We Must Have Private Virtue to Secure the Public Welfare
Among the many things I love about teaching at Hillsdale College is the strong emphasis on self-governance. This is the ideal of self-rule or the capacity of a person to conduct him or herself without intervention or compulsion by an external authority. A person who properly practices self-governance is self-controlled and demonstrates moral restraint, effectively mastering his or her base impulses. Such a person is at once most free and least in need of external constraint.
The American founding fathers rightly saw this as crucial for a civil society, particularly one that aims for the high ideal of liberty. As James Madison put it, “to suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” And John Adams said, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private virtue, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.” But what, one may ask, is the origin of true virtue? Another founding father, George Washington, was adamant in his conviction that the source of moral decency necessary for a healthy republic is ultimately divine. In his Farewell Address, he declared, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
This claim of our first President is philosophically controversial, as many would say that neither religious practice nor religious beliefs are necessary for a person to live a fully virtuous life. Entire volumes have been written arguing for or against this claim, and I won’t rehearse any of the arguments here, but I do want to make an observation that seems to confirm Washington’s conviction. This is the fact that there is an inversely proportional relationship between self-worship and proper self-governance. What I mean is that the more our culture moves away from the worship of God (as national surveys have clearly shown in recent years) and has become increasingly narcissistic (as is, well, painfully obvious to anyone who studies popular culture), the American populous has at the same time become less self-controlled and less morally restrained, which is to say, less capable of proper self-governance.
Contemporary American self-worship has many manifestations, ranging from vain, self-absorbed obsession with physical attractiveness to hedonistic self-indulgence in food, entertainment, sexual promiscuity, and drug-induced euphoria. The symptoms of our self-worship are also evident in public mockery of divine worship and open rejection of basic social institutions that are built on the Christian worldview, such as the sanctity of life and traditional marriage. The sexualizing of children and celebration of all manner of sexual perversities are further symptoms of this exchange of the truth of God for the lie that is self-worship.
So why does self-worship undermine proper self-governance? It is because self-worship is a denial of reality—the reality that God is the proper object of worship. Every idolatry, whether it be worship of planets, animals, human-made artifacts, or the self, is a fundamental disordering, an invitation to chaos and destruction. The more such chaos we introduce into our lives, the more self-destructively indulgent we become. It is a vicious cycle.
The natural order of things is simple and straightforward. As the Psalmist says, “the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture (Ps. 100:3). This metaphysical fact is the bedrock foundation for the proper ordering of the soul and civil society. When we worship ourselves we displace that bedrock with sand, and all of the soul disorders and social chaos we are witnessing today are the predictably tragic consequences.
Of course, it is not too late for Americans to regain our capacity for self-governance. But that will require a major shift away from the current epidemic of self-worship and a turn towards a proper worship of God. This would be nothing short of a moral-spiritual revolution, a revival of biblical proportions, along the lines of what is described in 2 Chronicles 29 and Ezra 9-10 when the Israelites turned from their sin back to God. Similar revivals have occurred many times in American history, such as the First and Second Great Awakenings of the 18th century, the “Businessmen’s Revival” of the 1850s, the Azusa Street Revivals of the early 20th century, and the Jesus Movement in the early 1970s. At the core of each of these major revivals was conviction of sin and repentance. Moreover, each of these revivals took place within a culture where these concepts were deeply ingrained not only in Christian communities but in the minds of the American public generally. Sadly, today the notions of sin and repentance have been forgotten by much of the American church, let alone the unchurched public. Even in the most orthodox Christian circles, salvation is conceived as a matter of mere belief, worship is reduced to emotional experiences, and biblical illiteracy is pervasive. Just when our culture is most in need of being spiritually revived, it seems the very preconditions for revival are missing.
But, here someone will no doubt say, God can perform a miracle! God can turn our nation around by working in people’s hearts and drawing this nation back to himself! Yes, this is true, but note that the way God typically does this when a people has drifted as far from him as our nation has: through tough discipline or what is alternatively known as divine wrath. When a people refuses to discipline themselves, divine discipline takes over. I suspect this is where we are in America—trending towards a major act of divine discipline. If or when this goes down, I pray that we will respond as the ancient Israelites did in Ezra 9-10 or as the Ninevites did in the book of Jonah—in deep sorrow for our sin and genuine repentance. Only then will the American church have an obedient faith. Only then will we properly worship God—not in mere high-pitched emotion but in Spirit and in truth. And only then will we, as a civil society, be capable of practicing the sort of self-governance that is necessary for a truly free nation.
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