Public Virtue Revival Gerald McDermott

Can Public Virtue Be Revived?

Gerald McDermott on December 18, 2017

Can public virtue be revived?

Excellent thinkers have recently reminded us that in order for this to take place Christians and Jews must recover economic liberty as a public virtue; learn from Alexis de Tocqueville about the importance of voluntary societies; realize that a liberal order must recognize the existence of natural law; and discern the difference between modern and liberal democracies, the latter of which are founded on the primacy of religious freedom.

But if I may oversimplify, I want to ask how all this can be achieved. We have some consensus on what ought to happen if our republic is to survive without devolving into Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority. But how do we get there? Or is this confluence of thinking merely an academic exercise shuffling the lounge chairs on the deck of the Titanic?

I think we risk that danger if we neglect a cultural connection that some mention in passing but which is far more important than we might have realized. To be provocative, let me put it like this: our republic is failing because of a failure of masculinity—not machoism or chauvinism but the classical and biblical conception of man as a servant leader. Soft churches have driven men away, and they have helped perpetuate a culture of feeling that undermines classical notions of manhood. The public virtues have diminished to the degree that masculinity has been attacked and ridiculed.

I want to start with America’s greatest religious mind, Jonathan Edwards. The 73-volume Yale edition of his works suggests his stature as the greatest theologian of the Americas and the most influential American philosopher before the 20th century. His analysis of human psychology and his philosophy of history can help us, I would propose, think about how the Titanic can be saved from going down.

Edwards argued that there can be no major change in public virtue without a pervasive change in private virtue. And that private virtue will not change in a lasting way without the renovation of the soul.

But individual renovations of the soul are not enough if society is to be renewed. Societal–which means its resulting political–renewal requires a cultural rebirth. And that comes from religious awakening. Richard Neuhaus recognized this decades ago: he observed that the root word from which “culture” comes is “cult.” This should not surprise us. The Founders recognized the connection: religion is what drives all cultural change. Bad religion produces sick culture, and sick culture gives birth to a diseased polity with malignant conceptions of liberty and law. On the positive side, the Founders were convinced that moral virtue was necessary to the health of the Republic, and that only a certain kind of religion—that which teaches duty–could produce that moral (we would say “public”) virtue.

As Washington put it in his Farewell Address,

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity . . . religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.[1]

We neglect the wisdom of Washington, to our great peril, if we think that getting the right ideas about religious and economic and legal liberty can sustain us without a cultural–and therefore religious—awakening. But how can we promote that religious and resulting cultural awakening?

Here is where Edwards’s philosophy of history can help us. His seminal work, A History of the Work of Redemption, helped precipitate the Second Great Awakening, which arguably spawned both abolitionism and the Civil War—which, for all its carnage and degradation, nevertheless showed the world and our skeptics that we were willing to fight and die for what is Right.

In the History of the Work of Redemption, Edwards argued that the key to secular history is religious history, and that the engine that drives religious history is the history of revival. God is in charge of history, directing it in ways that are mostly inscrutable to human minds. But in both Scripture and our own historical hindsight, we can see an all-important pattern—that God uses religious revival to direct the course of history.

Look at the history of Israel, said Edwards. Its beginning and course were driven by mini- and major revivals of religion in the family of Abraham. Whenever the patriarchs and then the kings of Israel fell away from the God of Israel, true religion was corrupted, public virtue rotted from the inside, and Israel was subjected to conquest and exile. But then there came, often enough, revivals of true religion. These led to renewals of the covenant (think of the covenant renewals under Joshua, David, Josiah, Hezekiah, Ezra and Nehemiah), which led in turn to societal renewal, and returns from exile, both figurative and literal. In each case, religious renewal came before–and was necessary to–the renewal of moral and cultural virtue, which in turn led to public virtue.

Edwards argued that the rise of Christianity in the first century was a massive religious revival. It took a long time, but little by little it changed the course of the secular Roman Empire, and by the fourth century conquered that Empire. Culture and politics were forever changed.

That fourth century revolution—Constantine’s triumph—was itself a massive religious revival. Sure, there were many who started going to church because it was politically advantageous. But there were many more whose souls and virtues were transformed because of a public church that was creating its own culture. There would have been no medieval Christendom—which with all its faults including persecution of Jews nevertheless was the womb for nascent political and economic freedoms and produced artistic and philosophical and theological masterpieces that continue to dazzle our postmodern minds and enrich our own cultures—this medieval Christendom was built upon the foundation of the fourth-century religious revival under Constantine, and the Byzantine civilization to which that revival gave birth.

Then, said Edwards, was the revival called the Reformation. My readers probably don’t need to be reminded that there was both a Protestant and Catholic Reformation, and that modern Europe was the result. Just as the Roman Empire and its Christianization shaped the world, so did the Reformations of the sixteenth century. The pattern was repeated: revival drives secular history.

