The Forgotten Constant

Note: This is the first chapter of a book I'm working on which addresses the three essential elements in the equation which has determined the success of the American constitutional republic for 227 years - liberty, law and virtue. The recent political debates have focused on the conflict between liberty (the individual) and the law (the state), but has practically neglected virtue (the space between the individual and the state). Virtue determines the very nature of the people who exercise liberty and the law. Without it, neither liberty nor the law are properly ordered, and the struggle becomes one between individual licentiousness and state oppression and, in either case, the republic cannot stand.

My argument is that virtue is the key to our viability as a nation, and we must come to a consensus on how to restore virtue from the bottom up, not as a mandate from the state, but as a desire from within.

The rest of the book will focus on what changes we must make in our worldview in order to create a climate in which virtue can be properly addressed and applied, but this first chapter sets the stage by explaining the basis for my equation.

Most of what we do together is not done through government but through the institutions that exist between the individual and the state, and government exists to sustain the space in which those institutions, and with them our society, may thrive. This means that government is crucially important, but it also means that limits on government are crucially important—and for the very same reason.[i] ~ Yuval Levin

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:5-7, ESV).

When I was well into writing this first chapter a year ago, the nation was in the throes of racial strife over the verdict rendered in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, accused in the shooting death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Zimmerman, a Hispanic, was found not guilty of the black youth’s murder[ii], and the outrage at the verdict was indicative of trends which have seen the nation fractured along numerous fault lines, including race, over the past few years.

In the time that has passed since that verdict, little has happened to bring people together.

Mass shootings by sick people with guns generate the same heated debates over constitutional rights versus public safety, with both sides unwilling to yield. One incident of mass murder in particular, involving a knife, a gun and a car, not only stirred arguments about gun control, but also misogyny and race. In the killer’s rambling “manifesto”, ostensibly the rationale behind his killing spree, he expressed, among other things, hatred for women to whom he felt entitled, but who wouldn’t date or have sex with him, and for “ugly, inferior” black males with white girlfriends[iii].

Speaking of race, the topic continues to dominate the political and cultural dialogue 50 years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and nearly six years after the election of a black man as president. In addition to the blatant racist utterings of some public figures and other obvious expressions of racism[iv], previously esoteric terms like “white privilege”[v], describing the inherent advantages of being white in America and, conversely, the disadvantages of being non-white, and “dog whistle”[vi], where ostensibly innocuous words or phrases are apparently used with deliberation as code for latent racists, have entered the popular lexicon.

The seeds planted during the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s have dramatically borne fruit in the past two years, with the state and the culture using the courts and public intimidation to drastically remake the sexual landscape.

The definitions of marriage and gender have been so radically altered that centuries of human history, and legal and cultural recognition and acceptance of biological differentiation and sexual and parental complementarity, have been discarded like yesterday's garbage.

The term “marriage” has been appropriated by the parties engaged in same-gender sexual unions and their advocates, forever recasting the word to describe any eros-driven intimate relationship for which the participants seek social and legal sanction. Gone is the common sense that only one type of sexual union can ensure a man and a woman who procreate are committed, personally and publicly, to the provision, raising and nurture of their children, and that such a union is exclusive not because it seeks to impugn the rights of others in different unions, but rather to hold the parents ultimately responsible for their children, and to ensure the state is not compelled to assume that responsibility.

The proponents of this redefinition have gotten their way through court rulings, disregarding the will of the people as expressed through ballot initiatives or their elected officials, and unprecedented social pressure, threatening those who object to their agenda with public shaming or the loss of their livelihoods. Even prominent gay author and commentator Andrew Sullivan decries this public intimidation of dissenting views, equating it to the same abuses to which gays were subjected for decades.[vii]

They should not imagine, however, that the spiral of silence they've created equates to acceptance. Their victories make them blind to the fissures they've created, which equate to yet another source of division in America.

