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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 ...

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Contra Mundum
Chuck Colson & Timothy George

Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.

Timothy George is the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and a member of Christianity Today's Editorial Council. His books include Reading Scripture with the Reformers and Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Like Colson, George has been heavily involved in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together discussions. George began cowriting "Contra Mundum" with Colson in 2011.

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August 2011

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