Acton Institute Powerblog

Virtue, Liberty, and the Message of TEA

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This weekend, I had the pleasure of joining dozens of Michiganders in Grandville to protest big government and big spending. The Hudsonville TEA (Taxed Enough Already!) Party, a grassroots group of Americans concerned for the sake of liberty, put on the event immediately following the Grandville 4th of July Parade.

Commemorating America’s independence, the people at the rally were treated to a recitation of the Declaration of Independence, a lesson in the history of American liberty, and the reading of a letter from an auto dealer shut down as part of the government’s bailout of the big three carmakers. I spoke on behalf of the Acton Institute about the balance between virtue and limited government.

Virtue makes limited government possible. There is evil in the world and there is good that needs to be done. We have governments to make it possible for us to live together, and we do need the law to protect us from chaos, but we are able to live free of tyranny because virtue tells us to live up to our responsibilities.

Aristotle once said, “I have gained this by philosophy: to do without being commanded that which others do only from fear of the law.” Philosophia means the love of wisdom. When put into practice, this is virtue. Virtue lets us care for our families and neighbors, respect the wellbeing of other people, and live within our means without being forced to do so by the law.

Virtue is a potent force. The more that we are virtuous, the more we can be free. Limiting government from an institutional angle might be difficult for the time being due to politics. We can take actions now, though, that limit the need for government by doing good, avoiding evil, and encouraging others to do the same.

If we can do that, then America can see another 234 years of being known as the land of the free and the home of the brave, the just, the virtuous.

Matt Cavedon


  • SB

    Word insertion game: “I have gained this by philosophy: to do without being commanded that which others do only from fear of [divine] law.”

    Just one reason why it’s ridiculous for the religious to smear the non-religious as amoral: non-religious people who act “morally” do so by their own conviction, not because they were told to, or because of fear of eternal punishment.

  • Matt

    Catholic teaching has always been, from the writings of St. Paul to the present day, that the divine law is natural law, written on every human heart and knowable by reason. For once, I agree with you, with the caveat that the believer is not terrorized by eternal punishment as much as moved by receiving a love beyond all others to obey that love in every way.

  • SB

    I’m not in the business of contradicting people who testify as to their own motives and beliefs, so I accept what you say about your own faith. But I suspect that a great number of religious people think more often and more vividly about not wanting to burn for eternity than they do about “receiving a love beyond all others.” And the Church, in practice if not in principle, until fairly recently emphasized scaring the bejesus out of people over making them feel the love. I love “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” just for its depiction of Catholic school in late 19th century Ireland.

    It has also always struck me as incongruous how this “love beyond all others” can coexist with the eventual damnation of, at this point, well, most of the people in the world.

  • Matt

    Practice and principle are two very different things. The Church is made up of people, who are sinful and imperfect. No surprise that there have been wrong priorities and strayings from the truth of love.

    Literature and reality are also two very different things. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is hardly representative of the experience of most of the people of Ireland or the Church, any more than Catcher in the Rye is representative of the life of the average American.

    The Catholic Church does not claim to know who will be damned and who will be saved. Nostra Aetate, a formal and binding declaration of the Church at the Second Vatican Council that is held to be part and parcel of Catholic tradition, emphasized that truth exists beyond the Church and that salvation is not restricted to Catholics. If, indeed, most people will be damned, then it is because of an unwillingness to respond to love with faith and love and not because of intellectual differences or errors.

  • SB

    Well of course I didn’t mean to suggest that Joyce was a substitute for more objective sources. But, as often, literature can get at a certain kernel of truth better than anything else.

    And I suspect you’d be no so insistent on the importance of distinguishing principle from practice when it comes to, say, Communism. Liberals are fond of saying “it was such a good idea in practice,” to which conservatives unfailingly respond, “something so evil in practice could never be good in principle.” And I agree with the conservatives, not just in that case, but in all.

    None of that is to compare Catholicism to Communism, I hope you will recognize.

    I suppose it will be news to many practicing Catholics (not to mention those of other faiths) that they don’t have a monopoly on truth. Again, the sad reality of practice, if not principle, is that believers often are dogmatic and exclusionary, less but still often hateful towards outsiders. A perfectly human tendency, magnified and justified by religion.

    Finally, my failure or “unwillingness” to respond to love with faith IS an intellectual difference (or error). What else would it be?

  • Matt

    Catholicism is good in principle and it is good in practice, even if there are flaws at times due to human weakness. Communism is wrong in principle; therefore it is always wrong in practice, especially because of human weakness. I would not echo some conservatives in saying that we wouldn’t know communism was bad if we didn’t see it practiced. It has a wrong understanding of humans, nature, and history that is borne out in its practice, but it is wrong even at the theoretical level.

    Believers aren’t the only ones who are dogmatic and exclusionary. Look at political zealots and New Atheists. You’d find it hard to prove that exclusionary thought is any more “magnified and justified” by religion than by nationalism, progressivism, rationalism, or any other “ism.” Religion, though, also has the ability to drive home the point that there is God, the common Creator of all, commanding us to love and to reach beyond ourselves because everyone has an immortal soul made in His likeness. If that isn’t radical, I’m not sure what is.

    If “faith” means “intellectual assent,” then you are right in your final point. Linguistically, though, “faith” is related to “fealty,” which is loyalty. Be loyal to love. Be faithful to it. Having faith and intellectually assenting to the religion of a loving God, while related, are not the same.

  • SB

    We are so completely off the topic of your little blog post, and I note that our volleys get longer and longer. Nevertheless…

    Of course non-religious people can be dogmatic and exclusionary. I granted that in my previous post. I have a problem with any theory, religious or secular, that seems to exacerbate rather than counteract that particular human foible. Extreme nationalism is one. I struggle to imagine how progressivism and rationalism can be put in the same category. And I think the number of “New Atheist” statements that you might consider dogmatic and exclusionary is vanishingly small. Unless you’re one of those people who thinks that any statement in favor of atheism is by nature as “dogmatic” or “religious” as any statement in favor of theism.

    In any case, why don’t you check out my equally long-winded responses on my own blog?

  • Matt

    Sorry I don’t have the time to tackle this debate any further for now, but I will visit your blog later on. Feel free to post the link here for anyone else who may be interested.

    See you next PowerBlog debate.