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Recently I had the pleasure of listening to Lt. Col. Allen West speak during the service of a local church. His presence and purpose, as much as the words of his excellent message, brought to mind something that I had been mentally digesting since the recent death of the British philosopher and writer Sir Roger Scruton. Both Col. West and Sir Roger serve up mental meals far richer than this poor cook can scramble together but I do have a few beginning bites partially digested enough to serve up a notion or two from them.
It was Scruton’s reflection on faith and family that I had been pondering. He had taken to task the need for government to tout so-called “family-friendly” policies. He contended that when the health of a nation’s faith was solid, the fate of the family was secure. He did not discount the importance and need of a strong family culture for the nation to flourish. But the foundation of that family culture was not in policy but the strong faith of individuals. A nation with a strong culture of faith will have strong families which keep the values of the faith, culture, and nation alive.
It should go without saying that the opposite is also true. So, it might be reasonable when questioning the cultural decline of a nation or society to look first to the strength of its faith traditions. It might also be reasonable for those who wish to pull down a culture or nation to start with that most fundamental element of its foundation.
It has been observed many times and in words much better crafted than mine that our Founders/Framers understood our foundational culture of liberty was steeped in the Judeo-Christian ethic. The liberty which fell to us through those Western traditions is protected by the simple but clear virtues of that ethic. That keen French tourist in the early 19th century US, Alexis de Tocqueville, saw that religion was “the first of their political institutions.” With that bedrock foundation, America was, even at that infant stage, “the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”
Reasonable (and fair) evaluation of the single best statement of our Founding can make a few things clear with regard to the place of faith in the vision of this national experiment in liberty. Despite its list of complaints against King George, the Declaration of Independence makes clear the concept that the moral laws of “Nature and Nature’s God” took precedence over human laws. The men who put their name to that document were not moral relativists; Natural Law was constant, unchanged by the times or fashion. In this context, liberty is not license. It is the freedom to do what is morally correct. It is a journey to align ourselves more and more with Nature and Nature’s God. If you do not believe that, how can you believe in natural and inalienable (God-given) rights which are beyond the rightful reach of man’s government?
If one follows that reasoning, the very first foundation stone in the nation envisioned by those Founders/Framers is faith. It comes before all else. Then would come the family itself, the necessary link between that personal faith and the traditions which tie it to a surrounding and supporting community.
It is from that community that a civil society sharing a vision of liberty and virtue is built. Without that civil society, there cannot be a successful nation. It is that society that supports the nation, not the other way around. If that society and its foundations are not strong, the nation is weak.
This is one of the great, clear lessons of man’s history. And one does not have to be a person of great faith to see it. The great historian Will Durant, an atheist, observed that each and every great civilization or nation of the past has fallen. And the clearest sign of their decline was that at some point “the intellectual classes” abandoned the founding theology. What we might call today “the ruling class” became just too damn smart to accept basic universal truths that restrict their own designs.
What are some of the characteristics of this faith upon which our nation is to depend? To begin with, it cannot be a national faith unless it is first a personal, individual faith. The nation is the final benefactor of that faith. The next in line to the individual is the most basic relationship of human society, the family. Each foundation stone has to be solid and well-placed for the next stone to be secure.
It is at that family level where faith is grown most effectively. Virtue does not come naturally. To poorly paraphrase Madison, men are not angels and angels do not rule men. The virtue, the moral code of a faith, has to taught, explained, cultivated, and modeled.
Liberty will flourish most when intertwined with faith. Liberty and the free choices that come with it always involve risk. But within those risks lay the richest rewards for the individual.
Both faith and liberty require action. Faith does not silently retreat to a far corner to let the world take its own course. And liberty has to be practiced to either grow or to benefit the individual.
Faith demands responsibility, as does liberty. Neither is license. To accept each is to take its mantle to be worn and its principles to be practiced.
Faith requires strength. Faith without strength is sterile, producing little or nothing. That strength is not just of belief but of will because all faith (and all strength) will be tested. But the test of will is often just a sharpening tool. If one will not actively defend his faith, how can he be expected to defend a nation dependent on that faith?
Each of us can mentally make our own list of ways in which the fundamental elements of the Judeo-Christian ethic has been undermined in the last century, especially in ways that might challenge the very nature of that vital and necessary family unit. There is nowhere that the individual responsible for both faith and liberty is required more than at the family level. In a nation that surely needs a restoration of its original vision, this is the most important place that each of us can begin to have an impact.
Since I began with Sir Roger Scruton, I will close with him as well. “Good things are easily destroyed but not easily created.”Published in