Concluding Response to Fea and Others: “Tradition” vs. “Traditionalism”

John Fea suggests that the turn that Tushnet and I have made in our final exchange—in which I basically agreed with her in that the argument over same-sex marriage is the only major public policy dispute in America today where “tradition” is regularly invoked, though dissented in a few particulars—is missing the larger picture. Fea and I are in agreement that, on the local level (whether it be in his own example of Chesterton, Maryland, or my own of Wichita, Kansas), the rhetoric of “tradition” still regularly carries some real persuasive authority, but he implies that I go to far in agreeing with Tushnet about “hot blooded” issues. He proposes that the frequent references to America as a “Christian nation,” or those who argue (for religious or other reasons) that Christmas should returned to its “original” commerce-free meanings, or the Tea Party’s obsession with the U.S. Constitution itself, all constitute very serious examples of “tradition” being used in our public life.

As all of the participants in this month’s discussion have noted, “tradition” is an ambiguous word that can be used in a variety of ways with a variety of specific or general referents. And that variety can be confusing, a confusion which leads those of us interested in arguing about it at all to work from philosophy to politics and back again. Given that, I wouldn’t want to carve into stone any of the distinctions I (or any of my fine respondents) have made this month. But for purposes of moving the discussion forward, I think I could turn back to Fea’s original response, where he distinguished between “tradition” and “traditionalism.” In it, he cited Jaroslav Pelikan’s insightful distinction that whereas the former involves an active, “conversational” remembering, the latter “supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.” I think that the cases Fea mentions might be better labeled “traditionalism,” rather than tradition; whereas in the case of the marriage debate, I think that, while an unreflective traditionalism does play a role, there is a much more engaged and interpretive dispute over tradition itself taking place.

In my first response to Fea, I compared Pelikan’s distinction to one made by Christopher Lasch, between “memory” and “custom.” I actually prefer this way of making distinctions in this context, because I find “traditionalism” a useful word. But in any case, the point is that there is one way of using the rhetoric of tradition that seriously struggles with its meaning, that respects that times have changed and that the particulars of the tradition itself have changed as they have been subjectively experienced by different persons over the years. And then there is another way of using the rhetoric of tradition, which is essentially a fetishism: a conviction that the authority of a tradition is dependent upon its remaining static and homogeneous. I really feel that this latter vision, while certainly being encompassed as part of the broad language of “tradition” in general, is what is primarily at work in the examples Fea gives.

Certainly this must be the case in the Constitution-worship implied by some of the more outlandish Tea Party claims we have heard over the past couple of years. The notion that the Constitution provides us with some obvious small-government and/or decentralist tradition, and that reading the text of the Constitution word for word in the House of Representatives is part of some sort of genuflection that will enable sincere constitutionalists to recover it, is simply bizarre. It isn’t, in any obvious sense, wrong—of course the political, legal, economic, and social ramifications of the U.S. Constitution have given support to keeping government small, fiscally restrained, and administratively decentralized, if one chooses to read it that way. But that is exactly the point: the subjective and interpretive experience of the Constitution’s words, in all of the above policy arenas and more, are evolving and have a constructive (but never necessarily arbitrary!) aspect; the result of more than 220 years of such is that the Constitution has been more often than not given support to the complete opposite: to a vision of democratic government which is expansive and centralized. (A Tea Partier truly engaged in the tradition of Constitutional interpretation would, as many of my co-bloggers at Front Porch Republic do, recognize that the achievement of her preferred aims may require a rejection of the Constitution in favor of the Articles of Confederation instead!)

Marriage, however, for the reasons I laid out in my second response to Eve Tushnet, is not subject, I think, to quite the same kind of fetishization. Those who find themselves torn over the issue of same-sex marriage (and of course there are many who are not, either because their religion teaches them that any public recognition of homosexuality is an abomination, or because their experiences have convinced them that marriage is nothing more than a self-interested contract of no intrinsic meaning) are caught up in a continuing argument over the reach of democratization, equalization, and mobilization in our lives. We want to move, and we want to move under our own authority, and yet heterosexual marriage, at least, seems to sometimes subject us to entanglements which require other sources besides our own personal preferences to work out. Hence, the memory of traditional marriage, and whether it may be adapted to continue to guide and vivify meanings for a host of once unrecognized relationships, continues to influence the argument productively, which I think is mostly not the case with the Tea Partiers and the Constitution.

My university, a small, nondenominational Christian, liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, is slowly beginning to recognize that it must figure out, as the world changes, if it wishes to be one of the great many universities which include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policies, or it wishes to continue to be one of the increasingly few hold-outs. As this argument builds, different faculty, for innumerable different reasons, will find themselves on different sides, as their own subjective understanding of what “Friends University” means, interacts with others, and with all the other pressures which the living in the world of higher education, and Kansas, and the United States of America, involve today. I do not know how the argument will end. But I do not believe that, however it ends, the “Friends tradition” will live or die with one decision. Moral principles may, but traditions (whatever their moral power) are not the same as such; traditions are the lived evidence of our remembering and making use of those principles. There are no traditions without arguments. Which is why it has been so appropriate, and so enjoyable, to have been part of this argument on Cato Unbound this month, and be engaged by three very challenging interlocutors. Thanks very much to CU for the opportunity!

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.