In Defense of Our National and Religious Traditions

A society that honors and reveres nothing but individual freedom will become a society that honors and reveres nothing at all.

From a stereoscopic image of the right arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty. 1876 Centennial Exposition via Wikipedia.

From a stereoscopic image of the right arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty. 1876 Centennial Exposition via Wikipedia.

Last Word
Sept. 29 2016
About the author

Yoram Hazony is president of the Herzl Institute and the author of God and Politics in Esther, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, and The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul. His essays on history, politics, and religion appear in a wide variety of publications. His next book, Empire and Nation, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

I am grateful to R.R. Reno, Walter Russell Mead, and Peter Berkowitz for their careful comments on my essay, “Nationalism and the Future of Western Freedom.” Here I offer some thoughts relating to their most salient points.

The fundamental question in political philosophy is the choice between an order of independent national states and one seeking to bring all nations under a single international regime. These are perhaps not the only options—the biblical book of Judges, for example, examines the possibility of a life without any central government at all, “each doing what is right in his own eyes.” But if we accept the biblical conclusion that, in large numbers, men cannot live without a government to rule them, then a choice must be made: either free nations or empire.

In his response to my essay, Walter Russell Mead emphasizes that neither order can be the answer to the human condition. “Both have important capacities. Both are subject to terrible temptations,” he writes. “The real task of politics and statecraft is to determine what—in a particular situation, in a particular circumstance, at a particular time—is the right blend.”

I agree with Mead that real-world circumstances are messy things, and that what may be desirable as a matter of general principle can prove ruinous in practice. For instance, one need only read Michael Doran’s excellent new book, Ike’s Gamble, for a detailed indictment of President Eisenhower’s misguided support for Arab nationalism and self-determination in the Middle East. This was a policy that helped to demolish the British empire and end Winston Churchill’s career, only to give rise to the pan-Arab dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser—who repaid America’s kindness by taking Egypt into the Soviet imperial orbit. Examples of this sort make it clear that, in practice, a blind support of national self-determination against empire may be self-defeating.

This having been said, however, I cannot accept Mead’s conclusion that since both nationalism and empire have their flaws, we have no choice but to strike an ad-hoc balance between them. Monarchical and republican forms of government each have their characteristic flaws as well; nevertheless, we recognize that republican government is preferable in principle, and believe this remains the case even if circumstances force us to compromise and accept one-man rule in a given time and place.

Similarly, we must choose whether it is better to live in a world in which power is distributed among many different, competing nations than in one in which power is concentrated in the hands of a single international regime. There should be no doubt as to which better serves the cause of human freedom, which is truly possible only where power is distributed so that persons encumbered or persecuted under one government may seek relief and support from another. Nor is there any doubt that such an order of national states is as difficult to maintain internationally as is republican government domestically. Like republican government, it too must be vigilantly and constantly defended or else it will slip from our grasp.


On this point, I believe R. R. Reno and Peter Berkowitz are largely in agreement with me, even as each also raises important issues concerning the particulars of my case.

Berkowitz, for his part, questions my emphasis on the Protestant character of the order of national states, and my grounding of this order in an intellectual tradition built upon the teachings of the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”). Without denying the biblical basis of modern nationalism, Berkowitz fears that for contemporary men and women the Bible will be controversial, lacking in authority, and theoretically insufficient to the task of defending the principles of a free national state. Better, he writes, to build a broad-tent conservative coalition around the liberal tradition descended from such modern philosophers as John Locke.

Before turning to questions of tactics, it is necessary to ask whether such a liberal interpretation of history accords with what actually happened The truth is that the modern world was overwhelmingly a construct of Protestant Christianity (albeit with important contributions, as Reno points out, from medieval Catholicism). “The American Constitution has many intellectual fathers,” Irving Kristol wrote, “but only one spiritual mother. That mother is Protestant religion. . . . The [American] Revolution . . . had been conceived out of the wedding of the Protestant ethos with American circumstances.”

Why should Kristol, a Jew, dwell on this point? Why not simply say that while Western freedoms were originally of Protestant and biblical provenance, the liberties we enjoy today have long since been detached from those parochial origins? One reason to remain alert to the Protestant character of modern freedom is this: for 400 years, the Western institution of the national state and many of its familiar rights and liberties flourished principally and reliably in Protestant nations: Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, and elsewhere. By contrast, non-Protestant countries like Mexico and Nigeria that attempted to import versions of the American constitution failed miserably.

This suggests that the written documents of the tradition of Protestant freedom—the Dutch Declaration of Independence (1581), the English Petition of Right (1628) and Bill of Rights (1689), and the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and Constitution (1789)—are only half the story of freedom in the West. The other half is the Protestant religious and national traditions that gave rise to these documents, that honored and revered them as precious, and that permitted certain peoples to keep faith with them for many generations.

What will happen to the rights and liberties of Western countries if they are detached from the tree of Protestant religion and nationalism on which they grew? The preliminary indications are all around us, and they are not encouraging. As far as we can see, the retreat of Protestantism and of public reverence for Hebrew Scripture leads within a few decades to the progressive weakening and then abandonment of one Protestant political principle after another: the national state, the family, the sabbath, public acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty, tolerance for dissenting religion, tolerance for dissenting speech.