Edwards did not say, but even secular historians do say, that there would have been no American Revolution in the 1760s (of the mind) and the 1770s (of bodies and blood) without the revolution (of spirit) in the 1740s called the Great Awakening. Before the Awakening colonials thought of themselves as New Yorkers and Massachusetts men and Virginians, but after so many experienced the same awakening under the preaching of evangelists who went from colony to colony, men and women began to think of themselves as Americans, united in a new and fundamental way with people of the other colonies. Once again, revival drove history.

Over on the other side of the pond, the English Awakening led by George Whitefield and John Wesley not only brought new religious fervor to England but changed its mores. By 1740, England was morally decadent and spiritually moribund. Drunkenness was rampant. Gambling was so pervasive that one historian called the England of that day a “vast casino.” Infants were left exposed in the streets. 97 percent of babies born to women in the workhouses died before adolescence. The slave trade flourished. The Awakening changed all that: England became known by the end of the century for temperance, gambling was discredited, infant mortality plummeted, and a vast middle class emerged that was devoted to God and morality. Parliament stopped the slave trade in 1807. Arguably, this would have been impossible if the Awakening had not pricked consciences.

Then there was the Second Great Awakening in America that lasted from 1799 to the Civil War. Historians agree that this new religious revival produced scores of voluntary societies and that the most momentous among them was the abolitionist movement, apart from which there would have been no Civil War. The vast majority of abolitionists came to the conviction that slavery was sin, and they had been convicted of that, not merely convinced (as they would say), by the Holy Spirit who had come upon them in one of a myriad of Second Great Awakening religious meetings.

Arguably, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was fueled by the post-War revival of religion in the 1950s. It is well-known that the most potent leaders of the Civil Rights movement were religious leaders—rabbis, Christian theologians, and pastors. Martin Luther King Jr. always said the media kept getting him wrong: he was not a “civil rights leader” but a pastor from the black Baptist church. He did what he did because of the gospel and its promises for whole societies.

So if we are to have any chance of translating our ideas about liberty and democracy into real change for this republic, we must think about how in the world religious revival comes about. That’s what Edwards would say, and did say. And before I say what Edwards taught about the how, let me make one other critical connection.

That’s the connection between public virtue and robust churches. By robust I mean the churches that are willing to challenge the dominant culture where feelings are supreme. I mentioned at the beginning of this article the line that the Founders drew from true religion—that which teaches duty and not the supremacy of the self—to the morality which is necessary to support the American republic. The problem is that all too many of the churches in America have become soft, emphasizing feelings more than doctrine, especially when orthodox doctrine conflicts with what is politically correct. This is one of the principal reasons why high proportions of men have dropped out. As a result, increasing numbers of their children are dropping out. Evidence of this most recently has been the astonishing rise in the number and percentage of the Nones—those who say, “I am spiritual but not religious.”

The religion outside of the churches has been teaching the supremacy of feelings and the self since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, and now that Revolution has infiltrated the churches. Most men reject touchy-feely religion that is afraid to talk about the Bible’s “hard sayings,” and their kids notice that Dad has decided that church is not important. Many women hate that kind of religion too, but it has been the disappearance of fathers and men from the churches that has had massive impact on our culture.

We used to think that it was enough for Mom to bring the kids to church, that enough of the kids would learn from Mom. But there is startling evidence that children follow the example of Dad — not Mom — when it comes to religion. In 1994 the Swiss national census started including questions about religion and church attendance, which means the results were incontrovertible because of the sample size—the entire population of Switzerland.[2] Here are the results: When both Mom and Dad go to church, 90 percent of the children go to church as adults. When only the mother goes, only 10 percent of the children attend church as adults. But when the father and not the mother goes, then 90 percent of the children go to church as adults. The percentage is the same as when the father and the mother go—90 percent of the children attend church as adults. Bottom line: it is the father and not the mother who determines whether the next generation makes church a priority.

This is all-important for those of us who recognize the link between true religion, morality which teaches duty, and public virtue. As Anglican vicar Robbie Low has put it, “You cannot feminize the church and keep the men, and you cannot keep the children if you do not keep the men.” By feminized churches he means churches that drive men away by preaching a soft gospel.

Feminization is a good thing when we are talking about the development of girls and the maturity of women. Men need feminine women, and so do the churches and society. But when emasculated liturgy, gender-free Bibles and fatherless flocks suggest to men that masculinity is a bad thing, most men won’t want to return. Somewhere deep inside they connect with a masculinity that sees its God-given duty to sacrifice for the well-being of women and children, the survival of their nation, and the protection of truth. Of course, women are also called to sacrifice for the good of family and church and society, but in different ways.

For decades the worlds of entertainment and university have mocked fathers and husbands. They have been portrayed as dumb, and oppressive when they seek to lead. Men have been shamed for even imagining that the apostle Paul might have been on to something when he said men are called to be fathers (either biologically or adoptively or spiritually) and the heads of their homes, and that men are called to be leaders of the church.

