What are the roles of government, religion, in creating a virtuous society?

The role of government should always be limited in order to lessen its chances of becoming tyrannical.

 

Except, of course, when the central government needs to bring in line other entities not observing natural, human and civil rights. These must be upheld even if it means allowing the central government to have an increasingly expansive role to protect the dignity of all individuals. But again, this should be the last resort of a well-functioning society.

What then, is the foundational premise of protecting human dignity, if the government is the last?

 

Here is where we will get a bit more controversial than we have been, and where Millennial Conservatism will be set against the traditional left and the traditional right; in other words, I expect the following to agitate all political persuasions.

However, I believe this is the proper way society should function, especially when looking at the evolving nature of contemporary politics, and with the fear that if conservatism doesn’t progress, it will die when Millennials realize their political might. What follows should foster hope for the political future.

Religion is the premise to a well-functioning society. This is especially so for a democratic regime.

Tocqueville, and many other late Enlightenment thinkers, argue that religion, specifically Christianity, and in Tocqueville’s case, specifically Catholicism, is needed to create a moral and virtuous individual.

 

This is essential in a democracy because the people are sovereign. Thus, if we want the government to be just and good, we need the people to be just and good and to guard against the ills of power and democracy. The easiest, and perhaps fullest, way to achieve this is by instilling religion in a people. By focusing on their eternal soul, they will be checked from acting too unjustly in their daily lives, and in politics.

But once again, remember, this must be balanced with limited government, and with the constitutional parameters of separation of church and state.

So, before my atheist friends attack me, let me hopefully limit your fears. The role of religion in government is personal. In other words, there ought not be any attempt by the religious to influence the government to benefit its ends. Especially for conservative thought to be consistent, religion cannot be extended into the government sphere, contradicting the idea of limited government.

The gospel is even clear in this, “give unto Caesar what is Caesar…”

One cannot express the desire for a limited government while also asking the government to enforce religious ideals upon society. Therefore, religion as a foundational concept is private, geared toward personal morality and public virtue, completely isolated from an ordered role in government.

It is geared toward self-reflection and perfecting one’s own soul. But of course, this will have a positive effect on all. If each of us acts according to religious principles and leads by example, we don’t need the government to assert itself to create a moral citizenry.

For my traditional conservative friends, I understand this might be a challenging premise to accept. Religion is critical for social interaction (infusing politics with virtue) but it is necessary to do this without having the formal institutional or legal political role. It must be done individually.

Rest assured, it is certainly within the constitutional premises our Founders envisioned. The separation of church and state was not only enshrined within the Bill of Rights to protect the government from religious interference, but more importantly, to protect religion from government interference. If you mix the two, you risk damaging both of them.

 

Religion serves conservative goals without needing to be mixed directly with government affairs, by helping one focus interiorly. It also allows individuals to be personally responsible for their moral habits: this is what determines true virtue and ultimately, civic virtue.

The most assured way to preserve dignity and integrity of all people is to treat them with the reverence outlined in the great religious traditions. To remain relevant, political philosophy must bend its core principles to evolve with society; besides, it is practical. Millennial Conservatism does respect tradition, and believes in Edmund Burke’s formula of slow, gradual change to keep pace with society while maintaining order and stability.

Regarding religion and tradition, however, it must evolve. Millennial Conservatism respects religions and traditions. This means that although it acknowledges the specific and sacred role Christianity played in the founding, especially in pre-founding America (think New England theocracies), it recognizes that all serious traditions and authentic religions can serve a function that maintains civility and self-reflection in governance, thus preserving dignity and integrity.

This being said, the great texts of all civilizations, and the sacred traditions of all cultures should be honored, studied and reflected upon. Conservatism is by nature a truly inclusive philosophy. It recognizes what is great. And all authentic religion teaches humans to strive for self-perfection, and all cultures and classical texts give humanity a taste of the divine; if one studies world religion and culture, you will find there are more fundamental universals than differences.

You can focus on the differences and seek division – but this thinking will disenfranchise many, including naturally conservative friendly individuals from other religions.

Until next time.

The writer is associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Augusta University. Follow him on Twitter: @polscountrydoc.

 

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