In his article, “The Future of Tradition,” author Lee Harris suggests that America’s current culture war is the result of society’s existing customs and traditions being called to the bar of reason and ruthlessly interrogated and cross-examined by an intellectual elite.
Harris is at his best in describing what happens when tradition is dishonored and abandoned. He points to the necessary function of moral tradition in the formation and defense of the family as the civilizational context for nurturing human beings who will defend, rather than destroy, the civilization they have inherited. As he explains, “The ethical, as opposed to the merely biological, family is the site for the making of civilized human beings out of id-governed monsters. It turns man’s purely animalist collection of impulses and urges into a vehicle for passing on not merely accidental means, but deliberately engineered transformative customs across generations.”
Harris understands that tradition is a “multi-generational project.” Just as he asserts, civilization depends upon one generation’s concern for its grandchildren. “Civilization persists when there is a widespread sense of an ethical obligation on the part of the present generation for the well-being of the third generation–their own grandchildren. A society where this feeling is not widespread may last as a civilization for some time–indeed, for one or two generations it might thrive spectacularly. But inevitably, a society acknowledging no transgenerational commitment to the future will decay and decline from within.”
Beyond this, the family is the school for the most basic moral learning. In the family context, “no one is an ethical relativist,” Harris observes. “A consistent ethical relativist would refuse to scold her child for doing anything whatsoever. Stab the poodle to death? To each his own. Toss your favorite CDs out the window? Who is to judge? Set the house on fire and gleefully watch it burn down? It all depends on your point of view.” Helpfully, Harris explains that “Members of each generation are committed to making sure that the ethical baseline of their society does not move in a manner that their visceral code instantly tells them is wrong.” Otherwise, the civilization moves towards its own destruction.
Harris understands another truth that he helpfully explains in terms of our current cultural conflict. “In the culture war of today, the representatives of one side have systematically set out to destroy the shining examples of middle America. They seem to be doing so with an unconscious fanaticism that most closely parallels the conscious fanaticism of the various iconoclastic movements in the history of Christianity. They are doing this in a variety of ways–through the media, of course, and through the educational system. They are very thorough in their work and no less bold in the astonishingly specious pretext upon which they demand the sacrifice of yet another shining example.”
Harris then turns to consider what has happened to marriage. Our moral tradition–shaped by Christianity–was based upon the “ethical obviousness” of marriage as a resolutely heterosexual institution. A response of revulsion and rejection in the face of proposals and demands for same-sex marriage were rejected by moral instinct. The very fact that those opposed to same-sex marriage seemed to be without moral arguments against such an idea, Harris asserts, is proof of the ethical obviousness of what marriage is and has always been. “How do you explain what you have against what had never crossed your mind as something anyone on earth would ever think of doing?” Harris asks. He adds: “To ask someone to reason calmly about something that he regards as simply beyond the pale is to ask him to concede precisely what he must not concede–the mere admissibility of the question.”
Harris’ argument concerning marriage is made all the more important by the fact that he identifies himself as a homosexual within the article. That makes the following statement even more remarkable: “The shining example of a happy marriage and its inherent ideality was something that we once could all agree on; but now it is a shining example that has been subjected to the worst fate that can befall one: It has . . . become a subject of controversy and has thereby lost its most essential protective quality: its ethical obviousness in the eyes of the community. Once the phrase ‘gay marriage’ was in the air, marriage was suddenly what it had never thought to be before: a kind of marriage, a type-traditional marriage, or that even worse monstrosity, heterosexual marriage.”
In making this point, Harris is on to something of profound importance. Once marriage had to be defended as “heterosexual marriage,” much of the battle had already been lost. Other forms of marriage had become imaginable, conceivable, and debatable. A moral tradition had been undermined, and civilization’s most essential social institution had been successfully redefined.
Furthermore, Harris also understands that the intellectual elite “have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of decency and integrity in our nation and the world. These are the people who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil. If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity, where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?”
In his conclusion, Harris argues that the sophisticates had better come to terms with the absolute necessity of allowing the moral tradition to do its work. He asserts: “Reject the theology if you wish, but respect the ethical fundamentalism by which these people live: It is not a weakness of intellect, but a strength of character.” That sentence gets right to the heart of the problem with Lee Harris’ proposal–once the theology is rejected, the tradition is inevitably subverted.
In his brilliant essay, Lee Harris eloquently describes the real challenge we now face. Without a transcendent authority and criterion of judgment, his own proposal is inadequate. It’s now up to us to provide a more substantial argument–and to insist that the right theology is absolutely essential, if the right tradition is to survive.