America needs virtuous citizens to survive, Weigel says

George Weigel speaks Feb. 7, 2012 at the 11th Annual William E. Simon Lecture
George Weigel speaks Feb. 7, 2012 at the 11th Annual William E. Simon Lecture

.- The future of America depends upon the recognition that a democracy requires citizens formed in virtue in order to flourish, said Catholic scholar and author George Weigel.

In a Feb. 7 lecture, Weigel explained that modern “writing on the wall” warns America that it cannot survive without a foundation in proper democratic virtue.

The modern world has failed in its attempts to abandon God and set up an “empty shrine” that worships the “imperial, autonomous self,” he said.

Weigel delivered the 11th annual William E. Simon Lecture at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

He recounted the biblical story from the book of Daniel, in which a supernatural hand appeared and wrote on the wall at a banquet where King Belshazzar of Babylon had defiled gold and silver vessels from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

The prophet Daniel interpreted the writing, which accurately predicted that the king would be killed and his kingdom would be divided among his enemies.

Weigel said that the story presents “a biblical warning against the lethal effects of blasphemy, the worship of that which is not worthy of worship.”

He explained that similar writing on the wall exists for America in this election year, warning of “the results of the negation of worship.”

According to Weigel, recent centuries have seen repeated attempts to reject God in the name of human liberation.

This attempt “to erect an empty shrine at the heart of political modernity” has led to “two world wars and the greatest slaughters in recorded history,” and then to a “softer secularism” in the 20th century, he said.

Weigel explained that the “secular project” has failed because it ignored “the deep truth that it takes a certain kind of people living certain virtues to make democracy and the free economy work properly.”

Such people “do not just happen,” but must be formed, he said.

But the “empty shrine” is unable to form men and women of democratic virtue, and so America’s foundations are being strained. 

The failure of the secular project can be seen in the collapse of families and in the moral and economic crises, which are driven by a “sense of entitlement that is wholly disconnected from a sense of responsibility,” Weigel said.

The “deficit of democratic culture” can be further seen in the notable absence of “profiles in courage” in public service, he added, as well as in a lost commitment to truth, reason and sacrifice for the common good.

Weigel said that in order to overcome its dire situation, America should turn to Pope Leo XIII, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as a modern-day Daniel.  

He described Pope Leo XIII as “a kind of public intellectual” who analyzed political modernity through the lenses of faith and reason, and explained that the Pope challenged modern politics to a nobler understanding of law, freedom and justice.

The pontiff also recognized the need for society and private associations, in addition to the state, he added.

By turning to Pope Leo’s writings, Weigel said, we can see the dangerous results of abandoning “the deep truths on which the civilization of the West has been built.”

Ignoring fundamental truths while continuing down a path of selfishness and irresponsibility will dissolve the democracy into a dictatorship of relativism, he cautioned.

Weigel said that 2012 will be a “defining national election” for the future of America.

With help from Pope Leo XIII, he said, “perhaps we can decipher the writing” on the wall and heed its warning to rebuild the foundations of American democracy.

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