In recent years, Americans from across the political spectrum have bemoaned the loss of a virtuous society and the resulting divisions in our nation. For those of us who have grieved this loss, it seems like we have finally come full circle after decades of downplaying or even degrading the role of virtue in a stable and healthy society.
But this growing awareness of what we have lost begs the question: “How do we restore virtue in a nation when it has been lost?”
When we set out to write our new book, “American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation,” we looked at the virtues that made America strong and that have been tossed aside over the past several decades. While our nation’s founders—like all humankind—were less than perfect, they understood that faith in God was the foundation of a virtuous society. They appealed to God as a transcendent source of virtue and universal values throughout our nation’s founding documents. As Benjamin Franklin, who was hardly virtuous in his private life, said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”
Yet, over the past 60 years, we have found more and more ways to remove these virtues—which are faith-based—from the public square, to appeal to secular sources as our “inspiration,” and to mock those who try to live virtuous lives.
So, what is a virtuous society? It’s a society in which individuals learn to value personal duty and selflessness over entitlement and self-indulgence. Unfortunately, as the latter mentality has ascended, this “all about me” or “you do you” mentality has infected our marriages, families, and even our churches, while celebrating the “free expression” of our personal appetites, resulting in broken marriages, fatherless children, and the weakening of those institutions that bring people together.
Secondly, what are the virtues that make up a stable and healthy society? The first is prudence, which allows us to distinguish between right and wrong in situations we encounter daily. Prudence requires individuals to seek the counsel of others, as it is impossible for any one person to have perfect knowledge of every possible moral situation they may face. In many ways, prudence is the opposite of “pride”—a word that gets exalted in many aspects of our culture today—because prudence requires humility.
The second virtue is justice, which Aristotle defined as a “moral disposition which renders men apt to do just things and which causes them to act justly and to what is just.” The virtue of justice is not meant for us—it’s meant to be for others. It’s not justice when we claim that we have received injustice for some real or perceived wrong. Instead, it is justice when we stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. It was justice, for instance, that led people to march for civil rights of African Americans in the 1950s and ’60s because true injustice had taken place.
The third virtue is fortitude, which is the strength to choose good even in the face of difficulty and danger. It allows us to overcome our fears and remain steadfast in our principles despite the obstacles we face. It is the backbone that upholds justice and strengthens prudence.
Finally, the fourth virtue is one that we are particularly short of in 2019: temperance. It is the virtue that enables us to moderate our behavior. It’s temperance that keeps us from responding in anger when we are wronged or feel we have been attacked. It’s temperance that gives us the self-discipline to avoid those things that cause us to make bad personal decisions. It’s temperance that allows us to remain focused on the needs of others rather than on our self-perceived needs.
How do these four virtues play out in real life? It’s the virtuous husband and father who puts the emotional and physical needs of his wife and children above his own. It’s the virtuous member of the community who treats all people the same and stands against injustice. It’s the virtuous citizen who chooses to stand for what is right—regardless of personal cost—rather than compromise for personal comfort. And it is the virtuous individual who practices restraint, being slow to anger, guarding his or her tongue, and avoiding those areas that may lead to destructive behavior. All of these virtues flow from personal religious faith, which encourages us to have a higher purpose in our lives besides ourselves.
If American restoration is to occur, we must once again become a virtuous society. If each of us practices virtue in our lives, we can be a guiding light to others to follow and ultimately embrace in their lives. That is why we wrote our book—to outline the various areas where restoration needs to happen and how we can get there—through the practice of faith and virtue in our lives.
If we can restore virtue in our society, we will see a cultural transformation and an America once again practicing self-sacrifice and respect for others, rather than elevating self over the needs of others—a country that is once again united instead of divided against itself.
Timothy S. Goeglein is the vice president for external and government relations at Focus on the Family in Washington. He served in high-level government posts for two decades, including as press secretary for former Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, special assistant to President George W. Bush, and deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison.
Craig Osten has collaborated with several best-selling authors on more than a dozen books. A former political reporter and an ardent student of history, Osten graduated from the University of California–Davis and did graduate work at California State University–Sacramento and Fuller Theological Seminary.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.