We traditionalists observe that when policies fail, it’s usually because they are based on inaccurate assumptions about human nature. So we don’t base our thinking on the abstract arguments of theology. Nor do we base it on economics, with its image of profit-maximizing individuals. We begin our thinking with a study of what human beings in particular places are actually like. ~David Brooks, The New York Times
Now if most religious conservatives used “abstract arguments of theology” to make their claims, Brooks might have a point, though even then it would be mistaken. Since religious conservatives almost always use claims derived directly from Scripture and take Scripture as revealed authority, what really bothers Brooks is not their “abstract arguments of theology,” but their fundamental claim that God has decreed certain things forbidden and that the conventions of men cannot legitimise through long practice and pragmatic experiment. Indeed, anything in theological argument that cannot find at least some warrant in Scripture–as understood through the interpretation of an authoritative Church Tradition–would not be of central importance to these people, since they are concerned, broadly speaking, with fundamental questions of virtue and the good order of the soul and polity alike.
Traditionalists, if they are serious, do not simply say, “The passage of time and long experience have given us such and such a practice, therefore it is of no importance whether this practice is contrary to nature or not.” St. John Chrysostom did not say, “Enjoy the bloodsport and the chariot racing. They are hallowed and antique Roman traditions, and they help reaffirm our identity as Romans. Go Venetoi [Blues]!”
Religious conservatives will always, always, always give the inherited practice the benefit of the doubt, and more than a benefit of the doubt, but they do not endorse things simply because they developed over time and people seem to like them. Carthaginians thought the odd human sacrifice was efficacious, and had a longstanding custom to this effect. That alone does not vindicate a practice. Where the conservative and traditionalist object to the disestablishing of customs or the dissolution of traditions is when these things, which serve real social and political functions, are cast aside with no consideration or are actively undermined in pursuit of disordered desires. But fundamentally basing morality on sentiment alone, on what a consensus happens to agree on and what people like, is insufficient. It is certainly a kind of ethics, but one that will invariably encourage self-satisfying desires rather than the kind of askesis required for moral sanity. People like social democracy to differing degrees–given the chance, they will always vote for some form of it, at least until it comes time to pay the bill. That does not mean it is the most desirable or advantageous form of government for the promotion of human happiness or the well-being of a commonwealth. People in this country seem to prefer not to get married, as one of the stories in today’s Times tells us. If left unchecked or unchallenged, this habit could become a well-established one and would then become a new norm for Brooks’ supposed “social traditionalists.” To be a “traditionalist” in this way is simply to ride along with the river god during the flood, occasionally pointing out the flood damage along the way as if you were a tourist, “Oh, look, there’s the dissolution of marriage! Next stop, infanticide!”
On the other hand, God has decreed certain things meritorious and desirable that human sentiments, left to their own fallen devices, would not embrace. It sounds very clever to find a way around referring to Scripture and the theological claims derived from it, except that they are by and large not abstract (a brilliant use of traditionalist rhetoric that I have scarcely before seen Brooks use, suggesting that he is actually a defender of inherited custom and rooted identity and not the chaos of the globalist social revolution). They are, as the faithful understand them to be, both profoundly real and personal because they are the self-revelation of the Three Persons of the One God in Trinity. Typically, when a secular conservative, be it is Brooks or Sullivan, wants to find a problem with religious conservatism he locates it in some form of dogmatism: for Brooks, dogma is abstract and divorced from life, when serious Christians would understand that such a thing isn’t possible, while for Sullivan any attempt at formulating or expressing a dogma is a kind of violence on the freedom of the individual conscience (a faculty which he completely misunderstands). This has the advantage of not having to address the substance of the theological claims, even though these claims are made according to reason, so that the secular conservatives who don’t want to face them can say, “They’re just so abstract! They’re so dogmatic! I prefer experience.”
Experience, in its proper place and understood correctly, is invaluable and central to any conservative’s view of moral questions. Brooks here plays on a powerful, legitimate strain in the conservative tradition that tells us to look to prescription and the argument from circumstance. This is the tradition of Kirk and Bradford. (The irony, or sacrilege, is almost too great to bear.) But they both affirmed the existence of a transcendent moral order. Indeed, Kirk, following Voegelin, recognised the commitment to a transcendent order as one of the essential features of the conservative mind. It was what separated conservatives from every kind of materialist. Brooks’ morality of sentiments, taken as it stands, strikes me as the fast lane to relativism as sure as anything. Here is his description of Smith’s morality of sentiments:
Smith argued that more than just about everything else, people hunger for approval. We feel intense pleasure when we experience the sympathy of others. In a well-structured society, he continues, our desire for sympathy leads us to restrain our selfish or egotistical behaviors.
Of course, one can see the social pressure and stigma put on religious conservatives and traditionalists to adhere to new norms that violate all of the old canons of behaviour. Particularly when outnumbered by social liberals, the “hunger for approval”–which is indeed great–can make many people falter or water down their commitment to the transcendent moral order; it can lead them to move step by step towards a position that would make our desire for sympathy and praise the standard by which we determined our moral judgements and actions. Thus the Brooksian “social traditionalist” (please, no laughing there in the back) would presumably not do anything so gauche as defend traditional marriage if his neighbours were increasingly convinced that it was irrelevant and even oppressive in certain ways. He would, surely, become a proponent of “civil unions” or whatever meaningless euphemism we have chosen to bestow on the legal equality of perversion, and Brooks himself has done just that. Brooks has hijacked the language of prescription to undermine prescription itself; he is trying to steal the mantle of tradition in order to dismantle our inherited traditions and create a sort of happy-go-lucky morality that will allow him to mingle with the great and good without embarrassment and without endangering the praise of friends. Indeed, the hunger for approval is very great, and it must particularly acute in the token conservative columnist at The New York Times.