Meanwhile, the world's largest online social network, Facebook, offers its American users in excess of 50 gender options, and a whopping 71 gender options to its users in the United Kingdom, from which to choose based on sentimentality rather than biology.[viii] Some have even taken to calling the doctor’s declaration of a child’s gender at birth an act of social irresponsibility, and tantamount to medical malpractice. [ix]

We've even lost our carefully crafted national consensus on the first 16 words in the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Since the time of Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Rhode Island in 1635 as a haven for people of various faiths, religious liberty has been regarded as the precursor to all other liberties:

That’s why the first phrase of the first sentence of the First Amendment is about freedom of religion — preceding freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Why? Because if you don’t have the freedom to live and practice what you believe, the other freedoms are irrelevant. Religious liberty is America’s First Freedom.[x]

As recently as 1993, the principle of religious liberty had widespread bipartisan support, reflected most notably in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which passed the House unanimously and the Senate by a 97 to 3 vote, and was signed into law by President Clinton. Cultural changes have resulted in numerous court challenges to the individual and collective practice of religious liberty, however, eroding America's consensus to the point where it is upheld by a slim 5-4 majority in the Supreme Court[xi]:

Throughout American history, there has been widespread agreement that in our religiously diverse and widely devout country, it is good for the government to accommodate religious exercise. We have disagreed about particular accommodations (may a Muslim police officer wear a beard, despite police department policy?), and especially about whether religious accommodations should be ordered by judges or crafted by legislators. But we have generally agreed that our nation benefits when we help rather than burden those with religious obligations. That consensus seems, quite suddenly, to have evaporated[xii].

Historically, the government was obligated to accommodate religious beliefs and practices unless there was a compelling public interest that couldn't be met without placing a burden on religious liberty. Nowadays, the culture seems determined to limit religious exercise to the four walls of the sanctuary and the home, and a person's conscience apparently ends when they step beyond those boundaries and into the world.

And the fissures grow wider.

Lest these observations be seen as another apocalyptic scenario from a disgruntled politico who failed to get his way in the 2012 electoral cycle, I offer a couple of empirical data points for your consideration.

On June 4, 2012, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a study which revealed that Americans’ “values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.”[xiii] The study further stated that other lines of demarcation – gender, age, race or class – by comparison did not reflect the increasing gap between us when it comes to what we believe. A subsequent poll in June 2014 gave no relief in this area, with the pollsters concluding:

Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life.[xiv]

The Pew Research Center has also posed the following question, or variants of it, in several polls throughout the years: “All in all, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country today?” The last time more Americans were satisfied than dissatisfied with the direction of the nation was in April 2003[xv].

The upward mobility of future generations has long been the measure by which past generations of Americans gauge their success, but a Rasmussen poll in the fall of 2012 finds that only 16% of Americans believe their children will be better off than they were.[xvi]

A USA Today/Gallup poll taken in mid-December 2012 showed that Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the nation’s future. According to Gallup, “The 65% of Americans who predict 2013 will be a year of economic difficulty is one of the more negative responses to this question since Gallup first asked it in 1965.”[xvii]

Gallup also reported that Americans believe the United States’ global power is waning, only the second time that has been recorded in the 15 years the organization has posed the question of whether American power around the world will increase or decrease in the coming year.[xviii] In general, half of those polled believe that “the country's best years are behind us.”[xix]

This finding is echoed in a July 2014 Rasmussen poll, in which 52% of Americans expressed the same sentiment and, according to the pollsters, “This…is one of the few times this figure has passed the 50% mark.”[xx]

Bradley J. Birzer, Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies, Professor of History and Director of the Hillsdale College Program in American Studies, offers a bleak description of the current state of affairs in America, a period which he calls “a new dark age”:

I see little beyond a bleak twilight. I see no justice in our federal government. I see only poison, corruption, and darkness. I see that our economy is tenuous and shaky at best. I see a national debt that is insoluble. I see an education system that is almost totally utilitarian and without redeeming value, a grand babysitting scheme to keep potential hoodlums off the streets and competition out of the labor pool.

Our position abroad is without direction, and I would guess with only slight trepidation that more people outside of our borders hate us than did on September 10, 2001.

Where is the light? Where do we see hope? There are cracks here and there, but the barriers and obstructions continue to mount, crowding in upon us, forcing us ever closer to the whirligig of the abyss.[xxi]

Birzer’s essay is punctuated with a question that I’ve pondered myself over the past year: “Do we imagine the U.S. will last forever?” He then answers his own question: “If so, we are fools.”[xxii]

The question of America’s permanence as a nation has troubled me for much of the past couple of years. I have spent less time distracted by what John Wilson, professor of history emeritus at Hillsdale College, calls “the ephemera of American politics”[xxiii] and delved deeper into issues of American character and ideals, wondering if we still have enough shared experiences and beliefs to maintain our cohesion as a nation:

In short, we have no national consensus which binds most of us together. When we disagree on the main ideas of who we are as a nation, is it any wonder that respect for and tolerance of divergent views, the presumption of good will, and consideration for the feelings of others are no longer hallmarks of discussion and debate?

