As we begin a new year, it may be useful to look back to one particular piece of advice that George Washington gave us in his farewell address. In paragraph 28, he reminded us that:
"It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?"
His point was that no matter how well designed our constitutional mechanisms may be, the healthy future of our nation would depend upon the maintenance of private virtue -- that self-government is only possible if our national character, made up of each individual character, yearns and acts for a free country.
Two centuries later, Martin Luther King Jr. observed a similar truth when he talked about the "content of their character" being essential to our enduring (and more complete) liberty.
I raise this point because in the last few months, as I have written in this space about my optimism for America's future, I received so many e-mails from readers who questioned whether we Americans are the equal of our ancestors. Whether we are or not, of course, one cannot know.
But while we should admire our ancestors, we need to guard against a false nostalgia that imagines we were once a race predominately of moral giants. Any reading of history discloses every attribute -- including horse thieves, con artists, cowards and traitors -- amongst those who came before us.
John Adams believed that barely a third of the American colonists supported our revolution for liberty -- and yet we won. Not everyone showed courage during our dark days. Many people gave up during the Depression. There were shirkers even during World War II.
But on balance, when they have been needed, enough Americans have developed sufficient individual private virtue to rise to the occasions that history has placed in their and America's path.
Thus the basis of the optimism for our future that I have found in the last year -- despite the genuinely dark skies and violent storms that currently lash us -- has precisely been the response of individual Americans to the current crisis.
And this fact, I am sure, has been possible only because so many Americans have continued to strive to improve their moral virtue guided by both secular and religious principles.
By the millions, tea partiers and so many others responded to the crisis by standing up and beginning to take events into their own hands. In community after community, people have reached out to those who are suffering. And in the election, a majority spoke out for and voted for policies that would stop the theft of our grandchildren's prosperity and liberty. So I have been elevated in my hopes for our future.
But now comes reality in the saddle. Congress reconvenes. Political calculations are being made from Capitol Hill to Pennsylvania Avenue to K St. intended to perpetuate the destructive governmental trends of the last years. The world continues to menace.
And it will take more than a mere majority of Americans to be hoping for the best. We must somehow maintain and even enhance collective action for a return to constitutional government, fiscal balance and national security.
In that context, I was struck this weekend by the words of the great Christian theorist and historian of the last century Hilaire Belloc that I read in his book "The Elements of the Great War, The Second Phase" (written in 1916.)
He observed that when the most profound issue may face a nation, there is the danger that "the lesser should conquer the greater, the viler the more noble, the more changeable the more steadfast, the baser the more noble ... We know, upon the analogy of all historical things, small and great, that the less creative, the dullest and the worst elements may destroy, and has frequently attempted to destroy, the vital, the more creative and the best."
That is what America faces today. For too long, the decent American majority of citizens who are productive and hardworking (and those many millions now sincerely, desperately looking for jobs) have sat by while others have tried to usurp our liberty to enhance the power of government; have taxed and borrowed from those who produce to transfer to those who neither work, nor produce, nor seek to produce, nor maintain their private virtue.
Now all these conflicting interests and passions are funneling into Washington, D.C. These next 24 months -- beginning now -- are the decisive moment.
Can the rot that has begun to eat at the ship of state be cut out and replaced with solid timber? Can the will and impulse of the majority assert itself in its capital? Can the grounds for optimism be sustained?
Louder and louder must the public voices of private virtue be heard in this 2,011th year Anno Domini.