It’s Time for a Return to Virtue

If you care about religious liberty, as I do, then you should feel pretty good about the current moment, decades in the making. Almost 30 years ago, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in near unanimous fashion. It  was supported by an unusual coalition of organizations, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

RFRA was a response to the Employment Division v. Smith decision issued by the Supreme Court and authored by the late Justice Antonin Scalia. In Smith, Scalia removed the government’s requirement to prove a compelling state interest before burdening religious freedom. The decades since have seen religious liberty prevail again and again at the Supreme Court, affirming the right of religious groups to meet on college campuses, the right of faith-based companies to act according to their values, the right of Christian organizations to receive generally available public benefits, the right of artists to refuse projects that violate the conscience, the right of faith-based adoption providers to participate in state programs, the right of religious organizations to choose their own criteria for ministers, the right of religious private schools to participate in a state benefit, and the right of a religious coach to conduct personal prayer after a sporting event. 

For this, Christians should be grateful and should continue to fight to protect religious liberty—a right not granted by the government, but given by God. As Baptist leader John Leland said while championing the First Amendment contained in the Bill of Rights, “Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state, not because they are beneath the interests of the state but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.” 

And yet, we should be sober-minded about the important social structure that is required to support liberty: virtue. John Adams was sanguine about the new experiment in human government he and his fellow Founders had create: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” 

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Comments (59)
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  • “ But virtue is not a kind of milquetoast “niceness.” Often it is exemplified by genuine courage and willingness to sacrifice for a worthy cause.”

    Absolutely. The whole Trumpist argument is that virtue is niceness and that makes you soft.

    “ Virtue is a concept that neither party seems to want to champion, in this era where grievance drives our politics.”

    Well said.

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  • This is the most dishonest, theologically misleading bunch of malarky recently seen about the mythological virtues of Christians.
    Who support Christian Conservative Republicans who:

    Call for beating Gays
    Call for Nazi like treatments
    Will imprison women and doctors for life and strip them of their Constitutional Rights
    Support the Police and attack the FBI
    Believe white police mistreatment of blacks is the black person's fault

    Believe student loans shouldn't be forgiven, but have zero issue with taxpayers wasting trillions in the Illegitimate Iraq War, wasting trillions in tax avoidance revenue losses by the ultra rich

    Sorry. You ain't a Christian Mr. Darling.

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  • I agree on needing to be about virtue, not just in words but in actions, attitudes, & motives. Particularly when it comes to our own behavior & honestly assessing politicians.
    I will continue to disagree that a public school coach can lead a group of students that feel compelled to pray in order to play. I would be very upset if a wicken or satanist coach did this on a team my daughter is on, though I hope she would refuse on principle. Honestly, I'd hope she'd refuse on principle for the sake of other players regardless of the religion of the coach, because liberty is supposed to be the same for everyone regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. The players in the case were completely disregarded. Actually, I'd be upset regardless of whatever religion was being imposed on athletes they felt was a condition to play. It's spiritual abuse plain & simple, & abuse/trauma is defined by the victim's experience. More than likely these type of experiences sour the victims to Jesus. He wants us to choose him, not begrudgingly pretend so we can participate in public school sports. That is the difference between coach leading a prayer service on field & other students of their own idea & volition doing so. That coach wasn't Tim Tebow. Tim Tebow was a player, he didn't determine who played the next week. That Supreme Court decision probably set real religious liberty back, ask the students who complained because they felt compelled to pray. Do they feel that their religious liberty was honored? I guess I'm passionate about liberty for all, also I have experienced being a Christian in a situation where another Christian had spiritually abused coworkers & clients. I believe the damage breaks Jesus' heart.

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  • Great work on this one, Daniel. I know as a Christian, this is largely the audience you’re addressing and I appreciate the challenge and the reminder that our kingdom is not one of this world!

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  • I agree with the importance of pursuing virtue and not just freedom on its own. It's a very good point.

