One doesn’t have to be perfectly virtuous to see society’s need for public virtue and it’s parent, religion

8 Jan

All of the founding fathers (and in this case, I do quite literally mean ALL) agreed on at least one thing regarding religion.  It was an “indispensable support” (Washington’s phrase) for the survival of the American republic.  Self-government is an experiment, they said.  Men running their own affairs, local communities, churches, individuals, families, left relatively alone, can work for the common good if public virtue was applauded and if personal virtue was relished, cultivated, transmitted from one generation to the next.  The principle parent of virtue is, they reasoned, religion and so they wanted religion to be widespread, taken seriously, and publicly promoted.  Ironically, the greatest skeptics of Christianity at the time was found among the founding fathers and yet the most articulate defenders of the necessity and public role of religion was the same group.  They knew that Christians weren’t perfect (several denied the basic tenets of Christian doctrine).  But that didn’t prevent them from advocating it as a public good for society.  In the same vein, Dr. Walter Russell Mead reminds us why even atheists most likely should (and would) regret getting what they wish for (clip):

For some, like the group of atheists who rented billboards a couple of years ago to denounce all religions as scams, if a sudden silence were to fall over all the pulpits in the world, it would be very good news.  But before too much time passed, even the most violent atheists would begin to notice that something was wrong.

Society really does depend on the imperfect virtue of its members.  Self restraint and moral behavior, even only realized in part, really are the foundations of liberty.  If too many people do the wrong things too many times, nothing can protect us from the consequences.

The weaker the hold of virtue on a people, the stronger the state needs to be.  If people don’t voluntarily comply with, for example, the tax codes, the enforcement mechanisms of the government need to be that much stronger.  If more people lose their moral inhibitions against theft, and against using violence against the weak, then society has to provide a stronger, tougher police force — and give them more authority under less restraint.

Yet at the same time the state becomes stronger, it loses control of itself.  When the moral tone of a people declines, bureaucrats and the police are not exempt from the decay of morals.  Perhaps a stratum of high minded elites and civil servants can keep up a moral tone that is significantly higher than the declining standard around them, but lesser officials and the police will reflect the society around them. They will steal; they will abuse their authority; they will manipulate the processes of the state to serve themselves and their favored clients.  The courts become corrupt; the security services link up with the crime syndicates.  Night falls.

This is not some abstract fear; history and the world today are full of places where the collapse of moral values blights daily life and undermines the prospects for development.  I’ve been to many countries where nobody trusts the courts, the police, the politicians or the journalists.  None of these countries are nice places to be, and more than anyone else it is the poor — those who most need the state and most need justice — who suffer the accumulated consequences of the moral failures of their society.

Sadly, people do not spontaneously choose to behave like angels.  Virtue has to be cultivated and developed.  Young people have to be persuaded, cajoled, admonished and above all inspired to seek wisdom, self control, a life of service and all the other virtues that are necessary for our civil lives as well as for the fullest development of our true selves.  Older people have to be reminded of their ideals, encouraged to live up to them and to continue fighting the good fight through the long years of adulthood and on into the twilight.

For some people, reason, commonsense and a strong innate moral constitution makes it possible to live a decent and useful life without the comforts and restraints of religion.  But for many more, only the feelings of awe, gratitude and fear occasioned by the awareness of a Creator can give them the strength and will to set out on the earnest and difficult road of struggle on the path to a moral life.  More, that inner sense needs to be refreshed: people need to hear the message expressed in compelling terms, and they need to hear it again and again through a lifetime.

All this can only happen if a lot of people who are still fighting their own private moral battles stand up on their hind legs in public and praise those virtues that they have not fully attained.  The recovering alcoholic has to tell the newcomer that there is hope for a better future — even if nobody knows better than a recovering alcoholic how easy it is to take that beckoning drink.  The pastor has to encourage couples in the congregation to strive to fulfill the ideal of a faithful marriage even if his or her own marriage hasn’t been spotless. The intellectual, struggling with questions and doubts about the meaning of faith, must share the best case for faith with a wider audience along with those honest struggles — or no one will benefit from a lifetime of study and reflection.

Does this mean that I’m arguing for a world of morality based on systematic hypocrisy?  GK Chesterton’s father, I once read, never went to church himself but always carried a Prayer Book on Sundays to set a good example for the lower orders.  Would we be any better off if we added hypocrisy to the lengthening list of our social sins?

It’s not that bad.  There is a line, I think, that separates the posturing hypocrite from the honest (but flawed) advocate for morals and faith.  There is a difference between the honest advocacy of hope and the self-glorification of a moral poseur — even if nobody in this business has completely clean hands.

Full article here

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