David Hegg | Virtue, Liberty and Winning Democracy

David Hegg

By David Hegg

The past months have made it clear that, in America, politics is always in season. Unlike the pro sports we enjoy, there is no political offseason, no break from the boasts of some and the attacks of their opponents. We are a standing audience to the theatrical play of both promises and propaganda as the players across the stage attempt to win our appreciation and, eventually, our votes. 

But it was not always the case that the scripts and speeches were crafted simply to impress, persuade, or as is too often the case today, to obfuscate the truth. 

Once upon a time those running for office were required to present their philosophical first principles, arguing for a particular worldview while giving substantial proofs that what lay behind their decisions was a coherent set of core beliefs. Once, we voted for the person and not merely their promises, and we need to bring that back. 

Recently, I’ve been away with time to read and have found my way to some of the leaders of a bygone era whose thinking and writing continue to be foundational for politicians today. 

When President Joe Biden was in the Senate, he quoted Abraham Kuyper publicly, which I discovered as I began reading Kuyper’s works. Abraham Kuyper was the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, and prime minister of the Netherlands (1901-05). But he is best known for his writings on national governance. 

I can simplify Kuyper’s core principle and hope you find it as refreshing as I have. He boldly stated that the fundamental tenet of governance for any democratic republic was that virtue is the bulwark of liberty. 

Simply put, when virtue, character and integrity are widely eroded in a society, you see the rise of criminality among the governed and a self-serving governmental response of oppressive overreach.

In the study of governance, history demonstrates a wide spectrum. On one end we have anarchy, where the citizenry is unrestrained, while on the other, despotism reigns and individual liberty is no more. 

And, given what we know from history, that every society is forced to restrain the evil that men do at some level while allowing for individual liberty and freedom of conscience, the goal of governance must be to find a midpoint on the spectrum.

And that has been the great problem facing every society, and is staring us in the face today. It is my view that Kuyper had it right. Virtue is the bulwark of liberty. 

I have often said in discussions about church leadership that, if you have good people, any system can work. But if you have bad people, no system works. As my father used to say, “No matter how many you have, you can’t make a good omelet with bad eggs.” 

And without virtue being passed along from generation to generation, and backed up by political decisions, policies and the rule of law, societal well-being suffers.

And that brings us back to virtue, to the fact that its what’s in the heart that counts. And that being true, we must ask for more from our politicians. 

Dear Candidate, don’t tell me how bad things are first. Don’t try to persuade me by castigating your opponents, or trumpeting your so-called accomplishments. Instead, present your primary worldview and the foundational arguments that uphold it. Are you a theist or a materialistic naturalist? And why? Is there purpose in life and if so, what is it? What is your view of debt and borrowing? What is your view of personal liberty, freedom of conscience, the place of governmental power and the purpose of representative government? What makes you get up in the morning, and how will you measure success if elected?

Virtue matters whether we’re talking about the governed or the governing. If we are to escape anarchy on one end of the spectrum, we must be people who use our liberty correctly. We must have self-control and be able to resist the temptations of sinful behavior, sacrificing our selfish desires for the common good. In short, you and I must love our neighbor enough not to steal his stuff, slander her name, or harm their kids. If we think our views are the right ones, it ought to make us better people. 

And those selected to govern must as well be virtuous. They carry the welfare of others on their shoulders and they sure shootin’ better have righteous motives, unassailable integrity, educated minds and the ability to fend off myriad temptations to use power for personal gain. Simply put, they should be “public servants,” personally driven to do what is best and right for those they represent, regardless of partisan affiliation.

But I know what you’re thinking. First, the electorate today doesn’t want to listen to long presentations of a candidate’s worldview, complete with supporting arguments and data. 

And, if that’s true, then we deserve the government we’ve been getting, and we should stop complaining. Better, we could get educated ourselves and demand more from those who want to govern us. 

If they will be deciding on issues of our lives and liberty, we certainly owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to ask the tough question and demand thoughtful, ungarbled answers. 

Second, you’re thinking that men and women with the virtue and character described above no longer really want to enter the political realm because they strongly feel the game is rigged, the cost of campaigns astronomical, and most importantly, they greatly fear that substantive change is now beyond our reach. But while some of that is certainly true, it isn’t indicative of the American spirit that pursues liberty and our inalienable rights with great passion. We need some good people to run, win, work hard, and stay humble and virtuous.

In his vaunted Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln challenged his audience not to let the death of those brave soldiers whose graves surrounded him be in vain, for no purpose. Rather, he called his hearers to be part of a “new birth of freedom” so that “the government of the people, by the people, and for the people” would “not perish from the earth.” 

Fortunately, the call today is not to die, but to live and do so in a way that, whether candidate or electorate, we can be people of virtue whose character and wisdom can have positive influence. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. And what we can do, we should do, and what we should do, we must do. 

May God continue to bless America as Americans think and act virtuously. 

Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays. 

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