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Eleven years ago a crudely animated short film went viral, with believers and nonbelievers alike e-mailing it out to friends. In the cartoon, Jesus and Santa Claus use a martial arts duel to settle the debate over the true meaning of Christmas as four foul-mouthed elementary schoolers deride one another, Christianity, and day-after-Thanksgiving sales. Comedy Central gave the film’s creators their own show. The hit series “South Park” was born. Widely popular among younger audiences, “South Park” does not fit the notion that cartoons are a breeding ground for liberal anarchy. The show has a decidedly conservative bent. (An episode satirizing the North American Man/Boy Love Association was not a treatise on protecting civil liberties.) No matter. Republicans and social conservative groups went nuts over the show’s vulgarity, saying it had no place in American culture. Andrew Sullivan disagrees. The popular blogger, Time columnist, and conservative pundit relishes the show’s trampling of political correctness. In 2001 he dubbed himself a “South Park” Republican. But the term wasn’t just humorous. It was also prescient. Because in addition to banishing subversive pop-culture criticism, Republicans have more recently eliminated Sullivan’s brand of conservatism (as a result, he now calls himself a “South Park” conservative). In his new book, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back, Sullivan takes aim at the ideology favored by Christian fundamentalists in the Republican ranks. The work is an impassioned defining of conservatism — and then a deft distancing of it from the presidency of George W. Bush. A gay Catholic and a Thatcherite conservative, Sullivan contrasts his ideology with that of a political party that, he says, legislates from the pulpit. Fans of Sullivan’s columns and his blog, The Daily Dose, will find the theme familiar: After decades of courting social conservatives, Sullivan argues, the Republican Party now “rejects the entire premise of secular democracy.” It’s a heavy charge wielded with intellectual muscle. And in making this argument, Sullivan aligns the worldviews of classic conservatism and secular liberalism. Both conservatives and liberals think “government can try to be above the fray, that it can aspire to be the mediator for very different people who have to live alongside one another.” What makes Sullivan’s criticism most damning is where it’s coming from and where it’s aimed. This isn’t Al Franken berating all things GOP. Rather, this is a conservative talking to Reaganites — those who stress limited government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility. For them, The Conservative Soul is a call to arms. Sullivan is not the only right-winger voicing these concerns. But in a growing chorus, Sullivan’s argument is the most pronounced. And his book is the first to delineate plainly and thoughtfully the misgivings of a once-proud Bush voter in 2000, who yearns for the halcyon days of Bush the Elder. The writing in The Conservative Soul is clean and engaging, which is never an easy feat, especially in discussions of such complex ideas. Sullivan, for instance, illuminates the fundamentalist view on nonreproductive sex, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and stem-cell research. Sullivan writes that religion is increasingly being used as a political weapon in America. He quotes George Washington: “I had hoped that liberal and enlightened thoughts would have reconciled the Christians so that their religious fights would not endanger the peace of society.” Sullivan says the country’s burgeoning religiosity “affirms faith, promises to abolish fear, and offers a clear answer to the bewilderment of modernity.” Its rise came in the �90s, after communism fell and morality became the dominant theme for Republicans. The book builds to a devastating criticism of President Bush, whose governing style, Sullivan says, is long on vision and short on detail. For Bush, “second-guessing undermines his entire worldview. It threatens his inner psychological core.” Of his many grievances with Bush, foremost for Sullivan is administration-approved torture. He writes: “If conservatism had begun as a political philosophy designed to check power, to ensure individual liberty, to protect individuals from lawless government authority, it ended in a dark room, with a defenseless detainee strapped to a board, terrified beyond most of our imagining.” And finally, Sullivan defines what conservatism means to him. His theory, boiled down to a single sentence, is that “the defining characteristic of a conservative is that he doesn’t know.” He embraces humility and doubt, in contrast with Bush’s well-documented righteous rigidity. A recent episode of “South Park” lampooned the gay-marriage debate. Part of a social experiment, the kids’ elementary school class was divided into couples and given an egg to take care of. As a twist, two of the couples were the same gender; the teacher believed the gay couples would break their egg, proving that same-sex marriage is bad. Only they didn’t. Instead, it was the spiteful, female-paired Eric Cartman who smashed his egg — and along with it, the stereotype that all conservatives are against gay marriage. Sullivan was, no doubt, smiling.
Nathan Carlile can be contacted at [email protected].

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