Virtues That Define Us

New Year’s Day may be the start of a new year, but it marks the beginning of a month known for celebrating two key events.  

The third Monday of the month, on January 18th this year, honors the birthday of America’s best known Civil Rights Leader, Martin Luther King Jr.  And in so doing, we recognize the evil stain of racial discrimination that mars our country’s heritage. Who can forget the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision that denied the liberty of black slaves and set the stage for a Civil War.

Then we have January 22nd, the day commemorating yet another horrific Supreme Court decision that many call the beginning of the American Holocaust.  The Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion and, to date, has led to the killing of over 60 million unborn lives in the United States.  

January is also known as Sanctity of Human Life month, reminding us that life is precious, and that all life has value.

So, was slavery wrong?  It took a while for our country to righteously answer that question. Yet the consequences of that sin still lingers today.  

Is abortion wrong? Sadly, that question is still being debated. How we answer it will reflect the virtues that define us and our culture.  Are our values, our virtues, absolute, or do they change based on the latest Supreme Court decision?  A scary thought. With even scarier implications.

Recently, I re-read the book, Character Matters by Mark Rutland.  Rutland is one of my favorite authors.  If he writes it, I read it.  The opening chapter had my eyes super-glued to every word, paragraph, and page.  Titled, Character: The Engraver’s Art, the book’s opening salvo puts forth the thesis that character ultimately defines the true worth of a society as well as its individuals.  One’s life, writes Rutland, is like a block of granite.  And depending on how one’s life is engraved/carved will dictate whether it will, in the end, be either “a masterpiece or marred rubble.”  Character is something we have a responsibility to teach in our schools, to praise and reward in others, and, most importantly, to cultivate within ourselves. 

The following comments (1) are not my own.  They are gold nuggets scattered throughout the first chapter of Rutland’s book.  They are more than just food for thought.  They are a feast to savor, a penultimate meal that is both delicious and yet, good for you.  

Take a bite and chew.

“Every society anchors its ideals in its virtues. If those virtues are good, it is ennobled. When those virtues are absent or perverted, there will be a downward spiral in the values, actions and character of its people.”

The real danger is not the absence of virtue. There is no historical evidence of an utterly virtueless society. The great danger is not the lack of any virtue. It is wrong virtues! It is always tragic when men who understand virtue act in virtueless ways, but the greater danger is redefining virtue as evil and evil as virtue. When that happens, the power that holds civilization intact is weakened.” 

As a society defines its virtues, it in turn is defined by those virtues. Twisted virtue means twisted culture. Suppose, for example, a certain society hates failure, ugliness, obesity and stupidity. The premier virtues might then be success, beauty and intelligence. If, therefore, beauty itself is a virtue, then all is permissible if I can achieve beauty, associate with beauty or cause beauty to be.” 

If a society hopes to elevate or ennoble its character, it must carefully define its virtues. The most basic values held by a society dictate the kind of leaders it will produce. If the premier values are hard work, perseverance, ingenuity and discipline, that society produces men like George Washington Carver. On the other hand, if the preeminent virtue is wealth—no matter how you get it—Enron is the inevitable result. 

“Likewise, the prevailing winds of virtue greatly impact whether the church in a society produces an Elmer Gantry or a John Wesley. If that which we as a people admire is flamboyant success in a worldly sense, the local pastor must live on the highest level of personal commitment to virtue, or he will succumb to this lowest level of ambition. He must fight the weight of materialism, struggle to resist compromise and defeat fear.”

Some years ago I engaged in a radio debate about abortion. My opponent was a pro-choice rabbi. He explained that he rejected the old idea of the value of life. He calmly announced that he now held “quality of life” to be a higher ideal. I was stunned! I could hardly look at him. It was hard to believe what I was hearing. I asked if he realized that he had just uttered the same words used by the Nazi judges to justify the forced sterilization of the retarded and the killing of the Jews and Gypsies. He was furious, of course, and the debate lost all hope of any usefulness. 

Afterward, in the parking lot, the rabbi screamed at me, “Are you daring to call me a Nazi?” I assured him I was not, but I went on to say that the world is topside-down when rabbis think like Nazis.

Something was terribly wrong with his reasoning. Our ideal cannot be the quality of life. That puts comfort, ease, beauty, intelligence, wealth, power and convenience ahead of decency, goodness, kindness and the innate value of every life created by God. The quality of life cannot be more important than the value of life. If the quality of life is the prime consideration, who defines quality?

“If we can hire doctors to abort unborn babies, then the next step may be clinics where we can quite legally murder the elderly or inconvenient. When society accepts convenience and the quality of life as more precious than life itself, the only really valuable people are those who pander to culture’s lusts or provide its needs.”

“It is time to demand virtue of ourselves, our courts, our government and our entire society. With our virtue squandered, we are doomed to life on the jungle floor. We must struggle for virtue now, in our generation.”

Now is the time for character. Persons of virtue with the power to touch this tired culture with transforming grace will not just happen. We must be intentional to produce them, teach them and carve them with care on the soul of a nation. We can and have lived with less wealth than we have. We have survived stock market crashes, depressions and world wars. We cannot long survive without character. Now, not later—for there may, in fact, be no later—now is the time for character.”

How does America define its virtues today?  How we answer that question reveals the true character of our culture and may ultimately decide the fate of our nation.  As Rutland stated, “the greater danger is redefining virtue as evil and evil as virtue. When that happens, the power that holds civilization intact is weakened.”

At one time, America disguised racism as virtue.  That mask has been ripped off and, though it is a sin that lingers, racism is now recognized for the ugly evil that it is.  

Today, abortion proponents have dropped the pretense that all they want is to make abortion safe, legal, and rare, needed only as a necessary, last resort act.  They see it as a moral imperative to have access to abortion for any reason at any time.  They celebrate it.  Like in January 2019 when New York’s Governor Cuomo saluted the signing into law of the Reproductive Health Act by ordering key New York landmark’s to be lit up in pink.  New York’s RHA allows abortion at any time of pregnancy.  Feminists celebrate it when they parade themselves wearing t-shirts proudly boasting of their abortions. Recently, “loud and proud” became a feminist strategy and #shoutourabortion trended on Twitter. Using euphemisms such as freedom to choose, reproductive freedom, or reproductive justice seek to paint this procedure as a virtuous, even patriotic, act. It makes personal convenience and the quality of life more virtuous than the value of life. Defining abortion as an act of virtue is a slippery slope that leads us to “the jungle floor.

Truth or Consequences.  Reject the first, we suffer the second.

I fear the bill will soon come due for a nation that has, for decades, embraced relativism and twisted language to justify its self-indulgent lifestyles. Sanctity of Life Month must become more than a bumper sticker, a pro-life slogan, or a once-a-year protest march. 

It needs to become a cherished national virtue.  

(1) Rutland, Mark. Character Matters: Nine Essential Traits You Need to Succeed (Lake Mary, FL., Charisma House, 2003), Chapter 1

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