Tag Archives: virtue

DID TED CRUZ SHOW “VIRTUE” IN WEDNESDAY NIGHT’S SPEECH?

One of the principal themes of Eric Metaxas’ latest book—If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty—is that America needs virtuous leaders if our freedom is to endure.  Having read and reviewed Metaxas’ book so recently, I found it impossible not to ruminate on his argument while listening to Ted Cruz’s stunning “non-endorsement” of Donald Trump at last night’s session of the Republican National Convention.  Cruz’s speech immediately went under the media microscope, in part because it was almost the first surprising thing to happen at a national party convention in the past half century, but also because almost every talking head who weighed in on the question last night agreed that what Cruz had done was politically “risky.”  Should Trump go on to win the presidency [involuntary shudder] or come close enough to victory that Cruz’s stance could be seen as responsible for his defeat, the consensus was that we’ll remember the Texas senator’s speech as the beginning of the end of his political career.

That caused my historian’s alarm to go off, because what we call “politically risky” might very well be what the Founding Fathers would have called “virtuous.”  Let’s remember what the Founders meant by the term.  When they argued that virtue was indispensable to the success of free institutions, they defined the concept differently than we might today.  Virtue, as they understood it, had almost nothing to do with sexual morality—something we’re likely to think of if we hear the word now—and everything to do with one’s willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the benefit of the common good.

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington's "Farewell Address"

Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait of the first president the year of Washington’s “Farewell Address”

When the framers of the Constitution gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to create “a more perfect union,” their belief in the importance of virtue contributed to two other working hypotheses.  First, political factions were more likely to be fueled by self-interest than self-denial.  This is why George Washington denounced them in his Farewell Address, advising the American people to “avoid the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and reminding them that partisan spirit too often “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms” [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”  (What would he say about American politics in 2016?)

Second, the Founders understood that, in a free society in which the people could easily get caught up in self-destructive partisan passions, it was sometimes the duty of the virtuous statesman to defy the majority, even at the cost of popular condemnation.  And so when James Madison and Alexander Hamilton penned the Federalist essays after the Philadelphia Convention adjourned, they repeatedly noted that one of the strengths of the new Constitution would be the features that would keep the government accountable to the people while still shielding officeholders from undue popular pressure.  The indirect election of the Senate, for example, would enable that body to “refine and enlarge” public sentiments to arrive at official policies superior to what the people clamored for.  The convoluted election of the president would free the executive to stand against popular passions “when occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations,” i.e., when what the people want would be bad for them.

In If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas seems to think that our cultural commitment to virtue held strong until about the time that the Beatles came to America, but the belief in virtue as the Founders understood it was almost extinct within a half century of Independence.  The best evidence for this comes from the crucial presidential election of 1824.

1824 Election MapThe 1824 election had played out pretty much the way that the framers of the Constitution had expected most elections to unfold. There had been a large number of serious candidates on the ballot in the general election: Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, of Georgia; Kentuckian Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, of Massachuetts; and Major General Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee.  Predictably given such a large field of candidates, no individual had received a majority in the Electoral College, which meant that the outcome had to be determined by a run-off election among the top three finishers in the House of Representatives. (Clay, who finished fourth, was the odd man out.) Finally, in the run-off in the House the congressmen had cast their ballots without necessarily feeling constrained by the popular vote in their home states. Although many did so, overall they favored the second-place finisher, Adams, over the first-place finisher, Jackson. There was nothing unconstitutional about their doing so, and nothing necessarily insidious in their decision that Adams was the more qualified. (In terms of political experience, he unquestionably was.)

Key to the outcome of the run-off in the House was Henry Clay’s decision to endorse John Quincy Adams, despite the fact that his Kentucky constituents overwhelming favored Jackson once Clay himself had been eliminated from contention.  Clay justified his decision by appealing to the obligations of virtue as the Founders would have understood it.  In a letter intended for public circulation, Clay observed,

My position, in regard to the Presidential election, is highly critical, & such as to leave me no path on which I can move without censure; I have pursued, in regard to it, the rule which I always observe in the discharge of my public duty.  I have interrogated my conscience as to what I ought to do, & that faithful guide tells me that I ought to vote for Mr. Adams. . . . I am, & shall continue to be, assailed by all the abuse, which partisan zeal, malignity, & rivalry can invent.  I shall risk, without emotion, these effusions of malice, & remain unshaken in my purpose.  What is a public man worth, if he will not expose himself, on fit occasions, for the good of his country?

