By the Augusta Chronicle Editorial Staff
Our Founders wrote and talked about it. Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed it and reported on it. Today, author Eric Metaxas calls it “the secret to American freedom.”
It’s virtue. And no less than our country’s future depends on it.
America depends not on its Constitution, but on our constitutions.
As President John Adams so wisely put it, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
When asked leaving the constitutional convention whether the Founders had left us a monarchy or a republic, Benjamin Franklin is said to have remarked, “A republic – if you can keep it.”
That it is, indeed, up to us to keep it is “the wonderful, spectacular genius of it all – and the terrible, sobering danger of it all, too,” Metaxas writes in a new book If You Can Keep It.
We heartily recommend the book – which is a fast-moving treatise on what does, in fact, make America great – and how we’re in danger of losing it.
The short answer is, a lack of individual virtue.
“Adams,” writes Metaxas, “understood that the secret to self-government is that the people must themselves be self-governing, which is to say they must be motivated by something beyond the law.”
In the past, that virtue was handed down by parents and extended families and reinforced, in no uncertain terms, by houses of worship.
Today, of course, the nuclear family has blown up, extended families have mostly gone with the wind, and church attendance has plummeted.
Just as important, many pastors have been cowed into avoiding – well, preaching. The greater society has deemed it overbearing or rude to wear one’s faith on one’s sleeve. The faithful have been attacked for supposedly trying to tell others what to do – when, in fact, the Good Word is about what one ought to do.
Even our genius Founders didn’t invent religious freedom: They only enshrined it in the First Amendment. Religious freedom is a gift from God, who made us free to come to Him or not.
But it could be argued that the kind of virtue that only faith can impart is essential to the foundation of this nation.
Look around you at the culture – what passes for entertainment, the toxicity that passes between us as dialogue. The drug use, the promiscuity – and the abortions, broken lives, and mentor-less children that result. Have you ever seen the daytime TV show Maury – where women seek paternity tests of often multiple “men” just to find out who their child’s father is?
Sometimes the woman has slept with too many to find the sperm donor, even with DNA technology.
You think that’s virtuous behavior? You really think these folks are getting too much religion (and virtue) imposed on them?
Combine all that with the fact that, as Metaxas notes, we’ve nearly ceased telling America’s heroic
stories. The sometimes mythical tales of Paul Revere, Nathan Hale, George Washington, and more, which many of us grew up on, are often not told today – or they’re alloyed with overly negative revisions of our heroes’ imperfect nature.
“If we don’t know the stories of America,” Metaxas wonders, “how can we know America? By pushing away these common stories of our heroes, we have allowed ourselves to be drained of our very common identity as Americans.”
Yes, older generations probably got a heavy does of rose-colored history – about the Pilgrims, the Founders, and more. Some tempering needed to go on. But the danger is that we’ve swung too far toward the negative that it erodes younger generations to love and appreciate our very special and unique nation and the quest for freedom and a higher meaning that gave rise to it.
“Most of us,” summarizes Metaxas, “don’t understand the idea of self-government enough to be properly astonished by it.”
As one of the four main causes of the fall of ancient Rome, author Edward Gibbon cited “the injuries of time and nature.” Inherent in that is the decline of virtue over time, due to the nature of man.
It’s not just appropriate for pastors and even laymen to preach virtue; it’s imperative to our country’s survival.
As Metaxas notes, virtue was instrumental to America’s founding, as well – not just due to our Founders’ “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” but also in the Great Awakening and tremors throughout the Colonies from George Whitefield’s thunderous sermons.
One of our problems is that virtue isn’t always fun – that it requires self-denial, sacrifice, selflessness, perspective, and maturity, all of which are in a declining sum today.
If our Founders are right about the absolute necessity of virtue to govern oneself, then we’d better find that place again. Parents need to teach it, pastors need to preach it – and the culture needs to nurture it, not scoff at it as it so often does.
This column originally appeared at The Augusta Chronicle.