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The Virtue Gap: Our Current Mess and the Church’s Place in it

The Virtue Gap: Our Current Mess and the Church’s Place in it October 14, 2016

This crazy election year has done at least one thing: It has raised to public consciousness questions about virtue (and lack of it).

"Allegory of Virtue and Vice," public domain
“Allegory of Virtue and Vice,” public domain

Virtue has not been a dominant theme in contemporary politics in America. Our political machine has been fueled by more pragmatic things: policies and power.

To be sure, values have often been trumpeted. The religious right put “values” up front and center, creating terms like “family values” and “values voters.” But even values, as a term, has lost it’s…well…value in recent days.

Tony Perkins, head of the right-wing Family Research Council, defended his support of Donald Trump, after the release of the “Trump tape,” to the Washington Post:

“As I have made clear, my support for Donald Trump in the general election was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns.”

Even the religious right has moved on from the importance of the language of values to concerns–which mean policies. These policies are related to religious freedom (that is, freedom of conservatives from government “control” or intervention, “small government,” minimal taxation, pro-life positions, etc.).

I suppose in a sense these policy concerns are values (in that they are valued by many conservative Americans) and that certain values under gird them. But it’s clear that whatever the values, preoccupation with them is far greater than any concern about virtue in their candidate. (Or, many conservative claim that both candidates are flawed when it comes to virtue–it’s a wash on that scale–so they’ll stick with their party’s candidate because of their “shared concerns” and, you know, Supreme Court judges.

On the other side of the aisle, questions have been also raised about Clinton’s virtue–or lack thereof–when it comes to truth-telling (the email server issue and, more recently, the “public versus private” distinction), her obvious coziness with the moneyed-interests on Wall Street, and whatever her role may or may not be in whatever her husband may or may not have done to the women who have levied accusations against him).

I agree, by the way, that both candidates have obvious flaws in virtue–as do we all.

I don’t think the scale is even, though, by any means. Some of the issues raised about Clinton seem to be urban legend and some basically seem par for the course for high-ranking politicians (don’t they all have “private” and “public” positions?). And I agree with Michelle Obama that the prospect of Trump in the White House should frighten us all. But as a regular ole’ citizen receiving and observing the flow of information, I admit to a huge gap in knowledge about the candidates’ respective inner lives.

But: perhaps it’s time to bring the language of virtue, and the capacity of society to cultivate virtue, back into the public sphere.

Plato and Aristotle both thought that virtue needs to be at the top of of the list in how we determine our political leadership. Virtues like “prudence” (wise decision making), “temperance” (the ability to refrain from excess and achieve a “Golden mean” between extremes), “courage” (doing what’s right when the situation calls for it), and “justice” were given special weight.

In Christian theology, these four cardinal virtues were adopted and, “biblical” virtues were added: “faith, hope, and love.” Of course, there are many virtues besides these seven, but these have been consistently revered.

Stanley Hauerwas, in A Community of Character, argues that the failure of the modern liberal (liberal in the social, political sense of the “American liberal experiment”) project was to sideline virtue and its cultivation in favor of pragmatic achievement, technological advance, the primacy of individual freedom and rights, and the reduction of relationships to economics (among other things).

In a sense, then, we should not be that surprised with “what we’ve got to choose from.” It may just represent the culmination of the modern liberal experiment.

Hauerwas suggests, though, that the role of the church in this modern world could be as an “alternative polis,” a community which exists in part to show the world precisely what it lacks.

He suggests that the church think of itself as “a school for virtue” (83).

To do so requires participating in a community that accepts an authority that is not the State, not economics, not pragmatics or policies, not political liberalism itself, but God.

He writes,

…the first task of the church is not to supply theories of governmental legitimacy or even to suggest strategies for social betterment. The first task of the church is to exhibit in our common life the kind of community possible when trust, and not fear, rules our lives. (85)

I think Hauerwas is right on with this. The best gift the church has to offer the world is to be a community which proclaims the gospel and which offers a community in which that gospel is given flesh, or lived out. A community which understands why love and trust, not fear, should shape our lives. And then, the climax:

By taking seriously its task to be an alternative polity, the church might well help us to experience what a politics of trust can be like. Such communities should be the source for imaginative alternatives for social policies that not only require us to trust one another, but chart forms of life for the development of virtue and character as public concerns (86).

However, as invigorating as this might sound, there is a problem with this proposal. A problem Hauerwas quickly acknowledges:

But we must admit that the church has not been a society of trust and virtue. At most, people identity the church as a place where the young learn “morals,” but the “morals” often prove to be little more than conventional pieties coupled with a few intellegible “don’ts.” Therefore any radical critique of our secular polity requires an equally radical critique of the church. (86).

But is it possible? Is it possible that in a time when the “virtue gap” has been exposed, the church in the U.S. (with all its failings and in the midst of its slow and steady institutional decline) can be a school of virtue that contributes in some way to the public discourse around what it means to be human–and what it means to be a “people” in a troubled world?

A last concession: Of course, just to raise the importance of virtue is not yet to determine which virtues to highlight or, more importantly, how virtues get played out in real life. We can all agree on the importance of courage, for example, but that’s not yet to agree on what to be courageous about.

 

 

 


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