Beyond Government: The Future of Christian Virtue

Report Civil Society

Beyond Government: The Future of Christian Virtue

June 15, 1992 11 min read Download Report
Patrick J.
Distinguished Fellow

(Archived document, may contain errors)



Beyond Government: The Future of Christian Virtue By- Christopher Manion I'm delighted, as always, to be back at The Heritage Foundation. As most of you know, I have a special devotion to the Third Generation, and have always felt that I was a part of it. I well re- member packing my station wagon the day after Ronald Reagan won in 1980 and heading to Washington-so I got here about the same time that the first members of the Third Generation did. And I think my father qualifies as a First Generation member , since he was the first man (and a Democrat-arthad-yto-support Barryp-GoldwaterforPresident, way,back in the fifties. In fact, he published The Conscience ofa Conservative when no one else would. We corrected the galleys right on our dining room table dur i ng my spring vacation from high school. In those days, my father and other conservatives of the First Generation were very concerned about the liberalism that was rampant in the land-politically and economically-under Lyndon Johnson and the Great Welfare S tate Society. Today we can see the sad results of that political heyday, with Washington sunk lower than any time in memory, and the woeful economic conse- quences: Because of federal spending, today the dollar is worth about 25 percent of what it was in t hose days. Members of the Third Generation might find it hard to believe, but back then the average middle class family could live quite well on a single income. Conservative concerns back then were political and economic, sure, but moral degeneracy cause d by the liberal agenda was already visible on the horizon. The sixties were the liberal's dream-they celebrated sex, drugs, and rock and roll-but their dream has become our night- mare. Just observe what the liberal Hes of the sixties have bequeathed to o u r own time: Free sex has given us both a deadly national epidemic and the elevation of perversion to the level of prin- ciple; free drugs (then) have given us a disastrous criminal class which is now in its own '%hird generadon'!---and which has just show n once more the impact of its misguided muscle on the streets of Los Angeles. And, of course, when Marlin Fitzwater correctly calls this disaster the di- rect result of liberal failures, the libend chorus intones T. S. Eliot's Prufrock: "Ibat's not it at a l l, that's not what I meant, at all." Country Music Truths. Rock and roll is more elusive as an issue, but as one who is a rock and roller, not a Holy Roller, I have this observation: American country music, which has been enjoyed consistent popularity for eighty years and more in this country, deals in truth about real human situations. If you cheat on your spouse, it's wrong and you suffer, if you hang out in bars, you're gonna get in trouble; and if you're a drunk, you'll go to jail. Rock and roll, on th e other hand, celebrated the excesses of the passions of the sixties, every political, sexual, and hallucinogenic cause. Note also that rock and roll was made to order for the scenario where the parents, who can't take it any longer, stalk up to Johnny's b e 4mm and slain the door, shouting, "Why do you have to play that stuff so loud?" Country music, on the other hand, is usually intergenerational; it is often played by families- the Carter family, the Cash family, the Judds, the Whites. The themes are often spiritual-so much so, in fact, that gospel constitutes an entire genre of co@ntry music. So I consider country

C h&topher Manion is Assistant Professor in the Depaments of Religion and IntenmWonal Relations at Boston Univenity. He spoke at Mw Heritage Foundation on May 13, IM, at a meeting of the Ibird Generation. ISSN 0272-1155. 01M by Ile Heritage Foundation.


