Cultivating Virtue: A Case for Reining in the State that Wants to Reign


© 2014 Robert Osburn

From its earliest days, US leadership sought to keep the reins of government limited.  The all-consuming Leviathan state (to use Thomas Hobbes’ famous image) was, in their experience, a monster of royal proportions (as they often considered the British royal government).  Without sufficient restraint, the government would become an oppressor, especially a religious oppressor of the sort they had known in Europe with its state religions. 

Today, growing numbers of left- and right-wing libertarians seek limited government for an utterly different reason: the maximization of personal freedom.  To one degree or another, almost all college students gravitate to this argument for limiting government (except government offers benefits that must be confiscated from other taxpaying entities).   Not just college students, but most Americans under Social Security age (66) believe likewise.  Unfortunately, this argument for limiting government is deeply and profoundly flawed (to be discussed in some future blog).

A superior, but not the only, case for restraining government comes not from libertarian ideology, but from the very roots of Christianity: We must restrain government in order that the virtues necessary for maintaining that government are cultivated. 

I’ll try to keep the argument for this proposition simple and straightforward.  First, as the Apostle Paul declares in the New Testament, law is a necessary, but insufficient restrainer of human passions. As Paul wrote in Galatians 3, the law is a guardian, not a liberator from our sin-induced slavery to sin.  No government and its laws can sufficiently master human sinfulness; only Jesus Christ can, through His marvelous powers of regeneration.  In mastering sin through His redemptive work, Jesus unleashed for those who believe in Him a new hunger and thirst for the good, the true, and the beautiful.   Virtue begins its gentle march inside mental and emotional territory newly liberated from sinful passions.

If this is the case, then why not use government to coerce belief in Christ, as has been done in many countries since the time of Constantine?  To coerce belief is to use law to achieve what it was not meant to achieve, while simultaneously coercing consciences unready for virtue’s gentle march.  The very important upshot is this: Government is a relatively poor cultivator of virtue, both because law is a rather poor tool for cultivating virtue and because its cultivation requires further enslavement (government-imposed coercion of conscience and religion).

So, we have a problem. We know the state functions best when its leaders are virtuous, a fact abundantly confirmed by Scripture and human experience.  If this is true, then how are leaders made virtuous if the state is a poor teacher of virtue?  The answer we offer appeals to the Kuyperian doctrine of sphere sovereignty, or the similar Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity: The cultivation of the kind of virtuous leader the state needs is best accomplished by the mediating institutions of the church, and its related parachurch tentacles.  Absent the evil of state-coerced belief, Christian institutions (and, to a limited degree, other religious institutions and traditions) are superior avenues for promoting virtue. That this is so demands another blog post, but suffice it to say that the reasoning behind this argument is robust. One caveat, however: While government cannot sufficiently produce virtuous leaders on its own, it’s also true that religious traditions and institutions will likewise fail to produce virtuous leaders if they insist on coercive methods. Thus, the call to respect to give great freedom to mediating institutions is not a license for them to use coercion as a justification for producing virtue.  Proper ends do not justify improper means.

The final point in the argument for reining in government in order to promote the virtue necessary for cultivating good government is this: Government must necessarily be reined in so that it does not shove aside or overtake the Christian mediating institutions that produce its best and most virtuous leaders.  It is in the interest of government (and its citizens) to give relatively free rein to religious institutions, since these produce the most virtuous leaders.  That few politicians understand this fact is evidenced by the constant quest to use government power to limit religious freedom (as we see in abundance today) in order to achieve the just society.  By slowly cutting off the oxygen (metaphorically-seeking) to religious institutions, whether through increased taxation and/or regulations, government insures that its own leadership will eventually be vicious rather than virtuous.

Wise legislators, rather than appealing to vague and impetuous libertarian calls for maximum freedom, will instead pay heed to biblical reasoning: Freedom results when virtue is cultivated in leaders, and that virtue is best cultivated in and through religious institutions and traditions, especially those that honor Jesus Christ.  Honoring their freedom will best ensure citizens’ freedoms in the long-term.