Private Virtue & Public Duty

WHAT DID OUR FOUNDERS THINK?

We often hear that a person’s private conduct is unrelated to the performance of his or her public duties. This is especially true if the private failings involve sexual matters. Advocates of this point of view never tire of telling us about former presidents whose marital infidelities didn’t prevent them from political greatness.

 

This argument was made regularly during the debates over President Clinton’s impeachment. The president’s defenders told us that the Founders would have been dismayed at our making a man’s private conduct the basis for judging his fitness for office. And especially is this so, they said, with sexual sin which is something so personal you can be justified lying about it.

 

Well, a new book tells us that far from being dismayed, the Founders believed that private misbehavior would lead to a breach of public trust.

 

In his just released book, On Two Wings, philosopher/theologian Michael Novak makes a compelling case for the biblical origins of the American experiment. As he puts it, the way that the story of the American founding is told today cuts off “one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies.” That cut-off wing is America’s “compact” with the God of the Bible. The Founders believed that there was a God who brings down the mighty and lifts up the poor. They relied upon this belief, and this belief is, as Novak writes, “an indispensable part of their story.”

 

As you might expect, this belief shaped their understanding of morality and character, as well. They did not make the distinction between private and public conduct that we do. Novak tells the story of a prominent Boston doctor, Benjamin Church, Jr. Church’s fellow Bostonians thought him to be a patriot and were subsequently shocked to learn that he had been selling his services to the British.

 

In a letter to James Warren, Samuel Adams offered an explanation that would be incomprehensible to many contemporary Americans: He linked the doctor’s treason to his reputation as an adulterer.

 

Adams wrote, “He who is void of virtuous attachments in private life, is, or very soon will be, void of all Regard for his country.” He added that “there is seldom an instance of a man guilty of betraying his Country, who had not before lost the feeling of moral obligations in his private connections . . .” In other words, if a man or woman won’t honor private obligations, why should we believe that he or she will honor his public ones? They won’t.

 

If this seems hard to understand, the problem lies with us, not our Founders. Our culture has forgotten what the Founders knew and Novak’s book documents: The American experiment is a moral, not just a political, exercise. And as such, it assumes certain things to be true about human nature and, as Novak tells us, about the authority of the God of the Bible.

 

But these beliefs run contrary to our culture’s worldviews. And that’s why the ordered liberty envisioned by the Founders has degenerated into a demand for personal autonomy that asks nothing of its citizens, not even their virtue.

 

As Novak brilliantly reminds us, private virtue, rooted in biblical faith, is essential for the American experiment to work as the Founders intended. And, it’s vital that Christians understand this often-ignored “wing” on which our way of life depends. The wing that teaches us that, without virtue, there can be no greatness.

 

For more information:

 

Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).


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