True conservatism recoils from the fundamentalist obsession with virtue and natural law, but embraces a minimalist view of government that allows a maximum of economic and lifestyle liberty.
This is the argument that Sullivan has long been refining on his popular blog, The Daily Dish, and in his numerous print columns and books (Virtually Normal, 1995, etc.). In this book, he deploys an interpretation of the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott to support his continuing effort to reconcile his Catholicism and Thatcherite conservatism with the normalization of homosexuality and, most of all, with the redefinition of marriage to include homosexual couples. Sullivan notes that government must be based neither on reactionary adherence to the past, nor on Thomist theories of natural law, but on doubt: specifically, on the Hobbesian disbelief that our neighbor can be trusted not to do us an injury in the absence of a public authority. (Oddly, liberty requires that we give our neighbor “the benefit of the doubt” and therefore civil equality.) Government has no business inculcating virtue in society, the author says. Rather, good conservative government will accommodate itself to the felt needs of the time, like Disraeli’s support of the democratic franchise in 19th-century Britain and, as Sullivan would have it, gay marriage in 21st-century America. In order to reach these conclusions, the author devotes about half of this work to explaining why most people who call themselves conservatives are really fundamentalists, a class that stretches from Osama bin Laden, through the editorial offices of the better neoconservative journals, and up to the fundamentalists-in-chief, George W. Bush and Benedict XVI. What all these people have in common is the belief that they know the truth with a certainty that allows them to impose their views either by force or by a definition that can compel consciences.
It’s difficult to imagine the audience for this philosophy: Cultural revolutionaries can turn to franker polemics, while self-described conservatives will be unnerved by Sullivan’s anti-foundationalism.