...We are on a path to becoming The Divided States of America, and unless we can recall from the dark recesses of our collective memory what binds us together as a nation, we have no justification for remaining together.

So you tell me – other than living on the same continent and within the arbitrarily defined borders of a nation called the United States of America, what do we all believe without reservation or equivocation? Is it enough to keep us one?[xxiv]

The perception that we place most of the burden for addressing our nation’s problems, and potentially healing the rifts between us, on the political process only heightens my concern. I have come to the conclusion that politics cannot rescue our nation, and in fact has contributed to our decline because of the overwhelming and unrealistic expectations we place on political solutions to the exclusion of others. Our politics are too small, too shallow, and too divisive – in short, to use founder and 2nd president John Adams’ phrase, “wholly inadequate” to the task. My expectations of politics as a salve for our nation’s wounds are obviously low:

I’m done with politics. Specifically, I’m done with politics as it’s practiced in modern-day America. It is shallow, divisive, destructive, utilitarian, insulting and incapable of solving the critical problems we face today.

It makes fools of seemingly intelligent people, brings out and nourishes our worst tendencies as individual human beings, encourages groupthink over individual conscience, demands unquestioned loyalty over integrity of philosophy, morality or worldview, and places the acquisition and maintenance of power over commitment to principle.

It encourages selfishness over service, arrogance over humility, conflict over comity, emotion over intellect, immediacy over introspection, superficiality over substance, bombast over restraint, and gamesmanship over statesmanship.

It refuses to presume even an iota of good will, principle or intelligence on the part of those who oppose you, and reduces complex human beings with unique experiences and expertise to cartoon characters in a pulp fiction novel, and complex issues requiring nuance and thought into sound bites in an attack ad.

Politics thrives on stereotypes and simplified narratives, and is therefore not conducive to people reasoning together at a time when what we need most are clear heads, sharp minds, comity and a willingness to examine all the information before reaching conclusions.

So I’m done with politics. We will never solve the challenges facing us as a nation as long as we allow politics to govern our thoughts, words and actions.[xxv]

People who’ve known me for most of my life would be amazed by that statement. I have been passionate about politics since childhood, and it has been integral to the timeline of my life. My degrees are in political science and international relations, and I first worked as a paid campaign operative at the young age of 18. I’ve written about politics, worked on numerous campaigns, served in a presidential administration, and even run for office. I’ve always believed that my God-given purpose on earth was inexorably linked somehow to politics.

Given my history, and my current role as an associate dean and assistant professor of government with the Helms School of Government at Liberty University, it is probably heresy for me to dismiss politics as the answer to our nation’s problems. Some explanation is in order.

As the Pew survey I referenced previously indicated, our nation’s divisiveness is at least a byproduct, if not a direct result, of our fractious politics. Part of it is due to the tenor of modern American politics, in which the limited time and numerous distractions of everyday American life seem to necessitate a louder, more aggressive tone in order to attract attention.

Name-calling and the demonization of political opponents removes the option of deliberation and dialogue from political discourse. This brings to mind “Godwin’s Law,”[xxvi] an Internet meme which states the longer an online argument goes, the likelihood increases that someone will eventually invoke a Nazi analogy, effectively ending the conversation, and the person invoking the analogy is considered the loser of the argument.

In politics today, it can be Nazism, racism, sexism, homophobia, or any one of a number of unpleasant accusations that bring dialogue on difficult issues to a screeching halt, and it usually doesn’t take much time before such incendiary language is interjected into the conversation. If we can’t talk, we can’t find common ground, and we can’t come together.

The aforementioned Zimmerman trial is a textbook example of how politics distorts an otherwise normative process.

Thousands of murder trials take place across the nation every year, and since they are mostly conducted out of the national spotlight, the justice system is permitted to work as designed. A political narrative was overlaid atop this case from the beginning, however, and the factual rarity of white-on-black violent crime, especially when compared to the epidemic of black-on-black murder in America, became subordinate to a meme in which America is as inhospitable to blacks today as it was in the 1950s. This ensured that, no matter what the verdict, dissension and division were inevitable, and justice was irrelevant to the outcome. Emotions are stirred on both sides, and racists of all stripes are emboldened. The end result is a corrupted process, all in the name of politics.

Politics today has also become too “Washington-centric,” with the tone, tenor and topics of political conversation at all levels being set by what emanates from the nation’s capital. Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, decried this top-down mindset in a speech presented to the Republican National Committee winter meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina:

In our public discourse today, America is pretty much defined by government, by the latest moves that occur in Washington.

