To our Founding Fathers it was obvious, or “self-evident,” that self-government, or a democratic republic, could only be perpetuated by the self-governed…To this end, the Founders fundamentally believed that the ability to govern ourselves rests with our individual and collective virtue (or character).
—The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute Blog
Almost all the founding fathers—Washington, Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Henry—expressed this sentiment at one time or another: that, in effect, only a virtuous people can maintain a free society.
John Adams gives us an example of this thinking in his letter to the officers of the Massachusetts First Brigade in October of 1798:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Yet when we look around our country today, it seems we are intent to put the theory of these first American patriots to the test. Anglican priest Jonathan Mitchican writes:
…we live in an age in which virtue is often actively denied as a relic of our religious past…According to the culture of our day, our morality should not be wrapped up in religious superstition but rather determined by our reason and our experience of the world. As one popular atheist meme puts it, “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.”
But the “all-you-need-is-empathy” approach, Mitchican suggests, is not really producing the desired effect of “a society that is capable of moral reasoning.” We would agree.
In a New York Times article, David Brooks highlights an interesting study from 2008 of 230 young people. The study found that the group shared no moral vision or even a moral framework to begin to think through moral questions. Respondents’ typical answer was, “moral choices are just a matter of individual taste,” or as one person said, “It’s personal; it’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”
While it is true that religion is not strictly necessary to develop virtue, we still need some culturally shared sense of what is right and wrong. Where is that going to come from—the young adults in the study? With so many different versions of right and wrong, that’s not likely.
Over the course of Western civilization, Christianity has provided the moral foundation on which society was built. It gave everyone, believers and non-believers alike, a framework for understanding right and wrong that went beyond personal feelings.
When we look at moral culture today, it closely resembles that of ancient Israel during the time of Judges: “…every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Today, the idea of virtue both individually and corporately seems to be lost, and the impact on our society is being seen from the boardrooms on Wall Street to the streets of Chicago.
For more than two centuries, Christians have been the guardians of important virtues recognized by the founding fathers. Perhaps we have guarded them a little too well. As Christ’s disciples, have we been the salt and light that he called us to be, or have we watched silently as the moral fabric of our society has unraveled, hiding our light under a bushel (Matthew 5:15)?
You see, virtue is not just believing the right things or even trying to do the right things; exhibiting godly character is who we are called to be in Christ, working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” As believers, we are called to live virtuous lives not so that we can look down on others or to prove our righteousness to God. We embrace God’s desire for our lives because we are being transformed by his grace day by day. It is our gratitude toward our creator that motivates our behavior to live virtuous lives in response to his call.
God calls his people to be a virtuous people living lives of good character, which in turn has the potential of lifting society as a whole. Scripture teaches that virtue includes the characteristics of goodwill, patience, tolerance, kindness, respect, humility, gratitude, courage, honor, industry, honesty, chastity, and fidelity. The founding fathers understood that these principles are the cornerstones for both individual and societal governance.
If we are going to make a difference, we need to once again teach virtue to God’s people and model it to a lost nation.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).