Tradition in the Age of Equality

The fundamental contradiction in my thinking about social life is bound up with the juxtaposition in me of two elements—an aristocratic interpretation of personality, freedom and creativeness, and a socialistic demand for the assertion of the dignity of every man, of even the most insignificant of men, and for a guarantee of his rights in life. This is the clash of a passionate love of the world above, of a love of the highest, with pity for this lower world, the world of suffering. […] In both cases I reject the foundations of the contemporary world.

— Nikolai Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom. [1]

Tradition does not have it easy in contemporary life. As Russell Arben Fox observes, the burden is on traditionalists to explain what condition their condition is in—not only to themselves, but to nontraditionalist others. Whether traditionalists choose to emphasize the durability or the flexibility of their beliefs and practices, they encounter the same problem. Often, from an outside perspective, traditions appear arbitrary or incoherent, and traditionalists may seem dishonest about the degree to which their inheritances are mere preferences. But what defines the current era is how traditions now commonly appear from the inside. Increasingly, our attention is drawn to the possibility that traditions cannot supply their own foundations in contemporary life. Today, what struggles most to survive within traditions is their authority itself.

Under the influence of German social and political thought, our reflex is to describe this problem in terms of modernization. During the modern era, the authority of the defining traditions of Western life lost its cultural command. To account for this sea change, we turn instinctively to the so-called “secularization thesis,” which attributes the collapse of traditional authority to the rise of secular society and the decline of Biblical faith. On a view adapted from theorists ranging from Hegel to Weber to Strauss, the fate of tradition is modernization, and the hallmark of modernization is secularization. According to the secularization thesis, the authority of tradition is inexorably destroyed by the retreat of religion from public and private life.

But the reality of “modern” life tells us otherwise. Traditions and their elements that do not depend on Biblical faith have largely fared as poorly as those that do—if not worse. Christian morality, and secular moralities with Christian roots, are mobilized continually against the lingering authority of traditional beliefs and practices rooted in mores with classical and aristocratic foundations. “Modernity,” as Friedrich Nietzsche recognized, is far more hostile to traditions that presume a vertical moral order of unequal nobility than to traditions propounding a horizontal moral order of equal dignity.

To understand the fate and future of traditions, we need an alternative to the secularization thesis—and a different conceptual point of departure than “modernity.” Perhaps strangely, we can find that alternative in the thought of not only Nietzsche but Alexis de Tocqueville. Both understood that the current time is defined much less by secularization than by the spread of equality—democratization. Each recognized that, in a democratic age, Biblical morality would be opposed only insofar as it retained its noble aspect—its commanding system of yeses and nos that authoritatively establish a moral hierarchy. But both thinkers also knew that Biblical morality contained the most profoundly equalizing moral code that had ever been seen on earth—inspiration for a humanistic democratic ethic that sees all persons as equally unique, autonomous, and valuable.

Circumscribing and defining this tremendous equalization, of course, was the authority of the ultimate inequality—that between a creator God and his human creatures. Tocqueville worried and Nietzsche declared that the creator God was “dead” to the democratic world. But where Tocqueville believed that Biblical faith radically and enduringly reconciled noble, hierarchical morality with the egalitarian morality of dignity, securing a foundation for authoritative order in a democratic age, Nietzsche avowed that the attempt to maintain such an order would slip swiftly into nihilism. For Nietzsche, egalitarian nihilism could only be defeated if Biblical faith was destroyed and a new, anti-Christian nobility founded.

In our current democratic age, the question for traditionalists is whether Tocqueville is right and Nietzsche is wrong. But the answer, as some of our most prominent traditions reveal, is not so simple as yes or no. Consider, with Fox, Christmas. In its common, popular form, Christmas is a holiday in which we, and a magical semi-saint, bestow gifts on the occasion of the birth of Jesus Christ (observed). The secularization thesis predicts that the Christian aspect of Christmas will drop out—and to be sure, traditionalist Christian critics of commercialism find themselves obliged to emphasize that Jesus is “the reason for the season.” But the flourishing we see today of plural Christmases—some deeply religious, some crassly commercial, and several somewhere in between—is far more consistent with what we can call the democratization thesis.

The same is true with marriage. Like Christmas, marriage is an institutionalized tradition. And like Christmas, marriage flourishes today in a variety of forms imbued with a range of meanings. But marriage is the more important test case for contemporary traditions because the practice of marriage which we recognize as “traditional marriage” is itself the product of an immensely complicated adjudication of traditions, moralities, and aspects of human personhood. Among them we can count the following: a natural capacity for monogamy; a cultural appreciation for the noble morality of “good matches” made over generations; a separate cultural appreciation for the moral dignity of love, and the democratic character of freely made romantic matches; and a Christian (and post-Christian) appreciation for the power of a spiritual union to transcend, fulfill, discipline, educate, and redeem all our natural capacities and our cultural particularities.

We rarely think—and almost never speak—of “traditional marriage” in this way. The difficult cultural labor hidden within its simplified practice and belief is not at all laid bare by our characterization of marriage as traditional. But the problem does not stop there. For the devoutly religious, there may well be a creedal answer to the question of precisely how the sometimes competing, sometimes complementary sub-traditions, moralities, and human aspects are adjudicated within their institution of marriage. Even such doctrinal believers, however, are perhaps likely to be ignorant of the particulars of that answer. Ignorance can be more serious among traditionalists without an official creed. “Traditional marriage” is an institution without a fully authoritative account of which moralities, which traditions, and which human characteristics command us to say no, by varying degrees, to which others.

