“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.” Said by James Madison, this insight has been a hallmark of American conservatism since the movement first took form. Madison’s line is famous, but he is not alone in this belief. Similar quotes can be found from a plethora of our Founders, including both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Despite all of their philosophical divides, the Founders agreed that for a people to be truly free, they must be virtuous.
As we approach the 250th anniversary of our Founding, it is clear that their words still ring true. The United States is ensconced in spiritual decay; the effects on our politics, and society broadly, are easy to spot. In particular, the Christian tradition that used to undergird American morality has declined precipitously, in part due to the COVID shutdowns. This problem is especially acute among American youth, who have taken to dangerous ideologues in their search for meaning.
The response from those on the right dismayed by these developments has been scattered and fraught with dangers of its own. The return of Catholic integralism and its protestant Christian Nationalist counterpart to the forefront of right-wing debate portends a broader turn towards illiberalism on the right. The desire to impose Christianity from on high is flawed; as Frank Meyer explained in his seminal work “In Defense of Freedom,” true virtue cannot be imposed on someone but must be chosen. Those of us who espouse the fusionism Meyer laid out, an ideology that has guided American conservatism since the 1950s, must present an alternative to these ideas, and celebrate alternative measures.
One such measure made waves two weeks ago in the middle of the Super Bowl. He Gets Us, a media campaign dedicated to promoting pro-Christianity messages through tv exposure, spent $20 million on a Super Bowl ad presenting Christianity’s peaceful message in contrast to an array of photos of rioters. The response from the left was predictable, but even some on the right couldn’t fathom why a religious organization would spend so much money on a single ad. The answer is simple; in a country enthralled with media exposure, on the biggest media stage, at a time when the nation craves truth, the ad represents a new day in Christian preaching. The “He Gets Us” ad campaigns have not been perfect (the messages subtly lean left politically), but beggars can’t be choosers. For conservative Christians, the dual mandate Meyer lays out–that we must promote freedom in the political sphere and virtue in the private sphere–requires us to actually promote Christian virtues. This ad reached an estimated 113 million people; that kind of exposure is invaluable to those of us who would like to see Christianity revived in America, without the long arm of the law corrupting the faith.
In Wilmore, Kentucky, Christianity took center stage in another event worth celebrating. For 16 days, thousands of people from across the country flocked to Asbury University to experience a religious revival that began spontaneously on February 8th. Unplanned and unscripted, this revival was a case study in the deep desire in American life for a higher truth. Such an event is worth celebrating, no matter one’s particular Christian leanings, because it showed the nation what a truly virtuous faith can do. It was not imposed by any arm of government; it didn’t need to be. The students who participated were voluntarily swept up in an outpouring of heart and soul, and walked away better off because of it. No amount of government sanction could inculcate that kind of virtue in America.
Conservatives have long argued that there is, in the immortal words of Russell Kirk, a “transcendent order” of morality that must be upheld in society. In America, today, our understanding of that order is fraying, with expected consequences. The solution cannot be to impose a mortal understanding of that order, however. The power of coercive force pales in comparison to the authority of truth, and government compulsion is no substitute for personal choice. To quote Frank Meyer once more, “Truth has meaning only for persons; beauty illumines the consciousness only of persons; virtue can be pursued only by persons.” Fusionists have ardently pursued political freedom in the public sphere for decades. Now, in the private sphere, we must preach what we practice.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.