James Madison famous wrote in The Federalist No. 51 “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” What is often forgotten are the preceding sentences. “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.”
From a Christian theological position this is witness to the doctrine of sin. Utopian dreams aside, the Wesleyan branch of Christianity has held to a deep conviction of the reality of sin, “the spiritual forces of wickedness” and “the evil powers of the world” (The United Methodist Hymnal, liturgy for the “renunciation of sin and profession of faith, p. 40). Co-joined with such conviction has been an ardent belief in the twin responses of personal and social holiness. Our Arminian roots and belief in free will weld us as Wesleyans to notions of civic virtue and morality. Regardless of where we might stand (from the far right to the far left), the recent drama around accessible health care for all is a reflection of such theological convictions played out in the confusing contest for public policy.
As we (those of us who are citizens of the United States) rightly celebrate the 4th of July and our independence, it is worth reflecting on the importance of civic virtue (welded as it is to religious conviction — albeit often hidden religious convictions). The founding fathers (& mothers! – just note the role of someone of the intellectual and moral statue of Abigail Adams!, but I digress) held a strong passionate belief in at least four cardinal virtues. While they are variously debated by scholars, there is reasonable consensus around the four (are there more?): industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. (While many across the political spectrum have written on this subject since before the American Revolution and down into the present day, I have found Charles Murray’s recent summation in Coming Apart, chapters 6, 8-11 especially helpful in summation.).
Industriousness denotes a strong work ethic and desire to get ahead (however one defines “get ahead”). Industriousness involves a cluster of qualities that focus around concepts of hard work, accountability and personal responsibility. Honesty as a civic & moral virtue relates to voluntarily complying with the law and with what are generally taken to involve cultural and ethical norms (think of George Washington “I shall not tell a lie”). Marriage, many scholars argue, was taken as a “bedrock institution” (see Murray, Coming Apart, p. 134). As a founding virtue, marriage referred to both fidelity in marriage & the permanence of marriage. (It is worth noting that however much we might dislike it, the evidence is overwhelming that a stable marriage between a man and a woman is the — get that!– THE single greatest statistical variable for producing well-adjusted emotionally healthy children.). Religiosity refers not to the Christian faith per se (many of the founding fathers were deists) but to the importance of religious belief in general. (This entails what has come to be known of generally as “Civic Religion.” Washington was specific in his Farewell Address. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable.”
Let me invite the reader who has slogged through this longer than usual blog so far to step back and attempt to reconnect these four founding virtues (moral convictions) with the Wesleyan branch of Christian witness. Each, however debated, represents aspects of both social & personal holiness that reach beyond concepts of justice and mercy (without in any way!!! denigrating the importance of justice and mercy, along with service). It is worth noting that the great Methodist layman William Wilberforce, rightly known for his great championship of the cause to end slavery, understood his life of faith to involve two great causes. The first was the eradication of the slave trade. The second (and often forgotten) was the improvement of what he often referred to as public manners by which he meant the establishment of public virtue in ways that reflected the Great Commandment (love of God and love of neighbor). This entailed advocacy of labor reform and just pay, support for public education, and enhance of community. (Chapter 6 of Amazing Grace: William Wiberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas is particularly insightful.)
Support of the 4 virtues (as well as others) on the 4th is not a purely American project. Nor is it an attempt to pump a religious agenda into patriotism. Rather it is a deeper reflection and acting out of a truly Christian agenda for society as a whole. It rejects theocracy and embraces a Christ driven compassion for all society. It seeks to live the prayer we have been taught by our Lord & Master — “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”