4 min

The fundamentalist psyche

Don't give up on reason, says author Andrew Sullivan

Credit: Xtra West Files

Whether or not the recent Democratic sweep of the US Senate and House of Representatives will foreshadow the next Canadian election remains to be seen, but it does offer a glimmer of hope.

Will Canadians look to the south, shake their heads and finally conclude that religion has no place in government? Or will they put Conservative values first and give Stephen Harper the majority government he is so desperate for?

On the phone from his home in Washington, DC, I ask gay blogger and The Conservative Soul author Andrew Sullivan if he thinks the recent American election proves that church and state don’t mix.

“I think it says that even in America, if you push things too far in a certain direction, you cannot win elections on the basis of religious fundamentalism, let alone in a country like Canada,” he replies.

Sullivan’s book attempts to distinguish traditional conservative values from what he describes as “the fundamentalist psyche.”

“You have to sublimate to an authority based on what somebody else is telling you,” he says, of the latter psyche. “You have to suspend your own reasoning to some extent in order to make sense of it.”

He goes so far as to draw an analogy between the fundamentalist mindset and Bush’s rationale to invade Iraq.

“The fundamentalist makes his mind up instantly,” he writes, ” makes the fundamental decision, and cannot, by necessity, stop short at a later date and ask himself if he’s right. Such second-guessing undermines his entire worldview. It threatens his inner psychological core.”

By contrast, a traditional conservative is someone who largely wants things to stay the same; someone who accepts you can’t solve all of the world’s problems, and who knows what they do not know.

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t tell me how, as gay people, we can combat the real fundamentalists bent on stripping away our rights and undermining our very existence. Do we attack them as aggressively as they are attacking us, or should we try to be more accommodating?

“I think we have no option but to make arguments back,” says Sullivan. “If we give up on reason we simply cede everything to power and enthusiasm then as gay people, as a minority, we all lose.

“When you respond with reason then the people in the middle who aren’t necessarily on either side notice who is being more reasonable and we win in the long run,” he continues. “That’s what happened in this election in America: reasonable people in the middle listened to the arguments both sides were making and decided those of us who weren’t going to support this administration anymore had the better of the two arguments.”

But how much of religious fundamentalism is faith and how much is hubris? I ask Sullivan if he thinks some closeted gay men deliberately portray themselves as righteous hets in a grab for power.

“I wouldn’t say that,” he replies, “it’s more complicated than that. Some gay men cannot cope with their sexual orientations and they sublimate it into some kind of religious calling or what some psychologists call “reaction formation”–externalize what’s inside of them and attack it.

“That’s definitely what you see in the case of someone like Ted Haggard. I wouldn’t want to diagnose somebody from a distance, but I think it’s a syndrome that the closet definitely breeds and it’s been exposed in this country rather brutally in the last couple of months.”

On a recent edition of The Colbert Report, Sullivan said the Republican Party can no longer play both sides of the coin, socializing with gays in private and attacking them in public. I ask him how last week’s election is likely to affect the way Republicans treat gays in the future.

“I think it intensified the process, accelerated it,” he says. “The closet doesn’t work anymore; it doesn’t work when it’s actually members of people’s families, like the vice president’s daughter. There’s no way they can keep the shell game going.

“But a lot of it is up to the gay people involved,” he insists. “I don’t believe in outing people, but I do believe that if every gay person who works in the Republican Party were out and were aggressively fighting from within, then I believe this whole thing with the Christian Right would be largely over.”

As for his own zealous admiration of smaller-c conservatives, Sullivan admits to being a Ronald Reagan fan in The Conservative Soul–HIV policies and all.

I ask him how he can take such a stance.

“I think more could have been done,” he concedes. “[But] in terms of prevention and safe sex, I’m not exactly sure that if Ronald Reagan had gone into the gay community in the mid-’80s and told people to wear condoms, he would have made a very good impact. I think it was up to us to do that, and we did to a great extent.

“I don’t believe in any way that Reagan should be let off the hook,” he continues. “On the other hand, I believe some people want to blame him somehow for the entire AIDS epidemic. My view of Reagan is not shaped fundamentally by his polices towards HIV but his policies in terms of re-energizing the American economy and cutting taxes, defeating communism and cold war. Those things seem to me to be epic achievements that are still worth celebrating.”

And there you have it, the gay conservative soul; not exactly my soul mate.

Still, the next time I’m on the floor of my apartment in the fetal, shivering at the prospect of a Harper majority, I will try to remember his advice urging us to counter the fundamentalists’ arguments with reason. Or I could just become an evangelist.