Response to Tushnet: Traditions, Same-Sex Marriage, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Eve Tushnet’s response to my argument about traditions and traditionalism makes wonderful reading. She is especially acute about one of the primary implications of my argument. Once one rebuts the attempt to characterize traditions as arbitrary things that, to use her term “entangle” us, then one is presumably obliged to take the next step: to deal with that entanglement, to judge it, and to ask oneself exactly how, and in what ways, one ought to sacrifice something—a choice, a preference, a resource—on its behalf.

She opens up this implication by way of an observation by Paul Kahn, who wrote that “Recognizing that there is no subject without parents, for example, hardly tells us how we should view our parents.” Charles Taylor once made a similar observation about what he saw as the frequent confusion between “ontological issues” and “advocacy issues” in the liberal-communitarian debate. Even if we admit the entanglement of our subjectivity in the meaning-construction of someone or something else (our parents, the English language, the holidays on our calendar, etc.), this does not, in itself, tell us how to deal with our parents, our language, or our holiday traditions. As Taylor put it, “Taking an ontological position does not amount to advocating something,” though at the same time “the ontological does help to define the options which it is meaningful to support by advocacy.”[1]

It is here that we see the effort to clarify our thinking on traditions most often challenged by some libertarians or individualists. While many—perhaps most—of this disposition may see no reason to dispute the way their subjectivity is enmeshed in, perhaps even constituted by, histories, cultures, and traditions, more than a few are leery of conceding it. Such an allowance may, and often does, entail policy commitments. Hence libertarians’ not infrequent reliance upon claims like those of Hobsbawm, asserting that tradition is always to a significant degree arbitrary, because it is always in flux.

In my essay, I criticized the view that what we are enmeshed in is little more than a “constructed” reification of some historical moment, that its claims are arbitrary, and that we therefore can (and, it is usually implied, should) escape them. In rejecting that “bizarrely simplistic, ahistorical” argument, as Tushnet rightly puts it, I am unavoidably placing a follow-up question before us: how should we think about, and respond to, these larger things?

This follow-up will inevitably take us, as Tushnet’s response is titled, “beyond liberalism.” Liberal culturalists such as Will Kymlicka, as I noted, would almost certainly dissent from this: as they view traditions as resources that individuals may embrace or reject, they would likely argue that such follow-up questions can (and, again, should) be answered privately, without any shaping or obliging that extends beyond individual preference. But this is not the case, since the context of this follow-up concern—how to deal with the traditions we are entangled in—requires us to think about matters that cannot be fully articulated without reference to a community of others both living and dead. Tushnet suggests that the matters entwined in the context of our responses to such traditions are things like beauty, love, honor, and suffering; I could add to that list pleasure, solidarity, and a sense of place and wholeness. Any and all of those potentially draw upon such a huge variety of media and measures that an authority of something or someone beyond one’s own interest has to come into play; the act of interpretation practically demands it.

Tushnet thoughtfully presents tradition as that which gives substance to the often abstract authorities on whom we usually rely as we make judgments about our culture, history, parentage, or calendar. I would quibble with her idea that a practice or institution might accrete traditions and gain authority thereby; it seems to me, rather, that some activities (such as certain religious rituals) are held as authoritative from their origin or from some stage in their process of origination (or transformation), and become something traditional to be passed down accordingly. Mostly though, her point about authority is well taken. It is the idea of authority, after all, which makes sense of the idea of obligation, shaping, and adherence. So, to move the discussion from the philosophical to the political, what might be authoritative understandings of things we love, honor, or wish to be in solidarity with, which traditions can, though associating us with others, “put flesh and costume” (to quote Tushnet again) upon?

An easy one to start with, since I am writing this on the day itself: Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In my essay, I made mention of the work of Sarah Hale, a 19th-century feminist who cajoled and corresponded with politicians, business leaders, and women’s groups for years to get the national government to officially declare Thanksgiving Day a holiday, with all the legal and economic ramifications such a declaration inevitably had. Similarly, this January 17th was the 25th anniversary of the first public honoring of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, the result of years of activism by labor unions, civil rights groups, and Democratic politicians, who clearly understood pushing the holiday as a way to continue to distinguish their record during the civil rights movement from that of the Republicans.