music to be primarily pro-family. Every bluegrass festival I go to features families singing and playing together. I've never seen that at a rock concem Well, these were the concerns of the-First Generation, back in the fifties and the sixties; the' Second Generation went to work with the remnants of the Goldwater platform and coalition and built the Reagan team; and the Third Generation, including most of you-most of us-arrived here after 1980. Tonight I want to address specifically our shared experiences of the -past twelve years-be- cause I think, in that time, the Third Generation has grown up. I think it's time now to reflect on those years wit h a-view-toward-what-w4c@-might-offer4he watgeneration-for indeed there win be a Fourth Generation, whether or not a conservative administration ever makes an appearance here in Washington. For that reason, bearing in mind the possibility that the Fourth Ge n eration might spend its whole fife on the outside of politics, I want to address tonight not the realm of the political, or, more properly, the governmental, but the realm of the rest of our lives-what some (most of them politicians) refer to as "the priv a te sector." I choose to call this the free sector, as opposed to the government sector, because I think this distinction is much more helpful when addressing the problems I want to focus on tonight. This fi-ee sector, however, includes much more than the p rivate sector that we all know so well. Much of what we today consider the public sector concerns our neighborhoods, our . schools, our work place-but should not concern the government. Yet the government has, over the years, come to occupy much of the te r ritory and the activity that was once performed by free, non-governmental institutions that were nonetheless public in the best sense of the word. After all, public should not be synonymous with government. Clearly, the government has taken much of the gr o und in this formerly free sector, and one of my arguments tonight is simple: We should take back this public ground from the government and make it free again. .Christian Model. In addressing this point tonight, you will hear me speaking specifically of t h e plight of the Christian in politics. Don't let that mislead you: This reflection is not only for Christians; rather, this is an analysis, not a homily, and anyone whose religious principles propel them to political activity will find that it addresses t h eir experience as well as mine. And I aim to use a framework that is equally intelligible to the believer and the doubter. I choose to investi- gate the Christian model because it has been the most interesting dimension of politics since 1980, and because it has been the focus of my analytical work as well as of my personal experi- ence. In that spirit, then, permit me a brief reflection on the past twelve years. Since the end of the Reagan Administration, many Christiaiis who had become active in the "New Righf'have been pondering anew the relationship between religion and politics that had emerged since 1980. Many of those who had formed the "Christian righf'during that decade became disillusioned, some more quickly than others; most noticeably, several g r oups, which had been formed to mard- fest the Christian political presence in national politics, actually dissolved. But many individuals had their heartaches, too. During the 1980s many of these individuals had invested their political activities with a great deal of faith, energy, and enthusiasm. The disillusionment they have now experienced merits at least a brief analysis, which asks two questions: First, what went wrong? And second, what is to be done?



gious right's political program prevailing in the 1980s encouraged Christians to cap The reli ture political power and to persuade politicians to follow Christian principles by adopting -specific programs or legislation. -But politics in.those days was _a.liberal.game_.(in_factJt- still-is). In orde r to qualify, we had to play by the liberal rules: we had to find secular goals, secular means, and secular language with which to articulate these programs. If our proposals reflected a Christian character, either in substance or *'in language, they were c alled offensive, unwelcome, and, all too often, illegal. If we look at the elements of this experience with an analytical eye, we can find a good deal of the explanation for the failure of so much of our high hopes. Ut's look at some of those experiences. Throughout the Reagan years, many Christians properly resisted a politicization of their be- Refs, especially when they realized they were conceding something by adopting secular logic and language in the process. That is, many people who had -in the past had little faith in politics had a healthy skepticism about changing their minds just because of an election. As the 1980S went on, in fact, an increasing sense of discomfort emerged among Christians who had sup- ported political programs aiming at all so r ts of social goals; the trouble was, all of these goals had to be dressed up in secular labels. A few of these programs were praiseworthy-I have in mind the adolescent chastity programs adopted in HHS run by Nabers Cabaniss and then Wrenn Archer-but these programs were accepted begrudgingly by the government sector and have to compete in an almost asphyxiating atmosphere of condom distribution programs and the celebra- tion of"'alternative sexual lifestyles" which- almost -defeats their purpose. Frustratio n with Government. An interesting aspect of this uneasiness might be explained in terms of two concepts which reflect the Christian's approach to politics. Anyone coining from a Christian natural law tradition would be much more comfortable appealing to la n guage that Christians and others had in common; and those Christians whose sense of history recognized the importance, even the necessity of politics, and the impossibility of gathering the City of God and protecting it in some political way from the City of Man, would have an easier time accept- ing roles in programs where the results might have been less than perfect. But many Christians came from traditions where results, like salvation, were expected to be achieved almost instantly; thus, frustration s e t in much mare quickly among them. I have noticed, however, that many from the first category found themselves slowly drifting over into the second, even though their tradi- tions spoke loudly of the dangers of such an approach. Thus, Christians of all sw i pes are now burdened by frustration with the gridlock in government. What about those folks we supported in getting high government positions, bearing in mind that "personnel is policy"? Well, sometimes it seemed that the mare Christians "succeeded" in ge t ting various positions in government, the less Christian the result seemed to be. It wasn't just a co-opting of good men and women, although there was undoubtedly some of that; it was the na- ture of the political experience itself. Many Christians felt m u zzled in their new political positions because they-thought they had actually to repress their Christian vocabulary and logic and replace it with one that could be understood and accepted in the secular sphere. I do not refer here to the need to express r e alities in philosophical terms, perhaps those of the natural law, in- stead of terms of religious belief. It goes a lot further. it refers to the fact that one could not say anything that offended the secular sphere either. And the adoption of this guidel i ne in practice made the Christian government leader or employee indistinguishable, except for some"personal convictions:' froin any other. This is the tough problem I want to focus on tonight, elusive as it might appear. Now this imposed silence under whi ch the Christian must operate; in government-you might call it the spiritual gag rule-leads to another consequence: Programs conducted by government at any level-federal, state, or local-have been so affected by the mythical wall of separation