    However, as a practicing Christian I am not sure how I feel about this particular sentence: "...Christians should be grateful and should continue to fight to protect religious liberty--a right not granted by government, but given by God." The New Testament was written to people who very persecuted by the Roman government. Many times throughout history and even currently, Christians of various denominations have been persecuted for their faith, usually in countries that considered, or consider, their governmental authority challenged by a citizen being a different faith than the ruler. Religious liberty gives a particular strength to any country, and the lack thereof weakens a country and is an indication of an intolerant one. But in practicality this freedom is granted by a wise government, as the Founders noted, and is not necessarily granted by God to the believer nor promised in the Bible.

    I Timothy 2:2 reads: "First of all, then I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be offered to everyone--for kings and all those in authority--so that we may lead tranquil and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity." Romans 12:18 reads "If it is possible on your part, live at peace with everyone."

    I think the current syncretism among some parts of American Christianity with nationalism is extremely problematic, and it pains me to see politicians and others use Christian terms in support of nationalistic ideas and in defense of nonvirtuous behavior. The Bible asks Christians to pray for their leaders whether in North Korea or North Dakota and to live at peace on their part when at all possible. But while less problematic, I am concerned that in the US there can sometimes be a syncretism between Christianity and a vague American Deism where the ideas of the Founders are mixed with the Scriptures. This can muddy the waters a bit about the role of one's faith--which does not change--and the role of one's citizenship which varies depending upon time, country, and the situation in which one lives.

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  • "As a conservative Christian, I’d like to see our institutions return to this emphasis on virtue, highlighting traits like courage, honesty, and prudence."

    What about charity and good faith in dealing with others? Are those virtues on display when you dismiss the concerns of the left as "empty signaling on climate change, race, and silencing critics of the dogmas of the sexual revolution"?

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    1. One might get the impression that the author is unaccustomed to considering how his writing might sound to people who are not #OurPeers. This is in addition to being unaccustomed to making an argument with a clear thesis and detailed supporting evidence.

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  • Well, as a Christian who is watching with unease as I notice things getting "weird" and "wobbly" in the church, I greatly appreciated this article.

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  • With no disrespect intended toward the author, I would like to express a teensy bit of chagrin that both the author and the editor(s) gave us a piece that widely missed the mark borne by the target audience here at TD. Thoughtful essays, and even thoughtful essays with what some might call “challenging vocabulary”, are generally welcome at The Dispatch, and are known to often prompt vigorous, thoughtful discussion.

    This, by the standards I hope we can expect of authors and editors at TD, does not qualify as a “thoughtful essay”. It seems more the sort of thing one might scribble down whilst eating dessert and waiting for a glass of port, with plans to come back later and put some meat on the bones. Even the quotes chosen are, generally, of the near-kin to cliché variety: Adams on how the government the founders designed was fit only for a moral, religious (read by the author as virtuous, Christian) people. Franklin’s alleged quip, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The sin here is compounded by the improper use of “sanguine”. I doubt that Adams was at all sanguine about much in life, and I would be willing to place a very large wager on his not being sanguine about the prospects of a republic unlike anything the world had thus far seen.

    I should note that when it comes to virtues, I’m strongly in favor of them. There might arise some difficulty, however, when we start comparing lists of virtues, defining just exactly what we mean by each (something the author here seems disinclined to do), and ranking their importance, etc. Every person wants everyone else to respect and hold to some set of virtues. There are probably as many different sets of virtues, however, as there are people pounding on tables about them.

    So, what virtues, in particular, might the author suggest be emphasized? By what institutions? And why not emphasizing individuals? Finally, what would some examples of this look like?

    The devil’s not just in the details, dear sir; he thrives amongst them, cavorting, partying, and slipping about like a tiger through a sea of tall grass. Let’s see if you can shoot that tiger.

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    1. Click bait writing and sloganeering

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    2. It is not disrespectful to tell a writer that his product is of low quality. A person who perceives criticism as disrespect - and I'm not saying this applies to this author - should not be a writer.

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  • Bill Bennett has since become a MAGA warrior.

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