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I've heard it said that religion and politics are the two things not to mention in polite company. The following comment will combine the two of them. I apologize, but to make up for my rudeness I will try to keep my comments brief.

There has been a lot of noise made in the past twenty or so years by people on both sides about the place of Christianity in the civil life of my country, The United States of America. This has especially come to a head in the recent administration of Governor Bush, and the ex-Senator from Missouri, John Ashcroft. All arguments about the intentions of our founding fathers, the first amendement, and the separation of church and state aside, what should be pointed out is that the religion nominally embraced by the "character education" crowd, Christianity, has little or nothing to do with their ideas of civic virtue.

Civic virtue, which dates back to the time of Aristotle, is virtue based on the principle of moderation, the Golden Mean. The idea here is that virtue is the application of intelligence to moral situations in such a way that the best result is rationally arrived at. Moderation is in many ways just a utilitarian tool.

The Christian virtues are Charity, Faith and Hope, and for better or worse, these aren't meant to be moderate, and they aren't even very rational. In Christianity, people are all sinners, all equally bad, and all equally good, in the eyes of God. While society may like people educated to be "virtuous" citizens, in the eyes of God, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Ashcroft (even according to their own views of themselves) are just as sinful and dependent on Grace as the worst murderer and rapist. People don't remove their sinful nature through "character education", they have it redeemed through grace.

So Christianity can claim to be many things. It can claim to be the literal word, it can claim to be the only truth, it can claim to be the only way to escape the eternal hellfire, but as I see it, the central teaching of Christianity is not to assure a "prosperous, peaceful society", at least not in this world.

Of course, Christianity is for the most part, only the nominal religion of the "Religious Right" in this nation, and their real religion is Roman State Paganism. In the 13th Century, when Dante, who was a great admirer of the culture of Ancient Rome, wrote the Divine Comedy, he placed the greatest lights of the Greek and Roman pagan world in Hell. He put them in the highest circle of Hell, where they were free from any obvious suffering, but still cut off from the light of Heaven. It would seem that Dante would view a life of "civic virtue" as a hellish one, but one without obvious torments.

For all of the talk of "culture wars", the real "culture war" in this country is not between Christianity and paganisn, but between the paganism of Rome and the paganism of Northern Europe.

I don't profess to know whether our leaders believe in God or are truly "Christian" in any sense of the word, but anyone today who opens their mouth and purports to speak of "virtue" had best understand what the Judeo-Christian tradition has contributed.

Christian "character" education comes through the teachings of "the Law" --the teachings of the five books of the Torah, as interpreted by Jesus in the Gospels-- and the admonitions of "the Prophets". This extremely complex and comprehensive code of conduct cannot validly be reduced to Paul's ascetic virtues (faith, hope and charity) nor his doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. It can be summed up by the Great Commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-40).

"Thou shalt love" (αγαπησεις : agapeseis, the imperative form of agape) is the sum and substance of the Christian virtues. Jesus left no doubt that "agape" was not merely a feeling or a contemplative state, but rather a spirit to be expressed practically in our daily activities, in the tradition of "the law and the prophets". A society founded on "the law and the prophets" is a society in which violent, selfish, and careless urges are everywhere confronted with rules and admonitions to behave with compassion and justice. No amount of perverse biblical literalism can erase the eloquent pleas for social justice by the Prophets:

You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.

Amos 5:11-13.

And so on and so forth for hundreds of pages. These are the Scriptures which live in the work and words of true Christians like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Anyone who doesn't recognize "Christianity" in all of the liberal social reform movements of the past two hundred years simply is not familiar with Scripture, except the easily misunderstood Epistles of Paul.

The "saved by grace through faith" dogma is a Pauline invention, meant to explain Jesus' crucifixion as a sacrifice and address the fear of God's wrath with assurances of God's love of the fallen and disobedient. It does not answer the question, "How should we act?" and it wasn't meant to.

By contrast, the pre-Christian Greeks weren't worried about going to Hell, though Plato tried to introduce that concern in the Republic. The Greeks wanted to know how to be happy. Mostly, they believed happiness was to be sought in activity, in struggle, and Aristotle was no exception.

In Aristotle 's Nichomachean Ethics, σωφροσυν&eta (sophrosune: moderation) is a virtue in its own right, along with bravery, justice, generosity. While "moderation" in the sense avoiding extremes is an important theme in the discussion of ethical virtues, for Aristotle, ethical virtues are not the highest virtues nor even the virtues most conducive to happiness. True and perfect happiness is found in contemplative or intellectual activity, activity undertaken "for itself" and not for the sake of other things. Aristotle does not counsel denying or limiting oneself in the the activities which in themselves constitute happiness. Once you leave the dull world of actions undertaken merely for results (eating to satisfy hunger, drinking to satisfy thirst) notions like "moderation" no longer apply. In the end, Aristotle insists, the whole purpose and aim of military and political activities is to make time for thinking.

While contemplative types have adored Aristotle ever since, this sort of thing didn't sit well with the Romans, and they ditched it for Christianity, shortly after making Greece a Roman province. The Greeks, despite their artistic and philosophical achievements, never came up with a coherent social order, let alone "civic virtue" (which, as two Latin words, betrays a Roman origin).

As for "moderation", it hasn't withstood the test of time as an all-encompassing maxim. Lists of virtues have been popular through the ages, and usually include "temperance" and/or "moderation", though often just in reference to eating and drinking. Consider, for example, the list of virtues which Benjamin Franklin presented in his "Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection" (from his Autobiography). "Moderation" is anger-management: "forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve." But reading Franklin's list of virtues (go on, read it! Here's the link, again) one is reminded of the specifics of the Bible; not the Aristotelian apotheosis and worship of happiness as "thought thinking itself".

Franklin, while he didn't believe Jesus was God, found Christianity useful, in a Machievellian sort of way. He once wrote to a friend:

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and observed; especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers of his government of the world with any peculiar marks of his displeasure.

Scripture itself remains an excellent source of practical wisdom concerning civic virtues, eminently suitable for embarrassing the windbags of tryanny and ignorance. Recent history has provided Virtue with much more vigorous and sane champions, like Voltaire and Franklin. There's really no need to dig up Aristotle's bones and re-arrange them as our Hero of Reason.

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