Recovering Virtue


Christianity and Politics (5)

Quick review

In the past four articles, I laid out some of the elements that have shaped the Western political tradition that either come from Christianity directly or that have been integrated into a Christian framework over the centuries.

In the first article, we noted that church and state are separate institutions, each with its own sphere of operation. This implies limited government, since there are areas of life that are not under state control. Over time, this led to civil society, in which intermediate institutions developed to mediate between the individual and the state and over which the state had very limited authority.

In the second article, we saw that St. Augustine placed all human institutions under the City of Man, and argued that they were self-seeking and corrupt. This means that government is inherently bent toward tyranny as it seeks to accumulate more and more power to itself.

The third article introduced the pagan philosopher Aristotle, whose ideas did much to temper Augustinian pessimism about government. Aristotle argued that government existed by natural law and that its purpose was good—to promote human flourishing. He also argued that when those with the franchise ruled for the common good, government was good; when they did not, it became corrupt.

The fourth article addressed the issue of virtue, which was universally recognized from the times of the ancient Greeks to today to be a necessary component of good government. In particular, in a republic such as ours, it is necessary for the population as a whole to have virtue, and to demand it from their leaders. Unfortunately, society has abandoned the idea of virtue to such an extent that the word has essentially been dropped from our vocabulary. We are suffering the consequences socially, politically, and economically. And in the process we are losing our freedom to an ever-expanding government.

Help from an unlikely source
How do we fix this situation? The beginnings of an answer are found in an unlikely source.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine politician, philosopher, and writer. He is best known today for his book, The Prince, which explains the ins and outs of running an effective despotism. The book is devoid of the kind of moral platitudes you would normally see in books of this type in the period, and instead focuses on how to consolidate and hold power using ruthlessness, cunning, and duplicity. This has given Machiavelli the reputation for supporting an amoral political philosophy built around the idea that the ends justify the means.

This is a complete misunderstanding of what Machiavelli was trying to do.

Florence had historically been governed as a republic, and Machiavelli himself was an ardent republican. He had served as a diplomat for the republic of Florence, until in a very complicated set of circumstances, Florence was taken over by outside powers and a despotism run by the Medici family was installed in the city.

Machiavelli was arrested and tortured, but was eventually released. He thought long and hard about the failure of the republic and included his ideas about why republics succeed or fail in his Discourses on Livy. While he was writing that, he also wrote The Prince.

His motives for writing The Prince were complex. Among other things, he was hoping to curry favor and gain patronage with the Medici, but he also wanted to lay the groundwork for Florence to once again become a republic.

The problem and the cure
The problem, according to Machiavelli, was that although Florence was by rights a republic, it was a sick republic. The Florentines lacked virtue, which as we have seen is necessary for working a republic. As a result, Florence needed someone to govern the city, and so Machiavelli decided to support the Medici takeover and to work to make them successful. Hence The Prince.

Machiavelli had a decidedly Augustinian attitude toward despots: he believed that they were motivated by a thirst for personal glory. And this gave him the lever he needed to promote the idea of republicanism to the Medici.

He argued that the best way for the Medici to achieve everlasting glory was to build institutions that would promote virtue in the society, and then when they were ready to retire, to turn over the government to a fully functioning republic. They would thus be remembered forever as the fathers of the country.

While I would not advocate the idea of despotism as a way to build virtue in society, Machiavelli’s insight that it would take revitalized institutions to create a culture of virtue is correct. The ancient Romans argued that virtue (Latin virtus, the ideals that men were expected to live by) was not a private matter, but could only be developed in service to the community. If we want to see a more virtuous society, we need to deal with the breakdown of institutions in the culture.

So what are some of the institutions that need to be revitalized to promote virtue?

Repairing intermediate institutions: the family
Any of the intermediate institutions of civil society can fit the bill, including voluntary charitable organizations, Boy Scouts, service clubs, even such things as the PTO or the Chamber of Commerce.

In this and the following article, I want to focus on a few that I think are most critical.

To begin with, we need to rebuild the family, the first and most fundamental institution of society.

The American family is in trouble. Consider the following:

  • 40-50% of first marriages end in divorce, 60-67% of second marriages, and 73-74% of subsequent marriages;
  • 40.8% of all births are to unwed mothers;
  • Marriages declined from 8.2 per 1000 people in the year 2000 to 6.8 per 1000 people in 2010;
  • Cohabitation rates nearly doubled between 1999 and 2009, and increasing numbers of people are choosing to live together without marriage;
  • 26% of children under 21 live in a single parent household.


And these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg.

Society has lost sight of the fundamental purpose of marriage, which is to tie fathers and mothers to each other and to their children. Marriage is given a privileged place in all human societies because it provides a stable environment for the next generation to be brought into the world and acculturated. This is essential if the society is going to survive. Yet when I ask students in my classes at the university why marriage is given a special place in society, I have yet to find a student who can answer the question.

The results are plain: single parent households are the single biggest predictor of poverty, criminality and drug use; children living with cohabiting parents are far more likely to be abused; divorce and absent fathers are a major factor in early sexual activity among girls and crime among boys. A host of social pathologies follow from the breakdown of the family.

And as a quote attributed to George Gilder points out, a society whose families crumble will need a welfare state to take care of the women and children, and a police state to take care of the men. Loss of virtue means loss of liberty.

Renewing families is such a vast topic, with so many good specialists that focus on it, that I cannot even begin to do it justice here. I encourage you to explore the resources and links available at the Colson Center. What I will say here, though, is that we need to do at least four things:

  1. Recover and promote a proper understanding of marriage. It isn’t just about what makes me feel good. This includes emphasizing procreation as part of God’s intent for marriage. It also means taking Jesus’ teaching about divorce seriously.
  2. Take a stand against pornography and premarital and extramarital sex. Chastity is a virtue, and we cannot be shy about teaching it. The alternative is the collapse of the family. The consequences of sex outside of marriage are universally negative and well documented. If you do not know about them, do a little research.
  3. Teach men to take their responsibilities seriously. This includes their relationships with women in general and their wives in particular, as well as with their children. Too many men in America do not understand virtus, and they need to. This doesn’t mean becoming macho. It means developing a strong work ethic, self-control, self-sacrifice, delayed gratification, courage, prudence, etc.
  4. Be parents for your children. They don’t need you to be their friends, they need you to be their mother and their father. This means loving them, supporting them, and caring for them, of course, but it also means being a good role model and passing on skills, knowledge, wisdom, and virtue to them. It means taking responsibility for their spiritual growth and for their education, and not sub-contracting that out to the churches and the schools.


In an article in a series on Christianity and Politics, it may seem out of place to discuss the family. Nothing could be further from the truth. The family is the foundation of the society and the first school of virtue. Without it, virtue disappears from society, leading inevitably to the loss of our liberties and ultimately of the republic. It is that serious. And given the state of the family in America and the trajectory it is following, it is also extremely urgent.

The crisis of the family also has a spillover effect on the church. Unfortunately, the church also needs to be revitalized as a school of discipleship and therefore virtue. We will continue our discussion of institutional reform starting with the church in our next article.

Next steps

Share Glenn’s four steps for renewing the family with some leaders in your church. Do they agree? How can you help your church begin to take more concrete steps toward renewing families?

This would be a good time to review your responsibilities as a Christian in society. Order the series, The Pursuit of Faith and Civic Responsibility, and start a discussion group of your own. You might also read the article, “Voting Like It Matters,” by Chuck Colson.




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