Here is my recent post at the Cato Unbound forum “Tradition in a Modern World.”
First, let me thank my fellow contributors for this rich conversation. I am afraid that I am coming to this discussion a bit late and as a result I am not sure where to jump in. Part of the problem, I think, is that I am a historian and don’t spend a lot of time engaging in these kinds of contemporary debates. (As an early American historian I often tell my students that anything that happened after 1800 is not history, but current events!)
Eve Tushnet wonders why “marriage is the only area of contemporary politics in which tradition is used explicitly as a justification.” She wants something more “hot-blooded” than the local Chestertown tea party. Russell Arben Fox offers a similar local case, but ultimately concludes that if we “restrict ourselves to thinking about ‘hot blooded’ policy debates (as she put it), the paucity of references are striking.”
I am not sure I agree. It seems like tradition—whether historically accurate or not—is used quite often in public debates.
Let’s take the idea, defended by many on the Right, that the United States is a “Christian nation.” In this case, the defenders of a Christian America appeal to tradition—a lost “golden age” when America was somehow Christian. Most professional and critical historians argue that such a “golden age” never existed, but this does not stop the Christian Right from utilizing this understanding of the American tradition to inform policy decisions.
Or how about Christmas—a topic first introduced in Fox’s opening essay and picked up later, albeit briefly, in a response from James Poulos. Those defenders of a “traditional” Christmas, void of commercialism or secularism, believe that Americans need to get back to the true “reason for the season.” But in reality, as Stephen Nissenbaum and Leigh Eric Schmidt have argued, and as I have argued here, Christmas in America has always been connected to rampant consumerism and generally un-Christian merriment. Yet each December the so-called “battle for Christmas” rages as conservatives appeal to “tradition.”
What about the Tea Party? If you have been to a Tea Party rally, you know that this political movement draws heavily on its understanding of an American tradition tied to a libertarian rejection of big government. As historian Jill Lepore has recently shown, the Tea Party has run roughshod over American history, choosing to cling to what its members believe are the traditional values—freedom, resistance to taxation, rebellion against tyranny—that define America. In this sense, they are partially correct, but the history of the American Revolution is much more complex than this simple formula.
The traditions of a Christian America, a Jesus-centered Christmas, and a liberty-driven resistance to government intrusion, all play a vital role in American politics today.
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