It should be fairly obvious that there has been a shift amongst Christians regarding virtue. Articles from both the political right and left have noted a shift from seeing virtue as something central to the Christian life to something that is preferable but optional. (See here and here). In other words, it appears that the shift has left Christians thinking virtue is something that is good to want but not something they necessarily need.
From the outset, let me note that my point here is not to argue for or against the virtue of any particular political figure. (Though, that would be a worthy examination.) Rather, the sentiment regarding such figures underscores my point regardless of the actual virtue of these figures. Even if particular figure is virtuous, the conversation is starting to suggest that, so long as their politics are good, we don’t care. This should be troubling.
There are clearly times where we must choose between less-than or non-virtuous choices. If this is the case, we choose based on some alternative value. The problem I’m highlighting is when we only care about alternative values to the neglect of virtue. When we don’t care about virtue, our voting becomes a decision of practicality.
What is Virtue?
Since I am trying to make the case that it is bad that we seem not to care about virtue, it must also be good when we do care about it. However, in order to understand why one should care about virtue at all, one must first know what virtue is.
In my anecdotal experience, most people equate the thought of being virtuous with being good. However, if these two words are really synonymous, why use virtue at all? There is at least a vague sense of what goodness is. If virtue is just a synonym, all it appears to do is make the conversation more confusing.
Here, I am going to briefly argue that being virtuous is not the same as being good but rather, the process by which one becomes good. In this way, I am arguing that someone practicing virtue is living the practical outworking of sanctification.
The Virtues in the Christian Tradition
Historically within the Christian Tradition seven “Heavenly” virtues have been identified as being a practical outworking of sanctification. Four of these, the “Classical Virtues,” were recognized by pre-Christian thinkers, such as Plato and Cicero. Three are “Theological Virtues” listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. The others are developed over time, largely as a result of Biblical teaching. Additionally, there are the “Capital Virtues,” those which are thought to promote a well lived life and are the opposite of living in vice (or practicing the “deadly sins”).
The four Classical Virtues are
Prudence- The ability to calmly discipline oneself through the use of reason
Justice- The ability to order oneself according to the law of God
Temperance: The ability to order and restrain one’s desires
Fortitude: The ability to persevere and be patient through trial
These combine with the three “Theological Virtues” listed in 1 Corinthians 13:13:
Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love.
These could be defined as
Faith- Believing in and trusting in the promises of God and the Resurrection of Christ
Hope- Both the desiring and expectation that God will deliver on His promises, especially in making all things new
Love- Sometimes rendered “charity,” this includes both friendship with God and the other traits listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.
Finally, the “Capital Virtues” include
Chastity- The ability to rightly order and control sexual relations
Humility- The ability to rightly order oneself with respect to standing, both with others and with God
Kindness- The desire to be generous and gracious with others
The way I have rendered these is intended to be brief and is thus an oversimplification. That said, I think this still provides enough definition to begin to consider these virtues.
In sum, if sanctification is the process of becoming more like Christ, who was truly good, what would a sanctified person’s life look like? What things would they be doing practically to be considered “living like Christ?” I’m confident that such a person would live the above-mentioned virtues. (If not more).
This brings me back to the original prompt: that we should care about virtue, especially in our leaders.
It is obvious that we should care about virtues in ourselves. If we claim to be followers of Christ, we will want to live like Christ. The more complicated question is, “Should we want or care if our leaders live like Christ?”
If those who are running for office claim to follow Christ, we should demand to see the fruit of their Christian conviction. We should demand they are being virtuous if we are going to accept that they are a servant of the Lord. We cannot demand that such a person live the virtues perfectly, but we should see the evidence that they are trying to be virtuous.
However, if such a person—through common grace—is able to live somewhat virtuously, we can instead do two things: Grieve that more Christians are not involved in proclaiming Christ in the public square and rest in our Christian liberty to vote, with some gladness, for the candidate.
Imagine for a moment that the president lived the above virtues and lived them well. Imagine the halls of Congress and the courts were filled with people of virtue. What would the country look like?
I do not mean to be overly idealistic. We will never have a perfect country run by perfectly virtuous people. This lack of perfection, though, does not mean that we should not demand our elected leaders (and those running for office) display virtue.
If we vote only on practicality, we should still expect, for a time, to still see Christian values influencing government policy. However, in doing so, we should not be surprised when, sooner or later, even those with whom we politically agree are openly acting like heathens.
Tyler Bauer is the lead content editor for the Land Center Journal. He holds an MA in Apologetics from Talbot School of Theology. He also holds an MA in Philosophy from Southwestern, where he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy. He occasionally blogs on classical education and worldview at tylerwbauer.com. Sometimes, his wife laughs at his jokes.