has dominated the public sphere for the majority of human history and it still permeates the politics of the right. Christians, specifically Protestants, cite the Bible as justification for the immorality of homosexuality. And, quickly, Sullivan acknowledged that the Bible does forbid homosexuality, specifically in Leviticus 20:13. This same verse, however, obligates the death penalty as punishment. Support for such a measure is sparse—those who would support such a notion, the maliciously hateful, for example, are largely irrelevant for Sullivan; of more concern are the seemingly cogent arguments, based on reasoned tradition and absent of blatant malice. This contradiction, Sullivan maintained, negates their argument, allowing Sullivan to shelve the biblical interpretation near the beginning of his speech and to focus, instead, on Catholicism.
Natural law, according to Catholic tradition, contends that God designed humans for heterosexuality and procreation; any deviation is a crime against nature. They argue that revelation isn’t necessary to interpret this argument and, as such, this notion is simply an appeal to reason rather than faith. And homosexuality is not the only transgression that the Church finds inconsistent with natural law. Under the same reasoning, they denounce masturbation and the use of condoms. Both acts break natural law as both involve sexual satisfaction without procreation. Indeed, natural law expands far beyond homosexuality; Sullivan maintained that it colors the entire Catholic worldview. Catholics divide the very universe, Sullivan explained, symbolically between male and female. This notion permeates their teachings, which often exult Mary as much as they do Jesus. But therein lies another contradiction: Jesus never married, and he demanded that his disciples, comprised solely of men, desert their families without goodbyes upon following him. And within the Church itself the most respected luminaries are male and celibate.
In methodical arguments, there is little room for lurid details or fanatical condemnation. So when Andrew Sullivan mentioned, briefly, the ignominious prevalence of pedophilia within the Catholic hierarchy, and the deplorable attempts within the Church to bury such behavior, he did not fixate on moral turpitude. Instead, he cited this as another example of hypocrisy; how can the Church function as the purveyor of natural law while its constituents flippantly ignored these statutes for years? Did Sullivan betray his sensible subjectivity slightly with an underhanded injection of the Church’s humiliation? Maybe. But his care with the subject, easily the Achilles’ heel of the Church’s moral authority, validated his argument. It also validated the argument of his opponents.
Indeed, Sullivan’s treatment of the Catholic Church is both destructive and redemptive. Zealous bigotry is not, Sullivan contended, the defining feature of the Church’s rhetoric; there are arguments that demand and deserve the respect of fair engagement. And who better to deliver this speech, for Sullivan has an invested interest in both sides. As a gay man, he must fight arduously for equal legal protection. But as a conservative and, more importantly, a religious Roman Catholic, he must rationalize the apocrypha that has come to dominate the American Right and the oppression that his church condones. As his speech progresses, and he describes the tumult of his childhood, and the hurt he has incurred by his church; his creaking voiced and moist eyes betray his emotional investment. But his speech is overwhelmingly level-headed, and his engagement with Catholic discourse replaces spite with respect and rage with reason.
Andrew Sullivan is a walking contradiction. The very fact that this gay man, fiercely religious and passionately conservative, should base his speech in the importance of consistency seems puzzling. But his statement, ultimately, is important, especially for Princeton. From our vantage point, it is easy to see the transformations of the political Right, but the cogent details within their arguments often escape our view. The religious right, Sullivan explained, does not consist simply of zealous demagoguery; there are arguments that deserve our consideration. Yes, these arguments are flawed, inconsistent and disconcerting, but that does not mean that they don’t exist.
Sullivan showed that the Catholic Church does, perhaps, have definitive arguments that warrant our respect. But how does the discussion of natural law truly influence the political sphere, much of which does cling to a selectively literal interpretation of the Bible? I contend that it is important for Princeton students to acknowledge, understand and perhaps join discussion on natural law, but ultimately I question its pragmatic worth. Has Andrew Sullivan worked to decompose a theo- logical debate that most Americans never truly consider? Perhaps he catalogued that biblical discussion towards the beginning of his speech too early. While we learn to acknowledge extant arguments, we must understand the limits of discourse. Are these debates rooted in corrupted, philosophical reasoning—or is a larger, emotional catalyst responsible? If the latter is true, then Sullivan’s careful, thorough rebuttals may prove ineffectual. Perhaps Sullivan reveals, challenges and engages pressing questions, which may ultimately complicate matters. But behold his rich identity and his engagement with seemingly inconsistent discourses, which synchronize to form one compelling thought. This theological paradigm, this cobweb of questions, does not belong to the public sphere. But his patient, precise consideration of each argument buoyed from left and right—his panoramic view of politics—most certainly does.