If you landed from outer space…and read the news…and watched TV for a week…you would have to conclude that Washington is the hub of America and that what happens in Washington is what drives and dictates the success or failure of America.

In addition to Washington, there are a bunch of outlying areas we call states, but they are pretty much just adjuncts of the federal government.

This is not the idea of America. But…this is what America will become if we do not reorient our way of thinking right away[xxvii].

Another poll suggests that our tendency to let Washington dictate our politics has infected the general population. According to a USA TODAY/Bipartisan Policy Center Poll, our elected officials “in some ways reflect constituents who view the opposition party as deeply untrustworthy and its positions extreme.” The poll’s findings suggest that while “most Republican and Democratic voters say American politics are more polarized than the American people are, the findings indicate that on that they're wrong.”[xxviii]

The most critical reason, however, why politics does not hold the answers for healing our nation is that the modern American political debate leaves out one of the most critical segments of American society, the one where everyday life, common purpose and community reside. Political analyst, academic and journalist Yuval Levin believes the current political debate between the rights of the individual and the power of the state is incomplete, and that what is lacking is critical to America’s success:

Simply put, to see our fundamental political divisions as a tug of war between the government and the individual is to accept the progressive premise that individuals and the state are all there is to society. The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government. The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years — the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves — is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.[xxix]

Levin reminds us that the mediating, voluntary institutions which comprise most of human life – families, neighborhoods, places of worship, civic organizations, local charities, our workplaces – are what bring us together, and have been a defining characteristic of the American people, even before we came together as a constitutional republic.

In another article, Levin writes, “To ignore what stands between the state and the citizen is to disregard the essence of American life. To clear away what stands between the state and the citizen is to extinguish the sources of American freedom.”[xxx]

This view of American society isn’t new. In fact, Levin is embracing the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat whose signature work, Democracy in America, is described by editors Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop as "at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America."[xxxi] Of 19th century America, Tocqueville wrote:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

In America I encountered sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had no idea, and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.

I have since traveled through England, from which the Americans took some of their laws and many of their usages, and it appeared to me that there they were very far from making as constant and as skilled a use of association.

It often happens that the English execute very great things in isolation, whereas there is scarcely an undertaking so small that Americans do not unite for it. It is evident that the former consider association as a powerful means of action; but the latter seem to see in it the sole means they have of acting.[xxxii]

The associations which comprise civil society reinforce our independence and our compassion, demonstrating our ability to unite toward common goals without government fiat or assistance, and our care and concern for our neighbors. To ignore the role of civil society in any discussion of America’s future is to disregard a fundamental tenet of our culture.

I have developed a model which illustrates, in my opinion, the full vision of the founders for the United States of America - a functioning constitutional republic in which the people are largely self-governing. This model is comprised of three pillars - individual liberty, the rule of law and virtue.

In this construct, liberty is represented primarily by the freedom of the individual, the law – creation, enactment and enforcement -- is the domain of the state, and virtue is a function of shared values, demonstrated and fortified through voluntary associations – civil society.

We devote much attention to liberty and the law, and their relationship to one another, in our public debates. We expect the law to act as a constraint on the excesses of liberty, and liberty to tame the potential for law to degrade into tyranny. James Wilson, American founder and one of the nation’s first associate Supreme Court justices, wrote, "Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness."[xxxiii]

Virtue, however, is perhaps the most essential component of a healthy society because it speaks to the nature of man himself, and it is man’s nature which shapes the nature of law and liberty. Omitting virtue is like leaving out the constant in an equation; without it, the answer can never be correct, no matter how you adjust the variables. If you believe that victory at the ballot box alone, or an increase in individual independence from the state, is the solution to the nation’s salvation, then I fear you will be gravely disappointed should either or both of those outcomes occur.

If I could choose one word to describe the founders’ design for our constitutional republic, it would be restraint. The law, represented by the government, is designed to act as a restraint on wrongdoing, and liberty, which manifests itself in a free people, a restraint on the overreach of government. James Madison, in Federalist #51, best described the necessity for restraint in creating a government which would curb the worst of human nature, but which also required controls to limit the temptation toward the use and abuse of power:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of 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. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.[xxxiv]

Note that Madison acknowledges that “you must first enable the government to control the governed”, which is the law restraining liberty, but also that people are to be “the primary control on the government”, which is liberty restraining the law. He goes even further, taking “auxiliary precautions” in the design of government, which eventually gave us enumerated powers, separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism, which dispersed power to the states and the people.

