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Freedom and Tradition in Tension: A Review of “America’s Way Back”

America's Way Back

In his newest book, “America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution,” author Donald Devine lays out a case for libertarian-conservative fusionism as the best hope for a revival of American greatness. A longtime advisor to President Reagan, and current American Conservative Union vice chairman, Devine has a rich well of personal experiences from which to draw when he discusses the political realities threatening freedom today. He begins with the disheartening warning that “economic stagnation, moral exhaustion, and looming bankruptcy have become hallmarks of our time,” but then walks the reader through the more encouraging message that there is a way out of this mess (a way back), which is through the fusion of the libertarian ideal of freedom with conservative traditional values.

Lest anyone think this goal might be easily achieved, Devine begins with the admission that “there is an inherent tension between freedom and tradition.” This tension is caused largely by distrust on the part of both sides. Conservatives, according to Devine, “claim that pure freedom leads to disorder, decline in public morality, and ultimately anarchy.” On the other hand, libertarians “claim that pure tradition is restrictive, authoritarian, and ultimately tyrannical.”

As someone who is building my own ideological framework in the increasingly crowded space between libertarianism and conservatism, I will certainly attest that this mutual distrust is ever present. Devine’s description of this as “tension” is a great illustration for Christians who are constantly living in states of tension. We are working through the tension of Christ’s “now and not yet kingdom,” we work out our internal struggle between our sinful flesh and our call to righteousness, and we create tension when we recognize the God-given authority of multiple spheres of society (such as family, church, community, government) in a rightly-ordered life. There is very little about the Christian faith that does not cause vibrant tension in our lives.

In fact, Devine credits the Christian faith for creating this tension, saying that “western liberty… grew out of the tension Christianity created by dividing state and society and making the individual the arbitrator between them, with the resulting freedom spreading to secular institutions worldwide.” He later explains this in more detail:

Christianity, however, rests on the claimed reality of a single event, the Incarnation, the assertion that God entered human existence to change it… Whatever the explanation, freedom entered history in a dramatic way following this event, causing an enduring tension between liberty and order, state and church, love and power, and all the rest.

Managing this tension has not only defined western culture, but Devine argues, has “been the very source of our historic creativity and prosperity.” Our significant achievements have come when we succeed in synthesizing the two ideologies together, allowing each “to escape its own limitations.” He also boldly states that “Christianity’s accusers are its best public relations” when it comes to freedom and tradition. Expounding he says, “Nietzsche hated Christianity for its mercy, Machiavelli for its emphasis on peace rather than power and war, Rousseau for its pluralism and divided power, Marx for its economic markets, and bin Laden for its freedom.”

The ability to successfully manage the tension between freedom and tradition, and to bring forth creativity and prosperity out of the dried, dusty soil of the human condition, has been uniquely western, and more specifically, Christian. “If there are self-evident truths for the United States,” he says, “they—especially the idea of an endowing Creator—must come from the Judeo-Christian tradition, for most Americans it is in its Christian form.”

[pullquote]     Managing the tension between freedom and tradition has been the very source of our historic creativity and prosperity.[/pullquote]

Obviously, the next questions is: what does Devine mean by both “freedom” and “tradition”? Devine quotes John Locke in defining “freedom” saying, “to Locke, individual freedom was first because it came directly from a Creator who made man free even to reject this God and his commands.”

While freedom is first, Devine argues that it is a gift to be treasured, and it is best guarded with traditional values. He quotes economist Friedrich Hayek in “The Constitution of Liberty” where this tension is described as “paradoxical.” Hayek, certainly a proponent of limited government and free markets, says that “it is probably true that a successful society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society.” These traditional values are undoubtedly religious values. “Truth may be said to be the highest traditionalist goal,” he says, “but if it lacks tolerance and free exercise is it still truth? Perhaps love is the highest.” Love, what Jesus Christ says is the greatest commandment towards God and towards our neighbors, certainly is the highest Christian goal.

The reason for us to seek this great balance between freedom and tradition, according to Devine, is so that we can avoid the collapse of capitalism as predicted by economist Joseph Schumpeter in his book, “Can Capitalism Survive?” “As Joseph Schumpeter warned,” Devine explains, “the real moral hazard for those already enjoying the economic and social benefits of freedom and capitalism in the West is that the decline of the moral code will spell the end of its law, its greater social freedoms, and ultimately its prosperity.”

I will end this post with the same quote from Ronald Reagan with which Devine ends his great book. As a man who knew Reagan, who worked for him and who shared with him in the great task of defending freedom, he believed this quote best summed up the charge to defend freedom by restoring traditional values. This quote, which undoubtedly is familiar to most of you, begs of us to be strong enough in our traditional values to keep freedom safe for future generations:

Our Founding Fathers began the most exciting adventure in the history of nations. In their debates with the principles of human dignity, individual rights, and representative democracy, their arguments were based on common law, separation of powers, and limited government. Their victory was to find a home for liberty… We founded our society on the belief that the rights of men were ours by grace of God. That vision must be reaffirmed by every generation of Americans, for freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.