George Weigel: Virtue, cultural renewal necessary for democracy

George Weigel speaking about the German edition of Evangelical Catholicism at the Teutonic College Oct 27 2015 Credit Bohumil Petrik CNA 10 27 15 George Weigel speaks at the Teutonic College in Rome, Oct. 27, 2015. | Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

As populists across the U.S. and Europe express discontent with the current state of democracy, George Weigel has pointed to the importance of family and civil society in encouraging and cultivating the virtuous citizenry necessary for democratic renewal.

"Democracy is not a machine that can run by itself," said George Weigel in the Ethics and Public Policy Center's 17th annual William E. Simon Lecture held March 6 in Washington, D.C.

"The vitality of the public moral culture is crucial to the democratic project because it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make free politics and free economics work so that the net result is genuine human flourishing."

"The 'culture of Me' is incapable of defending the claim that the democratic project, for all its discontents and flaws, is nonetheless morally superior to the various authoritarianisms on offer in the 21st-century world, because it is itself committed to the authoritarianism of the imperial autonomous Self," warned Weigel, who cited the continued influence of the 1960's "unbridled self-absorption" and rejection of traditional virtues on today's public culture.

Two elements of modern American culture that hinder democracy are moral relativism, the idea that "your truth" can be different than "my truth," and expressive individualism, a certain self-centered notion that "the good" is defined by what an individual wills or wants.

Weigel pointed out that "a truth-starved and morally anorexic culture is incapable of sustaining free politics and free economics because it cannot answer the questions, why be civil and tolerant and why accept the electoral choice of the majority?"

A self-absorbed "culture of Me" is also linked to consumerism, in which "human worth is measured by what a person has rather than who a person is," said Weigel.

The foundation for rebuilding a virtuous moral culture are the family, religious communities, and civil associations, according to Weigel, who stressed, "the family is of immense importance, because stable families are the first schools of freedom rightly understood as freedom for excellence, freedom for nobility, and freedom for solidarity."

"The deconstruction of the family by the sexual revolution is closely correlated to many phenomena that now threaten the democratic project, from crime and substance abuse to aggressive forms of identity politics that seek to shut down public debate," continued Weigel, pointing to the research of Mary Eberstadt.

"Americans must once again affirm that there are self-evident truths that can be known by reason; that knowing these truths teaches us both our obligations and the limits of the legitimate role of the state in our lives; and that affirming these truths is what makes an 'American', irrespective of anyone's grandparents' country-of-origin," he continued.

Weigel says he has hope for a renewal of virtue in America's democracy, but "both conservatives and progressives in these United States need a thorough examination of conscience about their respective responsibilities for our current democratic discontents, which are no longer just a matter of frustration with Washington political dysfunction."

"Statesmanship requires a firm commitment to certain built-in truths about human beings and their communities, and the skills taught by the virtue of prudence in making those truths live in our common life. So let us measure ourselves, and those who would lead us, by those truths and by that virtue."

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