How to shore up this collapsing front? Given the history I have described, it seems likely that there is now only one way: an alliance of Old Testament-conscious Protestants and nationalist Catholics and Jews who will seek to update the biblical and Protestant heritage of the West and restore it as the basis for a new era. Right now, this seems a distant prospect. But, realistically, I do not see anything else that can stave off what appears to be the rapid disintegration of the Western nations, caught as they are between the hammer of an aggressive and increasingly intolerant liberalism and the anvil of what Reno calls “a colonizing Islam confident of its sacred mission.”


As against this proposition, Berkowitz urges that we embrace the universal-rights teaching of Locke’s Second Treatise (1689). As he puts it, Locke’s project was to provide a “new foundation for political legitimacy” after the defeat of divine-right monarchy. He suggests that Locke’s new doctrine played a heroic role in (i) defeating the theory of the divine right of kings; (ii) replacing that theory with one of universal rights that would be embraced by Western nations; and (iii) giving birth to the conservative political thought of Edmund Burke in defense of Lockean theory.

Unfortunately, and taking Berkowitz’s points one by one, there is little reason to think that Locke’s theory played the heroic role assigned to it. It was not Lockean radicals but English nationalists and common lawyers led by Edward Coke and John Selden, the true political conservatives of early-17th-century England, who heroically stood against the Stuart theory of divine right in their Petition of Right in 1628, triggering civil war and the eventual constitutional restoration that established the English freedoms familiar to us. It was the freedoms defended by these men that were then instated by their students in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which in turn gave birth to the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. None of these documents makes mention of Lockean universal-rights theories (though the American Declaration of Independence does). Instead, they draw on English customary rights and privileges adapted to particular circumstances of each case.

Nor, finally, was Edmund Burke, whom Berkowitz credits with “laying the foundations for that branch of modern conservatism devoted to the conserving of freedom,” remotely a follower of Locke’s universal-rights theories. Burke was consciously heir to the nationalist tradition of Coke and Selden, and his conservatism was precisely a continuation of their understanding of English rights and liberties. Burke never wrote an appreciative word about Locke’s political theories. Indeed, he is said to have once stated in Parliament that the Second Treatise was “the worst book ever written.” The “imaginary rights of men” proclaimed in doctrines like Locke’s and Rousseau’s would lead, Burke believed, to the destruction of everything that civilized nations had achieved through long centuries of trial and error.

By reducing all legitimacy to consent alone, Locke in effect (although not by intention) provided the justification for perpetual revolution against just this conservative tradition in English political thought, and indeed against all of the biblical and Protestant institutions that created the free nations in which we live. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that this is precisely the crisis that we face today. The view that individual “consenting adults” are the sole arbiters of what is legitimate and good has granted the individual unlimited license to nullify whatever he or she pleases of the nation’s religious and legal tradition, laying low traditional commitments to the national state, the family, and public religion in the name of every person’s “right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe” (in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s formulation).

Locke’s is just the political theory that ails us. If there is to be any improvement in our condition, it must come from a recognition of how unsuited that theory is to a realistic politics. That does not mean we must go back to the Bible alone, as Berkowitz fears. It does require that we restore a Western conservative tradition that is aware of its source in the political teachings of the Bible—and this means not only the Ten Commandments but also decisive legal passages in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy that were historically cited time and again as the basis for limited government, the separation of powers, equality before the law, the inviolability of national boundaries, and more.

Is this a tactically prudent goal in today’s anti-religious environment? In part, this question may be motivated by the fear that to invoke Protestantism and Scripture demands that one be personally committed to Protestant religious doctrines. But it demands no such thing. All it asks of conservatives—Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and others—is that they give due honor and reverence to the national traditions upon which the Western nations were built.

In an attempt to compete with liberalism, conservatives are forever imitating it. One of the ways they do this is by making their inherited national and religious traditions sound as “universal” as possible, downplaying and eventually dispensing with every biblical text, every Protestant thinker, and every historical event (especially those prior to 1776) that might remind people of the fact that they are heirs to a very particular national and religious tradition, and not merely of an abstract universalist doctrine plucked out of thin air. Without quite intending to, they are constantly dishonoring the past in order to be popular in the present.


It is these less than admirable habits of mind that give rise to R.R. Reno’s insightful comments about the dissipation of the sacred from our lives. In well-ordered human societies, as he suggests, there are certain institutions, books, and people, certain rites, times, and places, that are held by tradition to be of exceptional and, indeed, extraordinary significance, and so worthy of being honored and revered.

But as Plato noted long ago, democracy has a tendency to flatter society with the claim that nothing is worthy of being honored or revered but the free choices of the individual. Unfortunately, the free choice of the individual, in and by itself, is without any particular content—it is variable and even arbitrary, one thing today and another tomorrow. In practice, a society that honors and reveres nothing but individual freedom will become a society that honors and reveres nothing at all. Modern liberalism is the fulfillment of this dark Platonic prediction, and many contemporary conservatives see no choice but to accommodate themselves to it as a matter of prudence and tactics.

I would propose that this accommodation has proved to be the path to oblivion. If conservatives are to be anything, they must be the party of honor and reverence—or, as one might say today, the party of content. The time has come to stop being afraid of our past and to give it its due. In an age of dissolution, those wishing to avert catastrophe must return to the sources of the nation’s original strength. This is right not only in principle. It is the only prudent course.

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