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.
This is one reason we have spent the last two years with Princeton University professor Robby George and Fox News contributor Brit Hume filming a teaching series on ethics called "Doing the Right Thing." It is a reasoned, intellectual critique of relativism and a roadmap for rebuilding individual and corporate character. We encourage Christian groups and churches to create similar tools, for in the face of massive ethical crises, the pursuit of virtue must become a great national priority.
The church of Jesus Christ has a special role to play in this moment: to speak the truth in love and to demonstrate our love to the world in acts of service and mercy. This is what Carl F. H. Henry had in mind when he wrote in 1947, "We must confront the world now with an ethics to make it tremble and with a dynamic to give it hope."
For as Tocqueville wrote nearly two centuries ago, "Nothing shows better how useful and natural [Christian] religion is to man, since the country where it exerts the greatest sway is also the most enlightened and free."
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Previous Christianity Today articles on virtue and the government include:
The Politics of Being a Good Christian | Why there might be two "God Gaps" in America. (June 13, 2011)
Blessed are the Poor in Virtue | Why some people may want to abandon New Year's resolutions as soon as possible. (January 6, 2011)
The Only 'Christian Nation' | There is no single best way to run a country. (August 7, 2009)
Virtue that Counts | Why justification by faith alone is still our defining doctrine. (July 13, 2007)
Previous "Contra Mundum" columns include:
Civility Under Fire: Chuck Colson & Timothy George Revive MLK's Legacy | Dr. King's response to critical clergy is full of lessons for today. (June 23, 2011)
An Improbable Alliance | Catholics and evangelicals used to fight over religious liberty. Not anymore. (April 11, 2011)
Doctrinal Boot Camp | Conforming to the truth of the faith is necessary for survival. (February 21, 2011)
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