Unprincipled Burkeanism

Socially conservative blogs are a pretty diverse lot, consisting of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, whites, blacks, professors, housewives, neo-Thomists, Straussians  . . . But one influence they all seem to share, to some extent at least, is Edmund Burke. Burke’s scathing Reflections on the Revolution in France argued in favor of authority, faith, and tradition against “the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason” (54). Tradition, in his view, reflects the pooled wisdom of many generations, and hence it is greater than anything that could be designed by a single intellect or even by a single generation.

The problem with Burkeanism is that it can easily be perverted to mean “there are no truths outside of social convention;” or, perhaps more charitably, “there is a natural basis for philosophical truth, but it can only be approached through social convention.” This is not an outcome that Burke himself intended. He was a committed Christian, and as such, he recognized a transcendant standard by which we can judge society: the Bible and the Church that Jesus Christ founded. In Burke’s philosophy, there are limits to what we owe to the world, for “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) when the two conflict. Burkeanism, therefore, does not hold that all traditional practices–including slavery or infant exposure–are right, but rather that we should keep most traditions and discard the unjust ones (though the burden of proof for what constitutes an “unjust tradition” is on those seeking change).

I am not sure all Burkeans understand this distinction. A commenter posted a link on my blog condemning interracial marriage–which I would usually ignore, but it happens to be an attitude I’ve seen on some other socially conservative blogs (though thankfully it is a minority view). I suppose their thinking goes: Tradition is good; most cultures have traditions prohibiting interracial marriage; therefore, this tradition must somehow be good.

I can’t understand how a Christian, Burkean or not, could hold such a view. The Bible not only doesn’t forbid interracial marriage, but such a prohibition seems anathema to its universal call to salvation. Jesus Christ instructs us to “go, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28: 19). God’s decrees are no longer restricted to one nation, but instead bring Jew and Gentile alike into the body of Christ. Perhaps Christians who oppose interracial marriage think that Jesus calls all races to be brothers in Christ, but that such Christian love does not require that we accept marital love between the races. However, given the care with which St. Paul wrote of marriage–recommending against “interfaith” marriage, for instance, and establishing male headship–it seems that he would have mentioned interracial marriage if there were any moral problems with it. Even in the Old Testament, in which God shows special love and favor to the nation of Israel, marriages sometimes take place between Jews and people of other nations: Ruth, Rahab, Esther.

One might argue that, by undermining natural categories, proponents of interracial marriage display the same logic used to justify same-sex marriage. But the comparison is a specious one, because the natural basis for racial difference is more ambiguous than that for sexual difference. Sexual difference corresponds to an obvious difference in function as well as genotypical and phenotypical differences. Two men who marry are sterile, but an opposite-sex Jew and Gentile who marry are obviously not.

“But,” say some social conservatives, “we have to reconcile ourselves to the realities of our fallen world! People are naturally disposed to racial prejudice, so we must accept these dispositions, perhaps try to mitigate them slightly, but should never force a totalitarian transformation of human nature.” I am sympathetic to human limitations, and I think it is natural for us creatures to be more attached to our families, our communities, and our religious groups than to a cosmopolitan “human community” (though we obviously do have obligations to the human community too). But, in this day and age, those local communities are racially diverse. There is no reason why duties to one’s own have to be constituted along racial lines.

I do grant that there may be pragmatic reasons that recommend against interracial marriage, such as the difficulty in navigating profound cultural differences in a marriage, or the desire to preserve a small and vanishing ethnic group. The link posted in the comments also claimed that it is healthier to mate with someone genetically similar to you (though that seems counterintuitive to me, since that would be an argument in favor of incest). But sometimes there are stronger pragmatic reasons in  favor of interracial marriage. Have you looked at white people lately? A traditionally-minded white Catholic would probably sympathize better with a black, Latino, or Filipino Catholic than with the typical white American. Non-European peoples are doing a better job of safeguarding the Western Christian heritage than we are. But this is really beside the point, because pragmatic arguments against interracial marriage do not rise to the level of moral arguments.

In short, I’m a bit astonished that this is even a debate among Christians.  We are called to love each human being as God does–something which I often (well, usually) fail to do, but which isn’t exactly helped by separatist ideologies.

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4 thoughts on “Unprincipled Burkeanism

  1. Look again at the ten commandments. Ask yourselves why it seems there seem to be two commandments about infidelity. We assume they are both about marital infidelity but the commandment against adultery is dealing with racial miscegenation. Adultery is racial amalgamation.

    If God has no issues with miscegenation than ask yourselves why Esau was disinherited for taking alien women as his wives. If God has no issues with miscegenation than ask yourselves why biracial children find it difficult to find matching donors for bone marrow and organs. If God has no issues with miscegenation than ask yourselves why a medicine that can heal a white man can kill a black man.

    The Apostle Paul never talked about interracial marriage because he assumed that the very idea was unthinkable in the first place. He was born and raised a Jew. The idea would have never occurred for him to even go there because he felt the ten commandments and especially the one dealing with adultery or racial almagamation spoke for itself.

  2. Sorry for my delay in approving and responding to your comment.

    “If God has no issues with miscegenation than ask yourselves why Esau was disinherited for taking alien women as his wives.”

    But again, there are men in the Old Testament who take alien wives with no ill consequence (Moses, Boaz). The implication seems to be that such marriages are legitimate as long as the aliens convert.

    “Look again at the ten commandments. Ask yourselves why it seems there seem to be two commandments about infidelity. We assume they are both about marital infidelity but the commandment against adultery is dealing with racial miscegenation.”

    No, there is one commandment against the act of adultery and another against coveting, which are two different matters. That’s why there are two.

    “If God has no issues with miscegenation than ask yourselves why biracial children find it difficult to find matching donors for bone marrow and organs.”

    Having kids after age 35 tends to lead to health problems in the offspring–does that mean I should start taking birth control once I turn 35? Health issues are not ipso facto proof of God’s disapproval.

    “The Apostle Paul never talked about interracial marriage because he assumed that the very idea was unthinkable in the first place. ”

    Do you really think inter-national marriage (or at least concubinage) was impossible in a cosmopolitan world like the Roman Empire? Remember that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he was ministering to Gentiles as well as Jews.

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