In his remarks to the crowd gathered in Marshall Auditorium last Friday evening, author and blogger Andrew Sullivan declared that he was “coming out” – as a Christian, as a conservative and as a homosexual. He jokingly observed that the last of these was likely the least controversial of the three at a place like Haverford, and he was probably correct.
While bringing Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck to campus would have burst the political Haverbubble in more dramatic and explosive fashion, the decision to invite Sullivan was a welcome opportunity for students of all ideological persuasions to have their opinions challenged by a thoughtful public intellectual whose own views stubbornly defy classification. The Speakers Committee, which was responsible for arranging his visit, ought to make sure Haverford hears from even more contrarians in the future.
Sure, Sullivan’s diatribe about Sarah Palin, his attacks on the Bush Administration’s foreign policy and his quips about the alleged ubiquity of closeted gays in the Catholic hierarchy may have annoyed the handful of committed right-wingers in attendance. They might have wondered whether Haverford would ever have the stomach to invite a conservative who would at least speak ill of President Obama.
But Sullivan is not just a conservative in name only. At one point in the evening he challenged those who suggested that the economic stimulus passed by the Democratic Congress in 2009 should have been larger and more comprehensive – a perennial complaint of the party’s progressive critics. He dismissed hand-wringing about political gridlock and obstructionism, noting that the Constitution was written to guarantee that change would be a slow and arduous process.
He took on the late Christopher Hitchens and the “New Atheists” for making reason into its own sort of dogma and for failing to examine completely the role of mystery in their own worldview. And, while fully aware of the audience’s near-unanimous support for gay rights, he boldly admitted that he would rather tolerate the continuing injustice of bans on same-sex unions across vast swaths of the country than see the Supreme Court nationalize one particular understanding of marriage on the basis of the “intellectual peregrinations of Anthony Kennedy.”
Yet even in front of a crowd of liberals, Sullivan never came off as an ideologue. He was able to connect with his listeners effectively enough to make them willing to hear him out even when they disagreed with his arguments. His allusions to growing up in a small town in Great Britain helped to dispel any notions that his skepticism of expensive government initiatives is driven by an elitist concern for the well-being of the one percent. His moving account of his realization at a young age that he was different from his peers offered proof that his reluctance to see same-sex marriage enacted through judicial fiat is certainly not driven by bigotry or self-hate.
It is precisely that ability and willingness to meet people where they are that is so sorely lacking in many of our conversations about politics and religion today. In fact, anyone interested in pushing left-leaning Haverfordians to reflect critically on their political beliefs should see guests like Andrew Sullivan as eminently preferable to more rigorous defenders of conservative ideas. Stridency can attract talk-radio listeners, but it does little to convince those who don’t already share your worldview.
The main objective of Speakers Committee and the other organizations that bring presenters to Haverford should be to seek out people who will challenge us in exciting and unpredictable ways. This is not to suggest that these groups have necessarily failed on this point in the past, or that their previous invited guests have been an undifferentiated mass of left-wing nutjobs. In fact, most of the speakers I’ve heard during my time here have been hardly ideological at all: NPR’s Terry Gross, who visited campus in the fall of 2011, spoke about the difficult necessity of maintaining objectivity and neutrality in journalism. New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz played word games with the audience during his 2012 talk.
But when more opinionated visitors like Hitchens or feminist activist Gloria Steinem offer up defenses of their respective causes, it becomes apparent from the sympathetic questions that they field afterwards that there are few in real need of persuasion. With Sullivan however, questioners seemed more eager to learn about the intricacies of his thought than to share not-really-a-question statements about their preexisting support for his positions.
So bravo, Speakers Committee! Andrew Sullivan was an excellent catch. We can only hope that you’re working hard on finding next semester’s conservative, Obama-supporting gay Catholic. If for some reason that doesn’t work out – surprise us.