But what restrains the one element common to both the law and liberty – the people themselves? Depending on the people, the restraint of the law on liberty can devolve into oppression, while liberty’s restraint on the law, if allowed to go too far, leads to anarchy. The answer cannot come from external structures, but must come from within, and must be fostered by institutions which voluntarily call people to their better selves.

Edmund Burke wrote, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity . . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”[xxxv] That “controlling power” that must come from within, in order to avoid the imposition of the law from without, is virtue.

The founders considered virtue to be essential to the success of this new experiment in governance. If you type into an Internet search engine the phrase “the founders on virtue,” you will be inundated with quotes from the American founders, their British predecessors, and various writers, politicians, philosophers and pundits on the non-severable relationship between virtue among the people and good government. I will, however, focus on just a few.

Benjamin Franklin said, "[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."[xxxvi] In his statement, he affirmed that individual liberty cannot long survive without virtue, because virtue inspires the best and suppresses the worst of human tendencies, and keeps the authority of the state at bay because, when people govern themselves well, intervention by the state is unnecessary.

Noah Webster is best known to most Americans as a lexicographer, and his name is still on the world’s most famous dictionary of American English. Webster wore many hats, however, including that of founder and political visionary, and he believed that a virtuous government was the direct result of a virtuous people choosing the right people for public service:

When you become entitled to exercise the right of voting for public officers, let it be impressed on your mind that God commands you to choose for rulers, 'just men who will rule in the fear of God.' The preservation of [our] government depends on the faithful discharge of this Duty; if the citizens neglect their Duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made, not for the public good so much as for selfish or local purposes; corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute the Laws; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of the citizen will be violated or disregarded. If [our] government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the Divine Commands, and elect bad men to make and administer the Laws.[xxxvii]

Generations later, at an ecumenical prayer breakfast in Dallas, Texas, President Ronald Reagan summed up Webster’s thoughts, saying, “A state is nothing more than a reflection of its citizens; the more decent the citizens, the more decent the state."[xxxviii]

I would extend the logic reflected in these two statements to other institutions in our society as well. We have seen cheating scandals at our elite universities and military service academies, corruption in the financial services industry, embezzlement of funds intended for charitable causes, and other incidents of failed public morals that lead me to ask this question: Given that we the people have either rejected or become indifferent to virtue, why are we surprised when trusted institutions and individuals betray us? They are simply a reflection of who we are.

Finally, for those whose singular focus is the restoration of respect for and fealty to the Constitution of the United States, the design of the founders suggests that task won’t be successful unless virtue is restored among the people.

Francis Grund, a German-born American author and journalist, wrote the following frequently cited paragraph in his book, The Americans in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations:

No government could be established on the same principle as that of the United States, with a different code of morals. The American Constitution is remarkable for its simplicity; but it can only suffice a people habitually correct in their actions, and would be utterly inadequate to the wants of a different nation. Change the domestic habits of the Americans, their religious devotion, and their high respect for morality, and it will not be necessary to change a single letter of the Constitution in order to vary the whole form of their government.[xxxix]

Grund’s statement is quite similar to another famous quote, this one from American founder and our second president, John Adams:

[B]ecause we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness 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.[xl]

It is important to note here that the founders often used the phrase ‘religion and morality’ to describe virtue in America, and that is because of the central role in early America of the church and the ubiquitous nature of the Bible, which was widely read even by non-believers for its lessons on good morals and character. The church was not only the wellspring of American virtue, but also the catalyst for many of the voluntary associations about which Tocqueville wrote. The church was often the sole source of charity in early American communities, and even as civil society expanded beyond just the church, its influence on organizations like the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), just to name a few, was significant.

In Norman A. Graebner’s study on Tocqueville’s observations regarding religion in early America, he notes that Tocqueville found “religion was a powerful force in American life, ‘an established and irresistible fact which no one undertakes either to attack or to defend.’”[xli] According to Graebner, Tocqueville acknowledged that, for the American of the early 19th century, “It was the restraints which religion imposed which fitted him for life in a democratic society.”[xlii] He goes on to say:

If religion played no direct role in the affairs of state, it was nevertheless an essential element in American democracy. For it was the moral restraint which it imposed that made possible the practice of freedom. To Tocqueville, the Americans combined their notions of Christianity and freedom so intimately that they could scarcely conceive of one without the other.[xliii]

