Rehabilitating America as a Moral Model for the World: The Challenge for Classical American Traditionalism
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
The Dean of the prestigious Claremont School of Theology in an article published on March 25th, 2012, in the Los Angeles Times reports that, according to recent surveys, “About 75% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now consider themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’.”
The media thrive on bad news, so it is encouraging to have some good news mixed in with what merely titillates or shocks, such as reports about the new Islamophobic campaign to eliminate anything favorable about Islam from public school textbooks.
Dean Philip Clayton’s article, “Letting Doubters in the Door”, makes a valuable distinction between spiritual awareness and religious commitment. Nevertheless, his article would benefit from two caveats.
The first issue is terminological, based on his statement, “All traditional forms of Christian practice have sharply declined from previous decades (including church attendance, Bible study, and prayer), and doubts are much sharper regarding traditional Christian beliefs”. What does he mean by the term “traditional”?
The great Roman philosopher, Cicero, emphasized that, “Before you discuss anything whatsoever, first define your terms”. Dean Clayton confuses the issues by using the term “traditionalism” to refer to religious commitment rather than to spiritual awareness.
The principal mentor to almost all of America’s founders used the term “traditionalism” to refer to the Scottish Enlightenment. This mentor, who was far more influential than the positivist contract theorists, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, was Edmund Burke, the long-serving head of the Whig Party in the English Parliament, who was the strongest supporter of the Americans until they double-crossed him by declaring war against England.
This term “traditionalism” referred primarily to spiritual commitment as distinct from, though not always excluding, religious dogma and ritual. Jefferson was condemned as an atheist by his opponents in his campaign for the U.S. presidency because he did not believe that Jesus is God. Later historians found that he had personally annotated his copy of the Qur’an, which apparently appealed to his deeply spiritual nature (though he was clearly a hippocrite when it came to acting adequately on his own condemnation of slavery as the worst of all evils). Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was America’s most representative traditionalist, though the vast collection of books about him at Monticello were selected by the University of Virginia to deny this. His essential traditionalist message consisted in his statement that, “No people can remain free unless they are properly educated. Proper education consists of teaching virtue. And no people can remain virtuous unless both the personal and public life of the individual is infused with awareness and love of Divine Providence”, by which he meant God.
The traditionalist movement in America was later termed Paleo-Conservativism by the NeoConservatives who, beginning in 1957, rejected all of its basic premises and principles. It was revived by Russell Kirk in the 1950s, who wrote a shelf of books on the subject, most of which most traditionalists imbibed with their mother’s milk. Pat Buchanan, who writes in the magazine The American Conservative, is considered to be a guru of contemporary traditionalism, though lately he has mixed it with a dose of nativism and ignorant Islamophobia. This tribalism is a relatively recent trend in Pat’s thought.
The similar spiritually-oriented traditionalism in Islam has no name. The term “traditionalism” would be translated in Arabic as blind and indiscriminate reliance on the hadith or “traditions” by the muhadithun and as rejection of rational thought. A better term would be turath, from the verb waratha, which refers to the heritage of Islam, including the centuries of philosophical, jurisprudential, and spiritual exploration that flourished despite restrictions by many of the various Muslim sultans and emperors. I would also include the scriptures of the world religions, though the term turath has never been used to include revelation.
The term traditionalism is well ensconced in American thought as being identical with the enlightened thinking of America’s Founders, in contradistinction to religious fundamentalism, so it probably cannot be replaced with a less ambiguous term. Perhaps fortunately, there is no term to describe exactly the same thing in Islamic discourse, because by definition any name, even the name God, can limit the being or phenomenon it is describing. Nevertheless, we need a name for American traditionalism in the Islamic civilization, so a possible candidate would be the name turath, defined as identical to everything that constitutes the Great American Experiment in peace, prosperity, and freedom through the interfaith harmony of normative and compassionate justice.
The second caveat one might have for the revolutionary article by Dean Clayton, entitled “Letting Doubters in the Door”, is that the great movement of Americans away from mainline churches and from Christian dogmatics results probably not from doubts about reality and about one’s relation with God or about virtue and justice, but rather from conviction about them. This may be interpreted as doubts, but it is far more than that, because doubt is negative, whereas the movement is not away from institutionalized religion but rather toward the universal core of what religion and religions are supposed to be all about.
This “American Spring” is very positive and is the best sign that civilization on earth may not be nearing its end. Furthermore, this enlightenment, together with the enlightenment emerging in every world religion, is the best evidence that American moral leadership in the world can become what America’s Founders hoped it could become.