This confusion is not the consequence of the secularization of marriage but of its democratization. In spite of it all, “traditional marriage” appears to be a highly durable and flexible institution. But it is the lot of traditions in democratic times to be pressured to become comprehensive—“all-inclusive,” in the parlance of our times. Rather than destroying a tradition, democratization tends to qualify it in such as a way as to make its experience open to anyone. That makes for some precarious cultural acrobatics: somehow a tradition must be made to overcome its own particularities without losing its status as a tradition.

Today there are two main obstacles to the full democratization of marriage: first, a conviction that God holds only certain unions to be holy; second, a conviction that the multigenerational natural family is a uniquely noble moral project for human beings. The second conviction is not inconsistent with Biblical religion, but it is inconsistent with the egalitarian morality of a democratic age. Viewing marriage as the fulfillment of God’s plan is far less repugnant to the democratic creed than viewing traditional marriage as a prestigiously challenging and powerful vehicle for the production of superior human beings.

It is essential to recall that marriage as practiced in more deeply religious times was not more democratic. The aristocratic aspect of marriage is, in some respects, deeply antagonistic to the Christian conception of personal love. But the aristocratic tradition of marriage was successfully integrated into the Christian one—leading to what we today consider “traditional marriage.” The current predicament of traditional marriage challenges Tocqueville’s belief that Christianity supplies democratic people with the resources they need to observe noble truths in an egalitarian setting. Christianity today struggles even to articulate a reason why the noble or aristocratic view of the natural family should not be dismissed forever. Democratic life already makes the pursuit of that noble ideal a costly, lonely, and risky business. Why, at a time when religions and creeds themselves are being relentlessly democratized, would a Christian denomination add to its burdens the responsibility of defending a moral view that has never fit neatly within its dogma?

Traditions cannot be thought of except in relation to institutions. As far as our current struggle is concerned, what is true of marriage is true of any cultural institution that carries traditions that reach back behind the democratic age for at least some of their foundations. Unable to provide their own foundations, traditions in a democratic age are likely to fall back upon the authority of the state—the only institution that can officialize the openness of traditions to all. The decision of the California Supreme Court in re Marriage Cases and the plurality opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey testify to that. In the absence of any other commanding creedal institutions, any state functioning in this way controls culture in the manner recommended by Hobbes.

If our democratic age cannot abide such a closed system, the alternative may be a tacit agreement to keep two sets of cultural books, so to speak—with official and unofficial spheres of life largely replacing the customary public and private. What Tocqueville calls the “constant agitation” of democratic life will deepen considerably if unofficial culture organizes itself around experiences of unequal power and status that are prohibited in the official culture. At any rate, a government that cannot remain solvent and enforce the rule of law is probably unable to bear the mantle of Hobbesian cultural authority. The authority of current traditions may prove more resilient, and more resistant to full democratization, than many traditionalists seem to fear.


[1] Thanks to Matt Frost for bringing to my attention this passage in Nikolai Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944, p. 9.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, communitarian political theorist Russell Arben Fox considers the role of tradition in orienting, or perhaps even in fashioning, the individual. Tradition is under assault, we are told, by market forces, global integration, and the ubiquitous media. Marxist and postmodern thinkers have even suggested that under such conditions, all traditions must be somewhat inauthentic — the product of conscious fashioning, and, thus, not really a tradition at all. At times, traditionalists have called for group rights and group protections in an attempt to prevent commerce from eroding tradition, and thus, they hope, they can avoid the postmodern critique entirely.

    But traditions have always been subject to re-invention and re-interpretation, Fox argues. The supposedly new challenge of liberal commercial society is neither new nor even much of a challenge. Traditions are and always have been opportunities for creativity, appropriation, and self-conscious cultural critique. The political implications of traditionalism may be considerably fewer than traditionalists or their critics appreciate.

Response Essays

  • Eve Tushnet argues that liberalism has tended to strip away traditions in a very troubling fashion. “One of the most challenging cultural tasks we face now,” she writes “is to put flesh and costume back on traditions which have been stripped almost to the skeleton.” At the very least, she argues, traditions fill an important gap in the liberal project. Where liberalism values reason, material comfort, and autonomy, tradition helps us make sense of life’s more senseless and painful aspects. Tradition helps us to understand and, yes, to obey deserving authority. Given that it is human nature to experience frustration and constraint, tradition promises solace, connection to others, and even transcendence.

  • John Fea notes the peculiar place of tradition in American political culture. The United States was the first country self-consciously founded on Enlightenment principles. As such it called many traditions into question. Tom Paine urged his fellow citizens to “begin the world anew.” As a result, progress and tradition are constantly in tension in American political culture. To preserve national traditions from a “cultural holocaust,” Fea defends government funding for historical sites, museums, and other aspects of our heritage.

  • James Poulos argues that what’s eroding tradition today isn’t commercialism or secularization. It’s equality. The democratic ideal of equality is also in some senses a Christian ideal, too. But it often calls into question traditions that presuppose social hierarchy. Traditions emphasizing inequality or privilege have fared badly, while traditions emphasizing equality have flourished. Poulos draws on Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville to ask a very large question: Does the vital core of traditional Christian social thought survive? Or is God really dead in the age of equality? Traditional marriage is offered as an example.