Who Put the Tradition in “Traditional Marriage”?

Why is marriage the only area of contemporary politics in which tradition is used explicitly as a justification?

Both Russell Arben Fox and James Poulos used marriage to exemplify their views of tradition, and it’s the only public-policy question I can think of in which one side has actually accepted the label “traditional.” Considering why this has happened may illuminate weaknesses in both contemporary marriage and contemporary traditionalism. We can ask both “why is ‘tradition’ cited as a justification for defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman?” and “why are other political issues not explicitly defended on traditionalist grounds?”

Two things have happened to contemporary marriage which all but compel traditionalist rhetoric in a non-traditionalist culture. First, one of marriage’s core purposes has been suppressed in public discourse. Marriage developed in major part to regulate sex between men and women—to regulate it not solely within marriage but before marriage. The idea that marriage as an institution should regulate whether the unmarried have sex used to be obvious. It’s not that everyone actually abstained, as the bawdy songs show! But the cultural expectation was that premarital chastity could be demanded, defended, held up as social necessity and religious virtue, and its opposite punished (as in the sadder bawdy songs) or wryly rejected (as in the funnier ones).

Ten minutes’ conversation with people in their teens or twenties, anywhere from Main Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, will make clear that the exact opposite of this perspective is now as obvious as the older one used to be. Premarital sex is not only practiced but assumed, and often valorized. (You should live together before marriage; don’t be stupid!)

We can debate whether this deregulation has been good for the elite, for the underclass, for men, for women, for children, etc., but I’m not here to ask who lost the sexual revolution. I’m pointing out that when a core purpose of a tradition is still acknowledged in public debate, people don’t defend the tradition for tradition’s sake. They defend it because it serves the core purpose. This approach to tradition is inadequate, for reasons I tried to draw out in my first post, but it’s an obvious rhetorical approach in a pluralist society.

Secondly, the competing authorities that used to combine to make marriage compelling have now been discredited or pitted against one another. Church and state once agreed here, even when they fought elsewhere. Yet the very idea of something simultaneously sacred and legal is now suspect—almost unintelligible, which is one reason so many people I talk to think that the optimal solution to the gay-marriage debate would be for the government to “get out of marriage,” but they think that just isn’t practical.

When a tradition is justified by its support from a beloved authority, people don’t defend the tradition for tradition’s sake. They defend it because it comes from and flows back toward the authority.

The honor and beauty that accumulated around marriage over millennia of liturgy, folk culture, and pain and grace still attract us; yet the necessities, the suffering that marriage sometimes could transform into sacrifice, are often no longer intelligible. So we fall back on a language which is all assumption and allusion. The only word we have left for marriage is “traditional.”

I’m not entirely sure of my analysis on what’s happened with marriage to make it the arena for explicit defenses of tradition-as-such, and I’d be interested in responses there. (I also think that a supporter of gay marriage could agree with literally everything I’ve argued in this post, although I think my points should make him reconsider the project of transforming marriage into a gender-neutral institution.) So my questions are these: What am I missing in this account of why tradition is only explicitly invoked in this one policy debate? Where else do “trads” think it should be invoked, and why? (John Fea gave one example, but I would like something more hot-blooded!) What, if anything, can or should be done to restore “tradition” as a justification in political rhetoric?

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.