At first glance, today’s “On the Square” feature by Carson Holloway (Same-Sex Marriage and the Death of Tradition) seems to rehash well-trodden ground in the debate over same-sex marriage. But a closer inspection reveals that Holloway is addressing not only the danger to marriage but an issue that hasn’t been as thoroughly explored: How allegiance to tradition has been all but abandoned—even by conservatives.
First, a society that is deaf to tradition is more likely to err in social policy and do inadvertent damage to itself. Burkean conservatism contends that society is an intricate web of relationships, institutions, and mores, the whole of which is too complex to be grasped by the reason of any individual, or even of any single generation, even one claiming for itself extraordinary enlightenment.
The last phrase strikes me as the key to understanding how we arrived at the present situation. Although such “extraordinary enlightenment” has been claimed by every generation since, well, since the Enlightenment, it seems to have become even more pronounced in the last three—Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Gen-Yers.
At the ripe old age of thirty-nine, it is tempting to say that this belief in generational enlightenment is more symptomatic of the “kids these days.” And indeed it is a temptation I cannot resist. Having spent several years in D.C. around young conservatives I can attest that few of them would take seriously the claim that we should consider the “authority of tradition.” The Catholic kids will give you a respectful hearing, as will most of my fellow evangelicals (if you can back it up with an appeal to scripture). The rest: blank looks of incomprehension that convey the message, “Get outta here with that fuddy-duddy Gen-X authority stuff.” (In fairness, most of the young “conservatives” I’ve met are really fiscally conservative, socially libertarian Republicans that may not be representative of America.)
My generation is no better, though. Nor is the one that came before. On social issues, conservatives born after 1950 tend to be open to any arguments that maximize individual liberty no matter what the impact on the individual or the externalities that affect the community. We are all so extraordinarily enlightened nowadays that we don’t need to look to the past for wisdom. We can create our own, thank you very much. We are, after all, the ones we’ve been waiting for.