Introducing Marc DeGirolami as Guest Blogger

I am delighted to introduce Marc DeGirolami as a guest blogger for the month of January. Marc is a professor at St. John’s University School of Law, where he is also Associate Dean for Faculty Scholarship and Associate Director of the Center for Law and Religion. His writing concerns law and religion, criminal law, and constitutional law. He is the author of The Tragedy of Religious Freedom (2013), which was the subject of a great discussion at Liberty Law Talk. He is also the co-leader of The Tradition Project, a research initiative that will explore the value of tradition in a system of ordered liberty and develop a broad understanding of what received wisdom continues to offer for law, politics, and responsible citizenship.

Reader Discussion

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on January 11, 2016 at 12:18:11 pm

Welcome, DeGirolami! What can you tell us about the Tradition Project?

1. Policy discussions, and libertarian discussions in particular, involve speculating about counterfactuals – that is, hypothetical worlds. And as Burke cautioned us, there are limits to our ability to anticipate problems arising from hypothetical situations. Tradition (and property rights) root us in a stable world – for better and worse. It gives us the devils we know, rather than the devils we don’t.

Consider the recent economic meltdown. We have no shortage of opinions on this topic, but I suspect we’d get agreement on at least this much: Banks gave mortgages to people who, by traditional standards, would not have qualified for them. Those standards arose in a context in which banks might expect to hold onto the mortgages they wrote, and thus the bank would have to bear the cost of its own actions. The rise of intermediary institutions buying up these mortgages (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the vast international market for ever more investments) eroded the context in which those traditional standards arose, yet those intermediary institutions seemed to act as if nothing had changed.

Maybe the moral is that we should not have altered the traditional standards for mortgages. Or, alternatively, that we should not have acted as if the traditional standards would remain in place. That is, perhaps we gave too little deference to tradition – or too much.

I expect that we’d all agree in the merit of some degree of stability, and some degree of innovation. The question is – how much? How can you tell which amount of stability is optimal?

2. I had the pleasure of hearing Seamus Hasson describe his vision in creating The Becket Fund: an organization to defend religious tradition. To illustrate his argument (as set forth in his book, The Right to be Wrong), he cited an example of a Quaker woman who would follow the dictates of her faith and proselytize in colonial Massachusetts, even at great personal pain. He praised her for exhibiting freedom of conscience.

I was impressed – and puzzled. Doesn’t the western cannon contain legion examples of well-known people who suffered for conscience? Moses? Socrates? Jesus? Galileo? Pretty much any saint you’d want to name? Thoreau? Gandhi? MLK? Why pick this obscure example?

But then it struck me: Most of the people we praise for following their conscience didn’t have a large institutional church to back them up. Often, they were mavericks, bumping up against the very institutions the Becket Fund was created to defend. In the case of The Sanhedrin v. Jesus of Nazareth, which side would the Becket Fund be on?

Tradition is by no means an obvious virtue, even by religious standards.

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on January 11, 2016 at 12:55:45 pm

" (Western)Tradition is by no means an obvious virtue, even by religious standards."

Including Moses (Egyptian), Socrates (Greek), Jesus (Roman) and pretty much any saint (also Roman & Byzantine) does seem to stretch the concept of western cannon a bit too far, wouldn't you say.

Geographically, perhaps, yes! Intellectually, philosophically - no! Or at least not a mature Western tradition.

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on January 11, 2016 at 13:39:17 pm


This is rather *clever* of you. to include Moses, Socrates, Jesus and Thoreau as evidence of the poor performance /hypocrisy of Western tradition when in fact most folks would include them as evidence of the vitality of western tradition. did not these men argue against the existing (and non-western) traditions of their day and I might add a tradition that the contemporary West strove over many centuries to overcome.

No the question is this: would Moses, Jesus and Thoreau get a fair hearing today?

Oops, maybe you are right. Religious folks are on the defensive nowadays and Thoreau who remarked, "That government is best that governs least" would almost certainly be castigated as a "bitter clinger" Tea Party radical. Walden Pond would be overrun with Social Justice Warriors complaining that Thoreau had no right to the quietude he sought in that rustic paradise - it belonged to all the "peoples."

Nice tradition, I say!!!!

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