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

Henry Clay sat for this portrait in 1824.

“I have interrogated my conscience,” Clay explained, and it tells me how to proceed.  I know that my decision will be unpopular, he went on in so many words, but that must not deter me.  The path of virtue practically ensures that the virtuous statesman will be viciously assailed, but sometimes that’s what the good of the country requires of him.  Jackson supporters replied—and here is what is supremely significant—that it is never virtuous to oppose the will of the people (a variation on the blasphemy that the voice of the people is the voice of God).  As the editor of the pro-Jackson Washington Gazette cried out in disbelief:

If the People thought Gen. Jackson worthy, is it for Henry Clay to pronounce him unworthy?  Is it for him to say to his fellow citizens, ‘You shall not have the man you wish, but the man I will’?  No.—Henry Clay himself has inflicted the deepest wound on the fundamental principle of our government.  He has insulted and struck down the majesty of the People.

If you’re familiar with the details of this watershed election, you know that the story doesn’t end here.  When John Quincy Adams subsequently named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson supporters immediately screamed that a “Corrupt Bargain” had been struck and Clay had sold his support in the run-off in exchange for a cabinet post.  Historians have never uncovered any evidence to prove that this actually happened, but the charge was politically useful, and the Jacksonians wielded it with a vengeance.  Four years later, the people had their way, and the nation’s first populist president—whose primary policy accomplishment would be the passage of the Indian Removal Act—was elevated to the presidency.

Was Henry Clay motivated by love of country or by political ambition?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that he still spoke in the language of the Founders, who assumed that the exercise of virtue might require defiance of the public and usually exacted a personal cost.  That view was already dying out by the 1820s.

Was Ted Cruz motivated by love of country or political ambition in last night’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump?  I don’t know.  It’s quite possible, as several op-ed writers were quick to insinuate, that he made a calculated decision about how best to advance his own political future.  I’m not a big Ted Cruz fan, but I’ll say this much: In refusing to fall in line behind his party and in delivering an address sure to elicit scorn and derision across the lecture hall, Cruz’s stance looks on the surface more virtuous than anything else I’ve noticed from the convention so far.

Your thoughts?

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech

Ted Cruz Booed After Refusing To Endorse Donald Trump In RNC Speech

ERIC METAXAS ON OUR NEED FOR HEROES

Let’s talk about heroes.

I have heroes on my mind because I’m still thinking about Eric Metaxas’s new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  As I’ve already observed, If You Can Keep It is seriously flawed.  Metaxas frequently gets his history wrong, and the theological implications of his argument should trouble any Christian unwilling to equate Christ’s church with the United States of America.  And yet, as I noted, If You Can Keep It still offers some valuable food for thought.  Metaxas’ observations about heroes is a prime example.  Boiled down, Metaxas says that we need heroes but don’t believe in them anymore, and that this is detrimental to liberty.  Let’s think about this.

MetaxasMetaxas’ discussion of heroes fits logically into his larger argument.  He correctly reminds us that the Founding Fathers believed that one of the prerequisites for liberty to survive is virtue, which the eighteenth century defined as self-denial for the common good.  (Today we might use the term “civic virtue” with the same meaning in mind.)  Metaxas reasons, persuasively I think, that one important way that a society promotes virtue is by honoring heroic figures who have modeled that quality.  The bad news for lovers of liberty, however, is that Americans “have abandoned the vital tradition of venerating heroes.”  Sometime during the 1960s we “decided that it made more sense to be suspicious of heroes than to venerate them.”  Such skepticism, he warns, “is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably.”

