Benjamin Franklin once said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Americans seem to be born with an innate desire for freedom. Americans and freedom go together like chocolate and peanut butter. It is routine for us to cry out for more liberty. President Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address said, “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” I am all for more freedom. Yet, when is the last time you heard a rallying cry for more virtue?
The Founding Fathers were clear. You cannot have freedom without virtue. Contemporary writers, looking at the American scene today, are calling us back to this truth.
American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation, written by Timothy Goeglein and Craig Osten, calls for a restoration of virtue in America. “The loss of respect for religious freedom, life, and the boundaries for human sexuality are all symptoms of the loss of virtue. For restoration to occur, we must regain an understanding and appreciation of a virtuous society.”
Now, the Federalist Papers were a series of 85 newspaper articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay during the time the Constitution was up for ratification by the states. Written under the pseudonym “Publius”, the Papers were published to defend the proposed Constitution, and support its ratification.
Federalist No. 51, written by James Madison, examined the importance of virtue in a republican government. “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
John Adams, an American statesman and second president of the United States wrote the following to the Massachusetts Militia on October 11, 1798. “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, [and] Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
George Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address wrote, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
Despite the wisdom from our Founders, today we seem to hear much talk about freedom, and comparatively little discussion about virtue. The Founders were so clear about the need for private and public virtue. So why are we bereft of that idea today?
Goeglein and Osten recognize the Founders call for Americans to be a virtuous people. “A broad survey of America’s Founders – regardless of their own personal faith and imperfections – shows they understood that faith in God was the foundation for a virtuous society. They appealed to God as a transcendent source of virtue and universal values throughout our nation’s founding documents.”
When a people lose their virtue, there is always a corresponding increase in government intervention. For example, after any tragic mass shooting, there are immediate calls for more gun control. In addition, when marriages and families fall apart, the government steps in to provide material resources. A lack of virtue leads to fervent cries for the government to provide a solution.
Eric Metaxas, in his book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty writes, “Less virtue inevitably begets less freedom.”
Goeglein and Osten write, “Today… our society promotes a relentless ‘all about me’ philosophy that celebrates self-indulgence, personal ambition, and self-fulfillment as the ultimate end of human existence. This has led to a diminished appreciation for institutions like marriage and parenthood – both of which require self-sacrifice – and for faith systems that encourage people to adhere to moral standards that may limit or restrict the ‘free expression’ of their appetites.”
Indeed, without a healthy dose of restraint and self-sacrifice, society crumbles. We are witnesses to this fact. Currently, “the national total fertility rate — an estimate of how many babies the average woman in the U.S. will have — was 1.765 (1,765 births per 1,000 women) in 2017…. The U.S. fertility rate is now 16 percent below the rate — 2.100 — that experts say is needed for the country’s population to replace itself.” We are witnessing a culture and a population in decline. Resulting from a lack of virtue, American society has lost the will to live.
Indeed, Abraham Lincoln believed that if America were ever to be destroyed, it would not come from a foreign power, but from within. In his Address before the Young men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838, he said, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Goeglein and Osten go on to list four virtues that Americans must seek to regain if we are to maintain our freedom. “Traditionally the four cardinal virtues – taken from Plato’s Republic and Saint Augustine – are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.” Without these four virtues guiding the lives of citizens, and restraining their worst impulses, the civil society quickly devolves.
Yet, hope remains. Because individuals can choose whether or not to live virtuously, it is up to each individual to nudge our society in the right direction. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, true virtue becomes an attainable reality. The Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Goeglein and Osten write, “A virtuous society will be restored by a virtuous people. Let the practice of virtue in our lives be a guiding light for others to follow and ultimately embrace in their own lives.”
In other words, the American restoration starts with you.