Tocqueville, according to Graebner’s analysis, perceived the influence of religion on “the customs and manners of the community” and how “it regulated much of domestic life and, through it, the state.” As a result, Graebner wrote, “Unbelievers might deny the truth of religion, but they would not deny its usefulness in influencing manners, behavior and attitudes toward society.”[xliv]

Grund also noted that virtue in America was a vibrant and practical aspect of daily life primarily because of America’s devotion to religion:

Morality, I am aware, is philosophically separable from religion; but I am fully convinced, that in practice, especially as regards the whole people, the separation is absolutely impossible. Neither the mere abstract love of virtue, nor its perfect harmony with all other laws of nature, nor even the happiness which it is calculated eventually to produce, have ever been sufficient to restrain either the lower or higher classes from the commission of crimes against individuals or society in general. Religion, in all countries, has been the broadest basis of national virtue; and the same holds of the United States of America.[xlv]

Adams believed that our failure to remain steadfast as “a moral and religious people” would “break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net,” and would lead inevitably to our downfall as a free nation. General Douglas McArthur, echoing the lessons of world history, made a similar point in a speech to the Salvation Army in 1951:

History fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into political and economic decline. There has been either a spiritual awakening to overcome the moral lapse, or a progressive deterioration leading to ultimate national disaster.[xlvi]

The connection between religion and morality and the success of a nation is not just a matter of principle. There is a healthy body of research reflecting the benefits of religion to a society, even for those who don't practice religion. These studies differentiate between people who claim to be religious and those who practice their faith regularly, and this distinction is significant. Let me provide one example as an illustration.

For decades now, the conventional wisdom on divorce in America has been that the divorce rate among Christians is no different than that of Americans who aren't Christians. This statement, used by some to denigrate the claim of life change among those who accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, has been echoed from pulpits across the nation as pastors wag their fingers at their congregations in scorn at their apparent inability to live out the marriage covenant in accordance with God's plan.

When the frequency and depth of religious practice is factored into the equation, however, the figures change dramatically. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, "The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief."[xlvii]

Charles E. Stokes, assistant professor of sociology at Samford University and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, found that couples "who attend church frequently are significantly less likely to have divorced than their non-religious peers."[xlviii]

In another article analyzing the same data, Professor Stokes and research fellows Amber and David Lapp conclude:

It appears, then, that conservative family values do “work,” but only when those values are regularly reinforced and supported by integration into a local religious community.[xlix]

It is critical, therefore, to differentiate between those who talk the talk and those who walk the walk. It is the regular practice of one's faith, not just the profession of faith, which makes all the difference.

Numerous studies have linked the regular practice of religion to greater life expectancy, better health, and less depression.[l] Religious people are also happier and more optimistic than their secular counterparts.[li]

Stanford anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann writes:

One of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you. Religious attendance — at least, religiosity — boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life.[lii]

Religious people, contrary to the stereotype of churchgoers as anti-intellectual, read more, are more likely to listen to classical music or attend a stage play, and are significantly engaged in "religious intellectualism," the study of world and U.S. religions, religious history and religious culture.[liii]

In terms of religion's societal impact, adults who attend church regularly have less drug and alcohol abuse, commit fewer crimes, and are less likely to be on welfare and unemployed. Young people who are religious are less likely to be juvenile delinquents, use drugs less and smoke less, have better school attendance and are more likely to graduate from high school. Religious people give more money to charity than non-religious people, directly benefitting the communities, states and nation in which they live.[liv]

How does all this benefit the non-religious? Professor Rodney Stark of Baylor University, a long-time researcher of and authority on the sociology of religion, estimates an annual economic benefit to all 300 million plus Americans, religious and non-religious, of $2.6 trillion a year, one-sixth of the nation's economy.[lv]

Despite our historical and philosophical commitment to religion, however, and the practical benefits of religion to American society, Americans perceive that religion has less influence on our lives today than at any time in our history, even though “75% of Americans…think it would be positive for American society if more Americans were religious.”[lvi]

Thus, my purpose in this book is twofold. The first is to make a case for virtue as the essential third pillar upon which the American republic rests. Virtue cares for the needy and expands the hearts of the caregivers. Virtue fills the void between the selfishness of the individual and the coercion of the state, and gives neither a foothold. Virtue makes better people who, in turn, make better institutions. Virtue is the secret to our success as a constitutional republic, and the only way to preserve it.