betwee n Church and State that no- Christian, working anywhere in government, can perform his duty with Cbristian love in an open fashion without (at least technically) breaking the law. That is to say, all government welfare or education or health programs, for - instance,.have.been hermet- ically sealed from the Christian virtues of those charged with carrying- them out. The results are as unavoidable in fact as they are in logic. And they are disastrous. How does this happen? Well, it's simple-at least to those o f the ACLU (often referred to as the "Anti-Clifistian liberal Union): - and hope, Christians understand charity to be a theological virtue. A Christian, of course, is motivated by this charity (a word taken from the Latin caritas, meaning love- t he love of Christ). Well, the Christian is motivated by this love when he serves his fellowma' n', mi' all sorts'of way's that W_e- today 1661'ais dharitable. The liberal community, of course, takes note of the existence of these virtues, just as the foun d - ers of our republic did. However, the founders took note of them in order to assure the voters of the state of New York (in the Federalist-Papers, especially numbers 49 through 55 or so) that our government would be limited, and they took for granted th e fact that the source of American virtue was outside the government (as de Tocqueville observed, it is in our churches). The found- ers also observed that governmental power, if anything, would continually tempt the politician to abandon these virtues-som e thing which goes down very badly with- contemporary politicians. . As an aside, this is why Mother Theresa, for instance, insists that her Sisters of Charity are not.. .."social workers": far from it! She Imows-the diffierence between -a-bureaucrat making a living and a Sister of Charity giving her life for Christ. Charity Freely Given and Received. But there is more to it even than that. Consider the indi- vidual acts of charity which make up our daily lives. In the Christian view of charity, both the don o r and the recipient must act freely: The donor, recognizing his duty to God as witnessed by countless accounts throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, gives freely, of his own ac- cord; the re6pient, with equal charity, accepts his plight, thanks G od for this brother who has shared with him, and thanks the donor as well, even as the donor gives thanks to the recipient and to God for giving him the opportunity to be needed, to be helpful. Note that there is no hostility, no "class struggle:' to divi d e the giver of charity and the recipi- ent. Christian charity unites them. The recipient, Imowing that he has- no right to charity (for charity is different from justice), knows too that he must avoid the sins of envy andlesentment- which are just as dang e rous as the greed we hear so much about today-and instead be thankful for God's blessings. Thus to the Christian the poor offer a constant invitation to exercise charity, one person at a time, in a spirit of freedom cotnmon to the donor and to the recipie n t. (By the way, there is a tangent here: Christians don't abort babies, even if they are retarded, physically handicapped, or if they are going to grow up poor or unwanted, because we recognize our solidarity with them in Christ and their creation in the i mage of God. Imagine a world where everybody had everything he needed. Who would need the love of Christ, as expressed in char- ity? For that matter, who would think they needed redemption? We should count our blessings; but remember, even in such a world , the liberal would find some reason for expanding govern- ment programs.) I Now contrast this Cbristian view of charity exercised in freedom with government programs that claim to have the same noniinal goals. In the case of programs for the needy-of any s tripe -we are confronted with the liberal notion of entitlement: Thus the recipient has a right that he can assert, free of any gratitude (and thus free of a spirit of charity), -and the taxpayer is deprived of the opportunity to give freely of his own ea rned income in a spirit of charity-at least insofar as government programs are concerned. Instead, the taxpayer must give under the threat of force. How "good" would the Samaritan have been if he'd been forced by Roman soldiers to fish that




Patrick J.

Distinguished Fellow