Restoring Civic Virtue – A Contemporary Perspective

In previous posts we have looked at the importance of civic virtue from the framework of the Founders, philosophers, and the Biblical Worldview. Is any of this relevant today, or just the musings of a bunch of dead white guys? In this post I discuss the perspective of a contemporary thinker regarding Liberty, virtue, personal responsibility, and the civil society.

Liberty is underappreciated by American society today, especially among the younger generations. This may be because they have grown up with Liberty and take it for granted, like air or sunshine. It may be because our schools neglect history and our population is unaware of the exceptional nature of our founding. We neglect history at our peril. We may fail to realize that Liberty is not man’s normal state. History is dominated by various forms of monarchies and despotism. Indeed, Liberty was won by our forefathers by blood and exertion. The Founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to secure the blessings of Liberty for the United States of America. Some of them paid dearly. Our government schools have failed to teach our history and to instill in our citizenry an appreciation for the price of our liberty.

Liberty is also misunderstood. Liberals think that Liberty means the freedom to do whatever they please. This type of thinking justifies materialism, sexual license, debauchery, and hedonism. It leads to the elevation of individual desires and to the devaluation of human life. Indeed, we have seen the results of this thinking in the ongoing sexual scandals in Hollywood and the corruption in Washington, DC. But is that concept of Liberty what the Founders advanced or did they think more like Peter Marshall: “May we think of freedom not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.” (Marshall n.d.) If this, then, is Liberty, then who determines what is right? In previous posts, I have shown that the Founders relied on Judeo-Christian principles and have argued that only a Biblical Worldview embodies principles that provide a sufficient foundation for Liberty.

There are two principle threats to Liberty:

  • Totalitarianism – the all-powerful, despotic, tyrannical central government, and
  • Anarchy – mob rule, an unstable arrangement that decays into despotism.

Political Continuum

We have used this diagram in past posts to understand that Liberty does not result from arbitrary binary choices between fascism and socialism, or Republican and Democrat. Liberty is found only in a republic which allows the maximum individual Liberty, while maintaining sufficient constraints on the sin nature of man to provide protection from tyrants and criminals. There is always a tension between totalitarian and anarchical forces that the republic must resist. Liberty will be lost at either extreme.

This tension can only be maintained by the rule of law.In Plunder and Deceit Mark Levin writes, “Why should the United States Constitution, and the faithful adherence to and execution of it by public officials, matter to younger people? It provides the governing order of a republic intended to protect the individual’s liberty from a tyrannical centralized authority and, conversely, the anarchy of mob rule.” (Levin, Plunder and Deceit, Big Government’s Exploitation of Young People and the Future 2015) The Constitution provides the basis for the rule of law to assure the restraint of despots and tyrants. But the Constitution is not sufficient to govern the daily affairs of individuals.

Flag - ConstitutionWhile the republic provides the maximum Liberty for individuals, it also requires individuals to exercise personal responsibility and to restrain themselves to that they behave honestly, prudently, and wisely. Again, Levin writes “Liberty is not an abstraction. It requires private and public virtue, a just rule of law, and established norms and institutions—the opposite of fundamental transformation.” (Levin, Plunder and Deceit, Big Government’s Exploitation of Young People and the Future 2015) Liberty necessarily includes personal responsibility to govern one’s own behavior and to support the civil society.

What induces the individual to do what is productive and good, and not to devolve into hedonistic pleasure-seeking? In a healthy republic individual citizen must exercise self-restraint. If they do not, then lawlessness ensues. Lawlessness leads to anarchy, and anarchy leads to a strong autocratic government. And Liberty dies. “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.” (Proverbs 29:2) To restrain lawlessness and to preserve the tension between Liberty and autocracy requires a vibrant civil society, which practices civic virtue. History and the Bible teaches us that this is more likely when the citizenry is informed by a Biblical worldview. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34)

In our next post, we will continue our discussion of civic virtue.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.

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