The so-called “Founding Virtues” of America are identified by social scientist Charles Murray in his explorative book, Coming Apart (Crown Forum, 2012). Granted, much of his research and conclusions can readily be questioned, debated or summarily rejected. But his chapters on the virtues espoused by our nation’s Fathers should give us pause, and, consequently, require serious study.
These “founding virtues” he describes as fundamentally four: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion.
Honesty, Dr. Murray recalls, was viewed by Thomas Jefferson as “the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” George Washington also deemed honesty as a necessary virtue of the American people. Another way to state this is that, from the beginning, Americans were keenly interested in the truth; pretense was, and still is, abhorrent. A loss of integrity, John Adams once said, could only be an invitation for tyrants.
Industriousness, so characteristic of Americans down through the years, is understood by Dr. Murray as “a cluster of qualities that had motivated the Revolution in the first place … the bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, making a better life for oneself and one’s children.” Surely, this attitude ranks as a major mark of what it means to “be an American.” Here the author reminds us of the old New England Yankee’s motto, “Never put aside business.” Even if vacations are defended, it seems, Americans can easily turn vacations into business enterprises.
But religion and marriage have always added to the definition of an American. “For God and country” is not merely a poetic chant; an American’s sense of his or her relationship to God, the Creator, is integral to his or her very being – at least for the majority of citizens. The “Faith of our Fathers” is no empty phrase, either; on the contrary, it is enshrined in memories of leaders like George Washington, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln. Atheists and agnostics seem to agitate the populace year after year. But the image of Washington’s praying while on his knees prevails. And the Bible continues to be read; the Ten Commandments continue to guide and heal.
Marriage is, of course, a critical link in America’s identity. Marriage, notes Dr. Murray, was taken for granted by our forefathers as “the bedrock institution of society.”
Marriage is, for Christians, the Rock upon which the family is built, as one of the Church’s finest moral theologians, William E. May, argues in what is probably one of the two or three best books on the subject, published in 1995. Professor May goes on to argue that marriage is in itself a “person-affirming, love-enabling, life-giving, and sanctifying reality.” As such, it is a divinely instituted phenomenon, and constitutes the most basic, natural-law unit of society within civilization. Pope John Paul II, in explaining marriage’s role as related to the family, and, hence, society, identified four principal responsibilities of the family: (1) to form a community of persons; (2) to serve life and enrich the culture of life; (3) to participate in the development and elevation of society; and (4) to share in the life and mission of the Church. (Familiaris Consortio, No. 17 sqq.)
Hence, any attempt to degrade marriage (which, again, is not merely an invention or a social contract), or to attack or dismiss marriage, goes right to the heart of civilization. To put this bluntly, a nation that fails to understand and assert what marriage is, and how marriage is perceived (even by dissident sociologists, philosophers, the courts, the media and, unfortunately, certain churches), that is not consonant with its divinely initiated raison d’etre, is crudely placing itself in jeopardy. Indeed, such action all but ensures a society’s “coming apart.”
Ignoring America’s “founding virtues” is a strategy lethal to life. Honesty, industriousness, religion and marriage do matter – essentially so.