Ideas move men and nations. Sound ideas foster a prosperous, free and morally responsible society; flawed ideas corrode it.

Americans have enjoyed unparalleled liberty and prosperity under a Constitution of unprecedented longevity. Such an experience is historically rare. What made it possible? I propose that it was the distinctive American conjunction of civil liberty and moral responsibility. By connecting governmental protection of freedom with cultural protection of morality, Americans have enjoyed their freedoms with an awareness of moral limits and the common good.

Without a reasonably widespread practice of morality or virtue, liberty becomes a license for self-indulgence. Of course liberty is as necessary to virtue as air is to breath. Yet liberty is a necessary but not sufficient condition for virtue. If people are not forced by law to do what’s right, it does not follow that they will do it automatically. The absence of legal coercion does not guarantee the presence of self-control. Sad to say, what the biblical concept of original sin would predict on this point has been proved by historical experience, as the outbreak of social disorder in the aftermath of power failures and natural disasters demonstrates. Given human nature, more is needed. A free society requires a culture that nurtures virtue—with families, associations, churches, businesses and communities exercising a moral power apart from law, and deeper than law.

Judeo-Christian ideas originally made this possible in our society. The Bible provided an idea of liberty that does not easily become an excuse for self-indulgence (because of God’s commandments), and an idea of virtue that does not lead its adherents to abolish liberty (because human freedom reflects the image of God, and because the doctrine of original sin points to limited government). As Alexis de Tocqueville said in Democracy in America, “the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom” were opposed in France, but united in America. “Religion in America takes no direct part in the governance of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions.”

The early generations of Americans, Tocqueville observed, were able to establish something “great, permanent, and calm” because “while they were thinking only of the other world, they had found out the great secret of success in this.” The God of the Bible not only improved their self-control, but also he gave them a wisdom that inclined toward deferred rather than instant gratification, toward investment rather than consumption, and toward integrity rather than deceit in the ordinary dealings of personal and business life.

Those who believe that biblical ideas are true—true even independent of their usefulness to the free society—are shaped by those ideas. They in turn shape a free society more effectively than anyone else—even more effectively than those who merely concede that moral wisdom is useful for societal and economic success. (It makes you wonder: Could it be that biblical ideas have a salutary effect because they are true?)

There was a time when America could afford to take moral wisdom for granted. Familiarity with the Bible and its claims was so widespread that biblical ideas permeated the minds and influenced the habits even of those who did not endorse them. That comfortable era is gone. The great cultural institutions that were the guardians of American integrity have progressively abdicated their role. Rather than advancing the best of our civilization, these institutions—schools, universities, the media, libraries, museums, private and corporate foundations, arts organizations—have ignored moral wisdom or made sport of it. Even churches have sometimes become incubators of pathologies rather than advocates of truth.

Can a free society afford this? Not if its freedom presupposes the integrity of its citizens.

What if the whole practical dynamo of American stability and wealth actually stands on something intangible: on particular moral ideas and habits?

To keep American culture from fraying beyond repair, we apparently must have recourse to something resembling the ideas that were the original wellsprings of American success—or perhaps to those very ideas themselves.

The now-neglected second verse of “America the Beautiful” has it just right:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

Essay text copyright © 2015 by Graham Walker

Image at top is the coat of arms and motto of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, adopted 1778

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