Most men know they are not to lord it over their wives and children, and that male leaders are to serve in humility. They are willing to serve strong female leaders in the state and at the office, but they resonate with Orthodox Jews, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and conservative Protestants who connect a godly masculinity with leadership in the home and sanctuary.

For millennia most cultures have agreed with what Thomas Aquinas taught in the 13th century—that men are not being true men but what he called “effeminate” men when they refuse to detach themselves from sensory pleasures to endure the pain of pursuing something greater than themselves (ST Today the sensory pleasures include food, sex, and video games. Men who reject chastity and pursue promiscuous sex (either with another body or virtually through porn) are therefore not true men. They fail to be truly masculine.

If men close to Harvey Weinstein had been willing to rise to the challenge of true masculinity by forgoing self-interest, they would have openly challenged his exploitation of women years ago, and scores of women would have been saved from his cruelty.[3]

Today our culture views orthodox Judaism and Christianity as morally offensive and downright dangerous. Now, it is easy for orthodox Jews and Christians to talk about racism and immigration, and think they are engaging the culture with their faith. But the cultural engagement that will make a difference for the future of orthodoxy and our republic is over marriage and sexuality today, and other culturally-offensive issues tomorrow. How many orthodox are willing to defend the faith at these points, and risk their privileges and careers? How many are willing to be like the apostle Paul, that tough hombre who was willing to suffer beatings and stonings for the sake of Truth?

The danger is that too few are willing. Huge numbers of evangelicals are following the path of evangelicals of the late nineteenth century who decided that since doctrine was divisive, the social gospel was the way to engage their culture. It was the path of least resistance and the result was what we call liberal Protestantism or bourgeois religion.

But our republic needs political difference to remain healthy, and it takes the courage of conviction to sustain political difference. That conviction, and the willingness to fight for it, is at the heart of public virtue. Since true religion is the womb that births the morality of conviction and duty, a revival of true religion is needed for a revival of public virtue.

So how do we get there? Let me close by suggesting five critical steps on the road to that revival.


1. We need to reject that part of the Sexual Revolution that evangelicals and large numbers of Catholics have accepted—the notion that sex need have nothing intrinsically to do with procreation, and therefore that artificial means of birth control are perfectly acceptable. When both Catholics and Protestants also accepted the myth of global overpopulation, they decided that they were free to decide for themselves about children, and to reject the import of the Bible’s first commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Rodney Stark showed us in his Rise of Christianity that the early church grew not only because of conversion but also because the early Christians had more babies than their pagan neighbors. We need to encourage Christians to take the first commandment seriously, for, as Mormons and Orthodox Jews have shown us, both church and society prosper when religiously-serious parents have more children than the replacement rate (2.1 children per woman).

2. We must catechize our children and adults. Synagogues and churches need to teach that Sabbath should include both worship and religious education. Properly catechized people are disproportionately engaged in the public square, and those religious voices are necessary to a healthy democracy. As Robert Wilken has argued, it is more important that we build our Christian culture than try to change non-Christian culture. Unless we have strong and thick Christian culture, secular culture will do more to evangelize Christians than they can do to evangelize it.

3. We must find other ways to provide higher education for our young. The American university and (secular) college system is intellectually corrupted. Many so-called Christian colleges are similarly corrupted because their professors were shaped intellectually by those corrupted universities. We should send more of our young to colleges like Hillsdale and Grove City and Wyoming Catholic, and to universities like Baylor and Dallas and Steubenville. Jews will want to take more seriously Yeshiva University. We should encourage more of our young to enter the trades where they are free religiously and can support their large families.

4. Some of us should take the Rusty Reno route of selective cultural engagement, willing to challenge the majority culture in an intellectually-sophisticated way. But others will need to take Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which does not eschew all civic engagement but suggests a “step back from uncritical immersion in the public square for the sake of strengthening the inner life of ourselves, our families, our churches, and our little platoons, so that when we go back into the public square, we can do so as authentic Christians.”[4] This is what orthodox Jews do, to remarkable public effect.

5. Edwards taught that spiritual revival and cultural reformation come at God’s decision in response to prayer which he inspires. Edwards called for “concerts of prayer” in which churches across a land agree to pray for national revival on the same day every month. He said that widespread disgust for the state of the church and nation are signs that the Spirit is moving. What Christians then need to do is to agree to pray in concert for revival. This is what Christians did after the American Revolution when American Christianity was at a low ebb. Revival broke out in 1799, and the rest is history. The Second Great Awakening changed America forever. Let us pray for a new Awakening.

Gerald McDermott is the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. Among his many books are six on Jonathan Edwards. This is adapted from an address to the Acton Institute conference on “Reclaiming the West: Public Spirit and Public Virtue” in Washington, D.C. on December 6, 2017.


[2] Dean Smith: This was reported by Barbara Gauthier at Anglican News.

[3] Paul Bios first made this observation.

[4] Rod Dreher, “Evangelicalism’s Lost World,” Oct 21, 2017.

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