Real Happiness: Colson and George Bemoan our National Virtue Deficit
Can freedom survive where virtue doesn't thrive? It was an important question for the founders of the American republic, and it is a timely one for today.
The Founding Fathers saw the critical connection: They pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to defend the self-evident truths "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
We understand life and liberty as foundational, but happiness? The problem with happiness as it is defined today lies in the little word hap, chance. Happiness is circumstantial. It depends on what happens to give us pleasure or fulfillment. But the founders understood happiness in the classical sense of what the Greeks called eudaimonia, that is, the result of a life well lived, a life based on truth and virtue.
Christians know something else: true virtue, and hence genuine happiness, is not merely a matter of thinking correctly or behaving properly. As Jonathan Edwards put it, the seat of true virtue is in the heart. Real happiness flows from character and comes to those, as Jesus said, who are poor in spirit, merciful and meek, and who hunger and thirst for righteousness and peace.
Some of the founders were less than fully orthodox in their theology, but they believed this: No person or nation can be good without God. This is why, in setting forth the most radical program for self-government in human history, they appealed not only to nature, but also to nature's God.
True virtue is personal, but it is never merely private. It involves a commitment to civic duty and the common good—traits seen so clearly by Alexis de Tocqueville in the Americans of the 1830s.
"Americans of all ages, conditions, and all dispositions constantly unite together … to found seminaries, build inns, construct churches … They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method."
This vision has not been completely lost, but it is at risk today. Narcissistic relativism ("there is no absolute truth") and secular historicism ("the human story lacks ultimate meaning") have become the norms for private decision making and public discourse. The results are deeply troubling.
While economic cycles of boom and bust are nothing new, there is reason to think that the 2008 economic collapse was the result of a moral and ethical collapse in American life: from Washington (where regulators, according to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, failed to "stem the flow of toxic mortgages") to Wall Street (where firms pursued bottom-line profits by pushing dangerous securities) to Main Street (where millions of Americans took on unwise loans in pursuit of the good life).
And when a people shows it is no longer capable of corporate virtue and self-government, inevitably government steps in to fill the void. Thus in the aftermath of the economic meltdown, we saw the historic expansion of the federal government—with federal spending accounting for 24 percent of GDP, the highest level since World War II.
So, how to rebuild a culture of virtue and civic duty? The problem did not begin with elected officials and government agencies, and it will not be solved by them. We must challenge the tyranny of relativism not only in theory but also in our daily lives, families, communities, and businesses. We must show that true happiness comes only from being rightly related to God, the source of truth and virtue.
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