The Clash of Traditions

tradition_banner_1_navyAt the Liberty Law site this morning, I have an essay on our recent Tradition Project conference in Trento, and what it reveals about the different understandings of tradition in American and Russian thought. For me, the conference shows how Samuel Huntington was right 20 years ago, when he described how a clash of civilizations would characterize the post-war world:

I thought a great deal about Huntington at a conference I helped organize last month in Trento, Italy, on tradition in American and Russian thought. Cosponsored by the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion, the Postsecular Conflicts Project at the University of Innsbruck, and Center for Religious Studies at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler, the conference brought together American, European, and Russian commentators to discuss the use of tradition in law and politics in the two countries. Given the way that Russo-American relations have dominated world politics lately, it seemed an important topic.

Tradition is an exceptionally complicated concept and the participants in the conference expressed a variety of views. The Russian scholars, in particular, disagreed among themselves about precisely what is going on in their country right now (more on this in a bit). But, for me at least, the conference confirmed the basic correctness of Huntington’s insights. People disposed to favor tradition in Russia and America often understand the concept very differently.

Consider religious freedom. For the past several years, Russian church and government officials have argued strenuously that cultural traditions can legitimately limit the exercise of religion. Both Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and President Putin have argued that cultural traditions deserve respect because they reflect eternal truths and embody a people’s morality. Because traditions have a moral character, states can legitimately act to protect them from outside forces. States can, for example, legitimately limit proselytism by new religious groups that threaten to undermine traditional religious communities and values. This attitude is behind a ban Russia recently imposed on the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a ban the country’s Supreme Court sustained.

Some American traditionalists have a similar understanding of the moral value of tradition. But most, it’s fair to say, do not. As a rule, American conservatives do not defend tradition on the basis of unchanging moral verities or the right of nations to defend their cultures from foreign threats. American traditionalism is more pragmatic and empirical.

With all that’s going on now–and I mean right now, as the Trump-Putin meeting today and Trump’s speech in Warsaw yesterday–readers might find the essay interesting. You can find it here.

 

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