The second is to demonstrate the inexorable link between virtue and the health of civil society – “the space between the individual and the state,” as Levin puts it. Virtue cannot be forced, so we know the law isn’t the proper place for it. The individual, especially left to his own ego and without the influence of external forces, can become self-centered and uncharitable, and liberty becomes license rather than virtue.

The ameliorating influence of the associations which comprise civil society, however, brings individuals together for common goals and the common good. This vast middle ground between liberty and the law is where most of life is lived, and where it can most effectively be changed.

Therefore, this book will focus its attention on virtue, the forgotten standard, and the institutions of civil society which most effectively promote it.

Before the essential balance between liberty, the law and virtue is restored, however, we must confront some corrupted thinking that has seeped into the American consciousness over generations and deceived us into the constricted view of life we hold today, where only the individual or the state have a role in determining our path. To paraphrase that wise old philosopher, Jedi Master Yoda, we must unlearn what we have learned.[lvii]

Most of you know the story of Pandora’s Box, the Greek myth about the world’s first woman whose curiosity and disobedience of the gods led her to unseal a jar – in the original telling of the tale, it was not a box – and unleash numerous evils upon the world. She managed to seal the jar shut, but only after everything had escaped but Hope.

I won’t get into the academic debate over whether keeping Hope captive is indicative of the potential someday for restoration, or whether Hope is just another deception. It is, after all, a myth, although one which seeks to explain the state of human affairs in the world.

The point I want to make is that the task of unraveling the counterfeit threads that have been woven into the American tapestry is going to be as difficult as recapturing the evils Pandora unleashed into the world and sealing them back into the jar.

If we are to do it, however, we must begin by identifying them. Once they have been exposed, we can separate and remove them, thereby accomplishing that for which we hope, reversing Pandora’s Box, as it were, and creating an environment in which virtue can grow, and its positive effect on liberty and the law be restored.


[i] Yuval Levin, “Civil Society and the Entitlement State.” Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic, edited by Nicholas Eberstadt (Radnor, PA: Templeton Press, 2012), 117-118.

[ii] Patrik Jonsson, "George Zimmerman Verdict: 'Not Guilty' in Death of Trayvon Martin." The Christian Science Monitor, Jul 13, 2013. Accessed June 7, 2014.

[iii] Matthew Fleischer, "What we should learn from Elliot Rodger's 'Twisted World'." Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2014. Accessed June 7, 2014.

[iv] Earl Ofari Hutchinson, "Donald Sterling is no Aberration." National Catholic Reporter 50, no. 15 (May, 2014), 28. Accessed June 7, 2014.

[v] Aaron Thompson, "White Privilege." In Encyclopedia of Race and Crime. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2009. Accessed June 7, 2014.

[vi] William Safire, "Dog Whistle." New York Times Magazine, Apr 24, 2005, 38. Accessed June 7, 2014.

[vii] Andrew Sullivan, “The Hounding of a Heretic.” The Dish: Biased & Balanced, April 3, 2014. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[viii] Rhiannon Williams, "Facebook’s 71 gender options come to UK users." The Telegraph, June 27, 2014. Accessed July 5. 2014.

[ix] Christin Scarlett Milloy, “Don’t Let the Doctor Do This to Your Newborn.” Outward: Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation, June 26, 2014. Accessed July 5, 2014.

[x] Rick Warren, "Religious liberty is America's First Freedom." The Washington Post, March 21, 2014. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xi] "Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., No. 13-354 and 13-356, 2014 BL 180313, 123 FEP Cases 621 (U.S. June 30, 2014)". Bloomberg BNA, June 30, 2014. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xii] Paul Horwitz, "Hobby Lobby Is Only the Beginning." The New York Times, July 1, 2014. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xiii] “Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years - Trends in American Values: 1987-2012.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, June 4, 2012. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xiv] “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, June 12, 2014. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xv] “National Satisfaction.” Pew Research Center, January 19, 2014. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xvi] "Only 16% Think Today’s Children Will Be Better Off Than Their Parents.” Rasmussen Reports, November 24, 2012. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xvii] "Americans Unsure if Best Times for U.S. Are Past or to Come.” The Gallup Organization, January 2, 2012. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Susan Page, “Poll finds Americans weary and wary heading into 2013.” USA Today, January 2, 2013. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xx] “America’s Best Days.” Rasmussen Reports, July 10, 2014. Accessed July 10, 2014.