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.  For the moment, I’ll share a quibble, a question, and a concern.  The quibble involves Metaxas’ sweeping generalization that Americans no longer celebrate heroes.  What he really means, without saying so precisely, is that the heroes we choose to venerate rarely model the qualities that the Founders thought were critical to the survival of the republic.  But “heroes” of a different sort abound.  If we define a “hero” as anyone we look up to and wish to emulate, then contemporary American culture is awash with them, it’s just that their character is all but irrelevant.  Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin.  Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us as “stars” on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field.  Put differently, they are more or less the kind of role models we would expect of a materialistic, superficial, soul-starved society.

metaxas2Next the question: IF it is true that, on the whole, contemporary American society is suspicious of “virtuous” heroes—the kinds of figures who would inspire us to acts of self-sacrifice in service of a noble cause or a greater good—why is this the case?  This is an enormous question beyond our power to answer fully.  Surely numerous variables are at work, some of them spiritual.  But Metaxas chooses to answer the question historically, and as a historian I think his explanation is probably too simple.  For Metaxas, everything changed during the 1960s.  The heart-wrenching episodes of that turbulent decade—the Civil Rights movement, campus unrest, urban riots, the war in Vietnam—followed in the early 1970s by the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon combined to create a massive crisis of confidence among the American people.  We became skeptical of our leaders, and gradually broadened that skepticism to include the panoply of “heroes” from our past that previous generations had honored.

First off, let me say that there’s definitely some truth to Metaxas’ explanation.  As I noted in a recent post, the proportion of Americans who trusted government to do the right thing most or all of the time was a staggering 77 percent as late as 1964, roughly four times as high as in 2015.  There’s no doubt that our willingness to believe those who claim to be devoted to the public good has taken a nosedive, and there’s no doubt that the 1960s were an important milestone in that trend.

But I’ve discovered that most major historical trends have deep roots that may not be readily apparent at first glance.  My suspicion is that there are aspects of American culture that considerably predate the 1960s that are also important to the trend Metaxas observes.  For example, writing during World War Two, C. S. Lewis already found a theme in popular western education that would encourage a skeptical posture toward any and all purported heroes.  His classic The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality and, above all, a powerful indictment of relativism. Lewis described a cultural context that denied the existence of absolute moral values while descrying increasing immorality.  As Lewis put it seventy years ago, we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Other writers have found a declining belief in heroes to be one of the bitter fruits of World War One and the widespread death of innocence that fell across the killing fields of France.  Going even further back in time, after visiting the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that there were aspects of democratic culture in general that might well discourage the “veneration of heroes.”  While popular culture tended to praise the wisdom and virtue of the majority in a collective sense, it chafed against the exaltation of extraordinary individuals.  “The nearer men are to a common level of uniformity,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “the less are they inclined to believe blindly in any man.”

In sum, I suspect the explanation for our suspicion of heroes is more complex than Metaxas imagines.  Whether this invalidates his recommended solution is something I’m still thinking through.

Finally, my concern: In our fallenness, when we do discover heroes from the past worthy of our veneration, it’s often not long before we turn them into idols.  Many of the Christians I have encountered who are interested in the past are unimpressed by the popular heroes of contemporary America and are looking for alternatives.  They see in history a storehouse of authentic Christian heroes to encourage them and their families as they strive to live faithful lives in a fallen world, and I say, “God bless them!”  And yet, there is danger in the quest.  As John Calvin observed centuries ago, the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”

The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example.  This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time.  To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.

One of the reasons that I admire Os Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide is that Guinness avoids this trap.  (I review it here.)  He repeatedly observes that the Founders were fallible human beings with their own inconsistencies and flaws.  Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror.  By showing us how far we have strayed from their values, Guinness helps us to examine our behavior and belief with new eyes, and he challenges us to think through and defend why it is that we now behave and believe differently.  He puts us in conversation with the past, without suggesting that its moral superiority is self-evident.

This is not Metaxas’ approach, unfortunately.  The heroes that he features in If You Can Keep It are uncomplicated, unflawed, and infallible.  Metaxas’ job is to explain to us their “secret formula,” and our job is simply to go forth and live in the light of its truth.  The result is an American patriotic version of Charles Sheldon’s famous In His Steps and its central question, “What Would Jesus Do?”  Just replace “Jesus” with “the Founders” and you’re ready to go.

ERIC METAXAS ON THE IMPORTANCE OF VIRTUOUS LEADERS

There are a lot of folks right now trying to figure out what Eric Metaxas really believes about the importance of character in contemporary politics.  Here’s why:

MetaxasIn the middle of last month, with great fanfare, Metaxas’ latest book was released to the world.  In If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, the prominent radio host and public intellectual makes an impassioned plea to Americans to rededicate ourselves to the perpetuation of liberty and to re-embrace our divinely ordained mission to be a beacon of liberty to the world.

