Politics and Virtue


Christianity and Politics (4)

If you can

When asked by a woman what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had given the people, Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” The warning was meant seriously, because like all the Founders, Franklin was well aware of the dangers that faced republics.

The principal danger, of course, was tyranny, which the Founders understood as the government depriving people of their God-given rights and liberties. The Constitution’s system of checks and balances was intended to make that more difficult, but if unscrupulous persons were elected to key positions in the government, tyranny remained a possibility. As a result, the Founders emphasized that the only real protection against tyranny was the character of the people elected to office.

But there was another, more indirect route that could lead to the collapse of the Republic: The loss of virtue among the citizens.

Government and virtue
Virtue is an old-fashioned and misunderstood word today. The Latin word virtus comes from the word vir, “man.” Virtue was thus literally manliness, the qualities that men should strive to achieve, such as valor, courage, temperance, prudence, loyalty, faithfulness, self-sacrifice, etc. Significantly, these “masculine” traits could only be exhibited in the service of the republic; they were not private but public qualities.

The Greek equivalent was arete, meaning excellence. It referred primarily to something that achieved its intended end. When applied to people, it referred to someone who had developed to their full potential.

What has this to do with government? As we have seen, the Greeks believed that the state existed to assist the citizens in the pursuit of virtue (arete), which was essential to a life of happiness (eudaimonia), the purpose of our existence.

The Roman concept of virtus was more directly related to government. The Romans believed that government officials needed virtus or they would abuse their power and rule out of self-interest, rather than putting their duty to the state ahead of themselves. Since the best school of virtus was the military, and all Roman men performed some kind of military service, important offices in government had minimum age requirements so that all eligible men would have completed their military service. That way, they would either have developed virtus or it would be known that they hadn’t; if the latter, they would be blocked from holding office.

Everyone involved with the state needs virtue if the state is going to function. In a monarchy, ultimately the king’s virtue is all that matters, since the final decision on any policy is his. As authority spreads more broadly, virtue must spread as well. In a republic, it must reach not simply office holders, but also those selecting office holders. If the latter lack virtue, the former certainly will as well.

Virtue and the Founding Fathers
These ideas were well known among the Founding Fathers. They all recognized the importance of virtue for the survival of the republic. To cite just a few examples from John Adams:

Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.

Others among the Founders expressed the same ideas.

Why is civic virtue so important to a republic? If people think only about their own interests rather than the common good, they will elect people who will pander to them, who will put short term gain and power ahead of the long term good of the nation, and this will in turn lead to the destruction of liberty.

This was the point of a quotation wrongly attributed to eighteenth century Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler:

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship."


Similarly, Michael Novak argues in his book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, that modern liberal democracies are built on a three-legged stool of economic freedom, political freedom, and moral restraint (i.e., virtue). If any one collapses the stool will fall, which leads inevitably to the loss of liberty and thus to tyranny. In other words, if we fail to live lives of virtue, we invite government intervention and thus lose our liberty.

Virtue and the nation today
Unfortunately, this is the state of the United States today.

We have lost the virtue of chastity courtesy of the sexual revolution, and so we have as a consequence abortion on demand, an HHS mandate to pay for birth control (including abortifacients) and sterilization even if it violates our consciences, and the destruction of the family particularly among poor and minority communities.

We have lost the virtue of self-control, so we spend recklessly on immediate gratification both on the personal level and in all levels of government.

We have lost the virtue of self-sacrifice, so we are consistently self-seeking and look to someone else to pick up the tab for our lifestyle and choices.

We have lost the virtue of service, so the political classes are typically out for power, spend as much time fundraising as legislating, and give themselves generous pensions when they are voted out of office or, more likely, retire. And they pass laws that permit them to keep any money they raise for an election campaign whether or not they actually run for office.

And we are losing our liberties.

The Constitution insists that all important (and some relatively unimportant) appointments of the executive branch must be approved by the Senate, yet there is an increasing number of non-Constitutional “czars” who run important divisions of the executive branch without any senatorial approval or oversight.

We have a President who issues executive orders in areas that he has acknowledged are properly the responsibility of Congress, thereby violating separation of powers. His excuse? A gridlocked Congress. But the Constitution mandates that Congress pass the laws, not the President. If the people don’t like what Congress is doing (or is not doing), then they can elect new representatives and Senators. The President has no right to intervene. Short circuiting the legislative process amounts to rule by decree, which violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution by eliminating the checks and balances built into the system. And it spells the end of the republic, which by definition is rule by representatives, not by a single executive.

We have unelected bureaucrats establishing policies such as the HHS mandate that violate our fundamental liberties, with the willing support of those who benefit and who thus put their “right” to free contraception over another’s right not to be forced to subsidize someone else’s behavior in violation of deeply held religious beliefs.

We have a Senate that will not vote on a budget because any vote could be politically embarrassing and thus threaten the majority party’s hold on power. And the continuing resolutions to keep the government running have the government borrowing forty cents of every dollar we spend.

We have a Federal Reserve that is printing money at a breakneck pace so we can spend now and sell our children into debt slavery down the line rather than doing what we need to do now to prevent default and economic collapse. If or when that happens, some form of dictatorship will follow.

And we as a public sit back and acquiesce in all that is going on. We’re like Hezekiah, who on being told that Judah would be destroyed and his own children go into exile, said that it was good because he would not experience the trouble himself.

The way back: virtue
The only solution is to recover our virtue and reject the nonsense about cultural and moral relativism that has eaten away at the foundations of our society. Without that, as everyone from Aristotle to the Founders to Michael Novak has argued, the republic is doomed.

We will talk about how to do that in the next article.

Next steps

Isn’t it about time you and your friends began to help in the effort to renew Christian virtue in the land? Order the series, Renewing Virtue, and you’ll get videos and study materials to help you take up this challenge right where you are.

For more insight to this topic, order a copy of Chuck Colson’s book, God & Government, from our online store. You might also check out the article, “Reclaiming Virtue and Wisdom,” by Dr. Ross Porter.




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