Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Tradition And Traditions

Modernity and tradition in Russia, Europe, and the United States

Greetings from Munich. This week, I have been in Trento, in northern Italy, attending a conference about the role of Tradition in contemporary American, European, and Russian life. I was there with a group of academics from all three places. The conference was more of a workshop than a formal event. I’m still trying to get my thoughts about what I heard sorted, but I do want to present you with some preliminary insights.

To protect the anonymity of the participants, I will not identify them or attribute particular comments to particular persons. It’s not that people said anything scandalous, but rather that I wanted people to be free to say what was on their minds without having to worry about being quoted. I will honor that here. I am also hesitant to attribute this or that view to members of a particular group, because it is possible, even likely, that those within the group dissent. Please read what follows as subject to clarification or correction. I offer all of this to spark discussion here.

With that out of the way, here we go.

I noticed at the beginning a sense among many of us that the others had an unrealistic idea of what conditions were in our own home countries. For example, the Russians were eager to counter the view of American traditionalists (like me) that looks to Russia as a defender of traditional Christian moral and religious values. Some of the Russians present are religious believers, others are not, but there seems to be a general consensus that there is much less to this religious revival in Russia than sympathetic Americans think.

One Russian contended that what is being reborn in Russia is not Christian tradition but Soviet tradition that has been lightly baptized. He said that the trauma of totalitarian communist rule destroyed Russian Orthodox traditions. The only clergy who survived the persecution were those who collaborated with the Soviets.

Other Russians disagreed with this. Nevertheless, it seemed to me useful to consider in our own American context how what we call “traditional values” may not really be all that traditional. It is surely true that in some cases, we are investing a particular set of political, or cultural-political, stances with the authority of tradition. This is misleading. “Tradition” can be a useful concept for pushing through a political agenda. Some of the Russians talked about how what is being portrayed as a religious revival is actually little more than a revival of nationalism, with religious sanction.

We may argue over what “tradition” means in Russia and in various European societies, but nobody denies that traditions exist. As I rode the train north through the Alps of Italy, Austria, and Bavaria, I was struck repeatedly by the age of the built landscape. Look at that medieval church built on that outcropping. Does anybody pray in it anymore? Maybe not, but cultural memory is hard to avoid. Tradition took particular forms — artistic, architectural, social, and so forth — as it evolved in European countries.

Not so in the US. What does “tradition” mean in a country and society where the tradition is anti-traditional? America is an Enlightenment nation, which was consciously and affirmatively anti-traditional. Our dynamism as Americans comes in large part from our anti-traditional orientation, including our individualism.

This, I think, accounted for the difficulties that some of the non-American participants had grasping how quickly and radically the situation is changing in the United States. Even though all of us come from countries and societies that are in transition, Europe and Russia have more stable traditions — not necessarily religious ones. I might be wrong about this, but I intuit that this has something to do with why the Manif Pour Tous movement to preserve the forms and privileges of traditional marriages and families emerged in France but not the United States — even though the level of religiosity is much higher in the US.

One of the European participants who reads this blog said that it is hard to believe that things in the US are as dire as this blog often depicts them. Several of the Americans (other than me) affirmed that yes, they are — particularly in academia. They offered particular accounts of how discussions regarding gender and sexuality that ought to be a normal part of the educational process are now off-limits — and the professional and personal costs of violating these new, severe taboos. How do you defend any kind of tradition that conflicts with these norms when dissenting from them can mean social and professional ostracism at best, and career suicide at worst?

Moreover, this new, rigidly intolerant way of thinking is colonizing the minds of the younger generation of Americans. One professor said that his students simply cannot understand why any decent person would disagree with them on LGBT matters. This is not a matter of them thinking that the moral or religious traditionalist is wrong. It is a matter of the older view being utterly incomprehensible. It is, therefore, either wicked, morally insane, or both. In private conversation, I related the story of a theologian I know who cannot risk teaching in his Catholic university what the Catholic Church proclaims is moral truth on sexuality — not even as a topic for classroom discussion. He fears that his students will protest that he has created an “unsafe space” in the classroom, will protest to the university administration, and he will be sanctioned or fired.

The idea that a professor cannot even discuss things like marriage, family, and religious freedom as they relate to LGBT matters unless he takes the pro-LGBT line without reservation — this was hard for some of the non-Americans to comprehend.

One of the Russians expressed frustration that the most contentious issues regarding religion and tradition have to do with homosexuality. He believes that Christianity has nothing to do with homosexuality, and that Christians who insist that it does are making a big deal out of nothing important. This was a minority view among the Russian delegation, though some of those more sympathetic to Orthodox tradition said that the strong hostility to LGBT issues in Russia has a lot more to do with sheer prejudice than with theological reflection. This they rightly deplore — and they certainly expressed disgust with the cruelty and abuses that thugs are heaping upon gay Russians.

