Tradition, Reform and Conservative Revival

COMMENTARY: Our comrades-in-arms from different faith traditions have a lot to offer the US in the battle to promote the common good.

Jewish scholar Yoram Hazony speaking at the National Conservatism Conference.
Jewish scholar Yoram Hazony speaking at the National Conservatism Conference. (photo: Screenshot / National Conservatism)

In my years of public pro-family activism, I have often found myself working side by side with people from other faith traditions who share my views on the importance of man-woman marriage. We comrades-in-arms have noticed that we have more in common with each other, than with the liberal members of our own respective traditions. 

I have more in common with evangelical Protestant megachurch pastor Jim Garlow than with Jesuit Father James Martin. I have often wondered whether God might be using our present battles to end the divisions among Christians. And now, I have even more reason for this speculation: hearing respected Jewish scholar Yoram Hazony tell the National Conservatism Conference that what America needs is, wait for it: Christian Nationalism (around minute 27 in the linked video). 

In his two books, Conservatism: a Rediscovery and The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony makes the case that modern liberalism cannot save us. In fact, liberalism is the problem. (He uses the word “liberalism” not the way we in America generally use it. Rather, he uses “liberalism” in the sense that Europeans and political philosophers use it, meaning, a political philosophy that holds individual freedom to be the central issue of politics.) 

Hazony argues that we must have an authentic revival of conservativism, which includes heavy doses of both traditionalism and nationalism. He believes that only Christianity has the intellectual and moral resources to save America now. He calls on Catholics and evangelicals alike to become even more dedicated to the study and promotion of their religion. I find it refreshing to hear a serious intellectual who seriously believes in God. 

He observes that the truly conservative mind understands that institutions for handing down truths and habits are absolutely necessary for a functioning society. Conservatives also understand that such institutions run down and have to be restored. Revolutionaries want to tear down and throw away. Conservatives want to reform and renew. 

Hazony is fond of certain Protestant political thinkers from the Anglophone tradition, such as Richard Hooker and John Seldon. He reveres Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. I don’t share all his tastes in political philosophers or historical figures. That does not concern me. His diagnosis of our present moment is sufficiently accurate that I can overlook a lot. 

But he is not tracking one important historical point that is definitely relevant to our present moment. Protestants are the people who taught the West to believe “tradition” is a bad word. All of us in the conservative coalition are going to have to address this issue, sooner or later. 

Many Protestants held and still hold, that Catholicism has allowed too many accretions to develop through its traditions. Protestants famously hold that Scripture alone can be relied upon for accurate information about God’s designs for the universe and his demands upon his people. The Catholic magisterium is purely man-made, and hence unreliable and unnecessary. 

To put it bluntly, the ultimate target of the famous sola scriptura was Tradition. To claim that Scripture alone suffices is to say that Tradition is unnecessary. With this battle cry, hundreds of years of careful reflections, hard-won experience and subtle distinctions were swept away from the minds of the Reformers and from many European institutions. 

Yet Catholics never held that all their traditions were equally valuable, necessary, or authoritative. For a long time, we have understood distinctions between levels of magisterial authority, between what is necessary to believe, what has some “wiggle room” and what is completely optional. We have had one heck of a hard time convincing our separated brethren about this. 

The most potent example is our “tradition” of venerating our ancestors, namely the saints and the Virgin Mary. The statues and the stained glass and all the other images are more like family portraits than graven images. We’ve been trying to tell the Protestants this for 500 years. No matter how many times we try to explain it, they won’t have any part of it. 

Not everything in tradition is equally valuable or necessary. I had never heard of the custom of St. Joseph altars on the Feast of St. Joseph, until I moved to Louisiana. It’s a big thing in New Orleans. Customs like these, which spring up from the sensibilities of the people in a particular time and place, add texture and beauty and meaning to life. Sweeping them all away indiscriminately was a big mistake. 

And so was banishing the Virgin Mary from the churches as so many Protestants did. The Mother of God offered women (and men too!) an image of what holy femininity should be. Women around the world and over centuries, looked to Mary to guide their aspirations. Look at what has moved into our culture to fill the void! Modern feminism has completely inverted every Marian virtue. Instead of modesty, purity and fruitfulness, modern women are supposed to aspire to vulgarity, sexual liberation, and sterility. Kicking Mary out of the church was a cultural catastrophe, from which the West has yet to recover. 

An Orthodox Jew like Yoram Hazony does not have a dog in all of our post-Reformation fights. He may have his favorite Protestant political philosophers. (I notice he doesn’t mention Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suarez or the Salamanca School. But no matter.) Hazony has the potential to lead an important and necessary coalition. We can showcase the best of what our respective traditions (there’s that word again!) have to offer, without caving in on important doctrinal points. 

For many years now, I’ve been speaking to anyone who would listen about the truths of marriage, family, and human sexuality. I have no doubt at all that our heavenly Father is pleased by his children working together for a cause he so obviously approves. We at the Ruth Institute have built a credible interfaith network of social conservatives. Hazony is trying to build an interfaith coalition to promote conservatism more broadly. 

Benjamin Franklin supposedly once said about the American Revolution, “We must all hang together, or we shall surely hang separately.” Our situation today is just as dire as that of the American colonies. 

Catholics: You should really read Conservatism: A Rediscovery. And if you don’t mind, please pray for Yoram Hazony. He is a good man who deserves our respect and good will. Perhaps God can use this nice Jewish man to help Christians end their divisions and reunite, and just maybe, to rescue America. 

 Author’s note: I had the privilege of interviewing Yoram Hazony for the Ruth Institute’ Dr. J Show, weekly video podcast series. That interview is slated to be released on Dec. 9 and can be found at the Ruth Institute YouTube channel and Locals page

‘Rowing Team’

The Commonly Misunderstood Common Good

“By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’” (CCC 1906)