[xxi] Bradley Birzer, "A New Dark Age." The Imaginative Conservative, May 21, 2012. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] John Wilson, "Conservative Angst Continues." The Imaginative Conservative, January 11, 2013. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xxiv] Ron Miller, “A House Divided Against Itself.” Ron’s Reflections, August 5, 2012. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xxv] Ron Miller, “Looking for the Exit”. Ron’s Reflections, July 18, 2013. Accessed July 10, 2014.

[xxvi] “Godwin’s Law: Part of a Series on Internet Slang,” Know Your Meme ®. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xxvii] Charlie Spiering, “Full text: Bobby Jindal’s dynamite speech to the Republican National Committee in Charlotte.” The Washington Examiner, January 25, 2013. Accessed July 11, 2014.

[xxviii] Susan Page, "Political partisanship mirrors public." USA TODAY, March 6, 2013. Accessed July 12, 2014.

[xxix] Yuval Levin, “The Real Debate.” The Weekly Standard, October 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04, 26-27.

[xxx] Yuval Levin, “The Hollow Republic.” National Review, August, 13, 2012, Vol. 64, Issue 15, 29.

[xxxi] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, eds. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), xvii.

[xxxii] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 489.

[xxxiii] Patrick J. Charles, Historicism, Originalism and the Constitution: The Use and Abuse of the Past in American Jurisprudence (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014), 72.

[xxxiv] James Madison, “The Federalist No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments – Independent Journal, Wednesday, February 6, 1788.” The Constitution Society. Last updated October 31, 2013. Accessed July 14, 2014.

[xxxv] Edmund Burke, A Letter from Mr. Burke to a Member of the French Assembly (Paris and London, 1791), 68-69.

[xxxvi] Benjamin Franklin, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 9, edited by Albert Henry Smyth (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1906), 569.

[xxxvii] Noah Webster, History of the United States: to which is prefixed a brief historical account of our [English] ancestors, from the dispersion at Babel, to their migration to America, and of the conquest of South America, by the Spaniards (New Haven, CT: Durrie & Peck, 1832), 307-308.

[xxxviii] Ronald Reagan, Remarks at an Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast in Dallas, Texas, August 23, 1984. Accessed July 12, 2014.

[xxxix]  Francis J. Grund, The Americans in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations. Vol. 1 (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, 1837), 2:307.

[xl] John Adams, "To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts. 11 October, 1798." The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams. Vol. 9, edited by Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1854), 9:229.

[xli] Norman A. Graebner, “Christianity and Democracy: Tocqueville’s Views of Religion in America.” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Jul., 1976), 263. University of Chicago Press. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[xlii] Graebner, “Christianity and Democracy,” 267.

[xliii] Graebner, “Christianity and Democracy,” 269.

[xliv] Graebner, “Christianity and Democracy,” 268.

[xlv] Grund, The Americans in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations. Vol. 1, 280-81.

[xlvi] Douglas McArthur, “Speech to the Salvation Army upon being presented with their ‘Award to Services for Humanity’ at their luncheon. Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York, New York. 12 December 1951.” General MacArthur Speeches and Reports 1908-1964, compiled by Col. Edward T. Imparato (Nashville: Turner Publishing Company, 2000), 198.

[xlvii] Ross Douthat, "The Christian Penumbra." The New York Times, March 29, 2014. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[xlviii] Charles E. Stokes, "Findings on Red and Blue Divorce Are Not Exactly Black and White." Family Studies: The Blog of the Institute for Family Studies, January 22, 2014. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[xlix] Charles E. Stokes, Amber Lapp and David Lapp, "A Bit Of Religion Can Be Bad For Marriage." The Federalist, July 8, 2014. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[l] Jeffrey Dorfman, "Religion Is Good For All Of Us, Even Those Who Don't Follow One." Forbes, December 22, 2013. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[li] Daniel Peterson, "Defending the Faith: Religious people are happier, studies show." The Deseret News, March 8, 2012. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[lii] T.M. Luhrmann, “The Benefits of Church.” The New York Times, April 20, 2013. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[liii] Rodney Stark, "Religion and Intellectual Life." America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists, September 14, 2012. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[liv] Dorfman, “Religion Is Good For All Of Us.”

[lv] "America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists." Templeton Press: Going beyond books to explore our place in the universe. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[lvi] Frank Newport, “Most Americans Say Religion Is Losing Influence in U.S.” Gallup Politics, May 29, 2013. Accessed July 13, 2014.

[lvii] "Yoda - You must unlearn what you have learned." YouTube. Accessed July 12, 2014.