On the other hand, things have gone so far in the opposite direction in the US, and for the same reason (mindless prejudice and hatred of the Other), that it is easy for us traditionalist Americans to understand why Russians have so much hostility to the idea of expanding gay rights. And it’s easy why Russians would take the lesson from our example that expanding tolerance on LGBT issues only opens the door to radical intolerance once LGBT activists and their supporters gain the upper hand.

The question of Islam arose as well. Modern laws, in both Europe and the US, are based not on religion, but on a secular conception of rights. True, secular liberalism emerged out of Christianity, but takes a more neutral stance towards particular religions. How will European countries deal with believing Muslims among them? Believing Christians within European nations may now be a minority, but nobody expects them to disturb the civil peace. That’s not true with Muslims, obviously. Yes, yes, not all Muslims, and so forth. But no serious person in Europe today believes that they don’t have a very, very difficult problem on their hands. Besides which, how do you respect the legitimate desires of Muslim Europeans to live by their own traditions? Where do you draw the line?

Obviously we don’t have nearly this problem in the US, owing in part to the fact that we are much better at assimilating immigrants, and that we don’t have a large Muslim population. I sensed within myself, at least, a struggle to get inside the heads of Europeans regarding Islam in their civilization. As an American who strongly believes in religious freedom, my first impulse is always to defer to maximal religious expression. Yet that ideal cannot obscure the fact that Europeans face an immensely dangerous and complex problem. One question the emerges from it: How do a people whose religious traditions are diminishing in importance fare when confronted by a minority people whose devotion to religious tradition is strong?

At one point, the group talked about how hard it is to establish and preserve a modus vivendi (way of living peaceably together) in a pluralistic society. One speaker said that if one side gets too much power, it becomes impossible to do. He said that the United States is not there yet. I disagreed, saying that we are very much getting there with the clash between LGBT rights and religious liberty. The secular elites — political, business, media, entertainment — having either gone over to the progressive side, or, in the case of conservative politicians and far too many religious leaders, having chosen to avoid speaking out for fear of being called bigots — has tipped the balance. What many of my fellow cultural and religious conservatives don’t grasp is that in a short while, the balance among the people will also tip to the pro-LGBT side, given that traditional views are disproportionately concentrated among older Americans.

And then what? One of the problems I see with the stance taken by Prof. Robert George of Princeton (see this short video conversation on the Benedict Option with George and Sen. Ben Sasse) is that the to-the-culture-war-barricades stance he takes is radically insufficient. I agree with him that we have to fight as hard as we can! But what good will our freedoms do us if we have lost our own internal cultures? The Benedict Option is not an either-or, but a both-and — with greater emphasis on cultural formation, not legal and political combat. Anyway, I will write more about the George-Sasse conversation later.

Another topic: one professor brought up what he termed “the Hasidic mistake,” defined as believing that preserving authentic Jewish tradition requires dressing like 18th century shtetl-dwellers. He certainly has a point. On the other hand, it’s also the case that ideals have to be instantiated materially — in art, architecture, customs, practices, and yes, even clothing. The trick is determining which of those things are vital to keeping the tradition alive, and which are not. And that brings us back to the point that some of the Russians made at the conference’s beginning: that what constitutes authentic tradition is a matter of real and consequential dispute. An American law professor observed that in the US, the progressives are trying to redefine religious liberty as the more restrictive “freedom of worship,” and calling it consistent with American tradition, though it certainly is not.

Later, walking through the streets of Trento and talking, one of the American conferees said he was struck by how different the Russians’ problems were from ours, but also how similar. Both of us are dealing with the role of the State with regard to the life of religious believers — in the Russian case, with the State bigfooting everything, in part through political co-optation, and in the American case with the State moving towards restricting religious liberty. It occurs to me that the weakness of religious tradition in both countries as a counterforce to modernity accounts for the common crisis.

The Russians who brought up my book The Benedict Option were somewhat critical of it (constructively, I might add, which was welcome), but they all agreed that it should be translated and published in Russia, because the thesis is relevant to Russia’s own struggles. That surprised and gratified me, as did the interest the European conferees showed in the book. I finished this post on the train from Trento to Munich, where Matt and I will be staying with some Catholic fans of The Benedict Option. I look forward to hearing their ideas, and learning how we tradition-minded Christians can all work together. It has been a good week for that kind of fellowship.



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