Central to Metaxas’ argument is the Founders’ conviction that liberty could not long survive among any people in the absence of virtue.  Metaxas offers several recommendations as to how we might promote virtue in America today, including the absolutely critical importance of electing political leaders who model it.  In an chapter devoted to “The Importance of Moral Leaders,” Metaxas reasons:

If a virtuous people is vital to self-government, as we have established, their virtue cannot help but be affected, in one direction or the other, by the behavior of their leaders.  So it follows that leaders—whether political or cultural—may encourage or discourage a wider culture of virtue.

From this premise Metaxas goes on to complete the syllogism.  If self-government requires a virtuous people, and the extent of virtue among the people will be influenced, if not determined, by the prevalence of virtue among their leaders, it follows that “self-government cannot exist without virtuous leaders.”  Not much ambiguity here.

metaxas2Almost simultaneously, Metaxas met with conservative journalist Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online to discuss the current presidential campaign.  Metaxas led by echoing themes from If You Can Keep It about the necessity of virtuous leadership, prompting Lopez to ask whether the necessity of virtue would disqualify Donald Trump.  Here is how Metaxas responded:

Not only can we vote for Trump, we must vote for Trump, because with all his foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts, he is nonetheless the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion, the tank, the abyss, the dustbin of history, if you will.

So how are we to reconcile these two positions?  For some Trump supporters there is nothing to reconcile.  They know that the presumptive Republican nominee is a man of unimpeachable character–for the very good reason that he has told them so.  But for the rest of us—the overwhelming majority of Americans, according to numerous polls—there is a seeming contradiction here.  When we think of public figures that Metaxas highlights as moral exemplars in If You Can Keep It—George Washington, Nathan Hale, William Wilberforce—we can’t bring ourselves to add the name of Donald Trump to the list.

So what’s going on?  It’s tempting to explain Metaxas’ apparent inconsistency as just so much hypocrisy, to dismiss his appeals to virtue as a cynical rhetorical device deployed for partisan purposes, or to rank him among the host of political and religious figures who have apparently abandoned their principles in the belief that no moral compromise is too great if it leads to the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

Are these conclusions our only options?  I’m not sure that they are.  To understand why not, we need to go back and understand what the Founders meant by virtue, a term Metaxas uses relentlessly but doesn’t define as precisely as he should.  The meaning of the word has changed a great deal in the past two-plus centuries.  To the Founders, virtue involved one’s behavior in the public sphere and had nothing to do with your behavior in private life—how you treated your children, whether you were faithful to your spouse, the degree to which you were honest in business.  Virtue was all about behavior that had implications for the welfare of the political community.  (Today we might use the term “civic virtue,” but in the 18th century the phrase would have been considered redundant.)  A virtuous citizen was someone (always assumed to be male, as virtue was thought of as masculine) who was willing to deny his own interests for the greater good of the republic.

It’s at least conceivable that Metaxas would argue that some of the aspects of Trump’s personal life that have given some evangelicals pause aren’t relevant to virtue as the Founders understood it.  In this category, we could include Trump’s multiple divorces, for example, his avowed sexual conquests, his previous support for abortion rights, his long-standing connection to the gambling industry, and the misnamed Trump University, among other things.  I suppose he might even try to argue that Trump’s support for the torture of combatants and murder of the families of terrorists as well as his advocacy of discrimination on the basis of religion are not really transgressions of virtue as the Founders conceived of it.  (It would be a stretch, but I’m trying to give him every benefit of the doubt.)

I say Metaxas might be able to make that argument historically, but it doesn’t appear that that’s the argument he made to Kathryn Lopez.  Instead of arguing that Trump’s moral flaws, however glaring, are irrelevant to his qualifications to be president, he instead implied that they’re just trivial.  Look up foible in the dictionary.  It means “a minor weakness or eccentricity.”  A peccadillo (the kind of word that shows up on the SAT) is a “small, relatively unimportant offense.”

That’s not how I would describe bigotry, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia.

Your thoughts?

Washington . . . Wilberforce . . . Trump??

Washington . . . Wilberforce . . . Trump?