I remember the arguments both for and against the holiday which abounded during my middle and high school years in mostly white, mostly conservative communities in the American west; friends of mine from white communities in the South have similar recollections. Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. would challenge the solitary honor which George Washington had previously enjoyed in the federal calendar; it would oblige states to introduce unpopular concepts into elementary school curricula; it would require contorted balancing acts to satisfy various constituencies (creating a “Civil Rights Day” or the short-lived “Lee-Jackson-King Day” were just two ways different states sought to accommodate themselves to the national government’s decision). Holidays, of course, are not generally occasions of high sacrifice, but still, on the level of school budgets, government payrolls, work schedules, and more, significant interpretation and adjustment is necessary. Taking the legacy, ideals, and impact of a single man, and using them to engage in an act of partisan construction, so as to force into the civic routine of the nation a set of traditions, however plebeian they may be, oriented around an important national memory of protest and struggle, was anything but an easy, individually obvious, static operation; it was, and still remains, a dynamic, collective, contentious act—as most any holiday should be. But the result is that a reference point for remembrance in now part of our calendar, and we—or at least, those in sympathy with the aim of that remembrance—are empowered thereby.

A harder one now: same-sex marriage. Here the arguments on both sides are much more fraught, but their forms do not appear to me to be much different. Of course, in the debate over extending formal legal recognition to the marriages of gays and lesbians, generally only one side uses arguments from tradition. But those who make these arguments follow a similar pattern. First, that an authoritative understanding of the purposes of marriage has emerged through the many diverse marriage practices which have been recognized throughout the history of Western civilization, one that was originally grounded upon a Judeo-Christian understanding sexual morality and the relations between the sexes, but which has also been shaped and interpreted in light of social and economic imperatives over centuries. Second, that this contested, constructed definition nonetheless reflects a naturally evident and socially useful distinction between males and females when living in society and/or engaged in procreation. Finally, that as this distinction has been codified into various traditional practices and assumptions, the recognition of the rights and aspirations of gay and lesbian individuals has presented them with a challenge: how much can the traditional rules that govern our civic life regarding marriage be changed to accommodate new understandings about sexual morality, especially since much past interpretation and elaboration of marriage traditions in connection with procreation and property have been already undone by changes in gender roles, notions of divorce, and so forth?

One “conservative” answer has been to describe marriage traditions as essentially eternal, absolute, and static; that the legal recognition of same-sex marriage would be a change so great as to render completely pointless all the moral meaning and guidance they once provided to people attempting the flesh out the abstraction that the marriage relationship makes possible. Hence, same-sex marriage is simply incoherent.

That answer fails to recognize the interpretive, constructive, and subjective history at work in the authority behind any tradition; it is weak, because it leaves itself open to the Hobsbawmian claim that since something isn’t eternal, it must not be too meaningful either. The harder, but necessary, argument for those whose religious beliefs lead them to oppose same-sex marriage, is to recognize that the meaning of a tradition cannot be contained solely in its repetitive, customary performance; it has to be revivified through constant acts of judgment that take into consideration the lives actually lived by its practitioners. There is no good reason to believe that radically re-made traditions regarding how one can make substantive the abstract, collective, even “illiberal” matters at the heart of marriage may not emerge, and do so in continuity with older understandings of those same traditions. Of course, that emergence will almost certainly be divisive, and will likely be contested; arguably, this very process has been underway in the United States for multiple decades now.[2] And the end result is anything but guaranteed. But those who imagine traditions could ever be otherwise—from either point of view—are fooling themselves, I think.


[1] Taylor, “Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate,” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, Nancy L. Rosenblum, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 161.

[2] This is essentially the broad argument—one about the emergence of two very distinct expressions of marriage and family life—made in Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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.