Can Democracy Survive Without Virtue?DONALD DEMARCO
If America is losing her affection for virtue -- particularly the subtle virtues needed for democracy such as selflessness, a desire for truth, a willingness to work, a keen sense of justice and fair play, respect for marriage and the family, and reverence for God -- she is losing hold of her own democratic ideal.
The noted Harvard sociologist Gordon Allport worked on his classic study, The Nature of Prejudice, during the aftermath of World War II. This was a period of high unemployment and widespread hunger throughout the civilized world that was further burdened by pervasive cynicism and nervous insecurity. It was not a climate in which people were eager to embrace the democratic ideal. Rather, it was a time when people fell prey to demagogues who were only too eager to wrap them in a pseudo-protective blanket of totalitarianism.
In times of uncertainty, people often choose not the moral ideal, but the quick solution to their immediate needs. "It was a stuporous error," wrote Allport, a man not given to using words recklessly, "for the western world to believe that democratic ideology, stemming from Judeo-Christian ethics and reinforced by political creeds of many nations, would itself gradually overspread the world."
"Democracy, we now realize," Allport went on to say, somewhat mournfully, "places burdens upon the personality sometimes too great to bear."
Virtue Is Not Hereditary
Do we continue to realize what Allport thought people realized better than a half-century ago? And what does a person need in order to bear such heavy burdens? It is apparently something we have forgotten. In a word, for the Harvard sociologist, it is "virtue."
"The maturely democratic person," he wrote, "must possess subtle virtues."
Thomas Paine knew about this around the time of the American Revolution. The author of Common Sense advised his countrymen that, "When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary."
The democratic ideal has proven to be less exportable to countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran than arms, coffee, and computers because it presupposes the cultivation of the many virtues that are needed to make democracy a practical reality. There is no point in exporting lamps to a nation that has no electricity.
We Cannot Give What We No Longer Have
A few years ago, in an address to the United Nations, Pope John Paul II reiterated that "democracy requires wisdom and virtue: it stands or falls with the truths it embodies and promotes." On this occasion, however (October 8, 2002), the country that was forefront in the Holy Father’s mind was not a nation of the Middle East, but America herself.
In this light, the problem of exporting democracy becomes even more difficult. The initial problem lies in a nation’s lack of preparedness to receive it; the second problem involves first advertising and then trying to export a tainted product. If America is losing her affection for virtue -- particularly the subtle virtues needed for democracy such as selflessness, a desire for truth, a willingness to work, a keen sense of justice and fair play, respect for marriage and the family, and reverence for God -- she is losing hold of her own democratic ideal. And one cannot give what one does not have.
True democracy is surely a worthy attainment. And we should never forget that countless souls have fought and died to keep it from perishing. But at the moment, we sorely underestimate how much it demands in the currency of moral virtue, and how easily it can dissipate when it is taken for granted. John Courtney Murray has remarked that "men [once] thought that democracy was inevitable; now they know that it is an achievement, always precarious."
Healing American Democracy First
Exporting democracy can succeed only to the degree that its recipients have cultivated enough virtue (and to a sufficiently high degree) that they can take on its burdens and work to see it prosper. America may have forgotten something of her own history. As her fourth president, James Madison, once declared, "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea."Democracy is a living thing, and as such, must be continuously nourished and vigorously exercised. America’s first concern, in the realm of politics, then, is the health of its own democracy. And moral virtue is the lifeblood of that health.
Donald DeMarco. "Can Democracy Survive Without Virtue?" Lay Witness (May/June 2008).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
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