In 1748, the French philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, anonymously published his opus The Spirit of Laws. Two years later, Thomas Nugent published the initial English translation. This work, from where the term “separation of powers” first appeared, greatly influenced our Founding Fathers.
Montesquieu outlined three essential forms of government – Despotism, Monarchy and Republic – each dependent on one vital and defining character trait among its citizens. Under despotism, it’s fear. In a monarchy, it’s honor. But in a republic, Montesquieu maintains, those governed must be disposed to nothing less than virtue. Our Founding Fathers understood this. They possessed high expectations of both their new country as well as its citizens.
Oddly enough, the nation’s forebears did not see it as the role of government to imbue virtue upon its citizens. Rather, they expected the people to embrace virtue of their own volition. Nothing said this more than Benjamin Franklin’s answer to a woman who asked what type of government the Constitutional Convention had agreed upon. Franklin’s terse response: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
So, how do we attain the virtue necessary to continue to earn our freedom? Well, in the time of our nation’s birth, people learned the axioms of virtue from a combination of the pulpit and the classics. One then honed and tested virtue in the course of honest public debate.
Today, we continue to rely on religious institutions to inculcate our society with virtuous ideals. For me, this takes me back to my elementary school religious education. While the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule of course helped, the Beatitudes intrigued me most. I remember the nuns teaching our class to memorize them prior to receiving our First Holy Communion. Now, I’m not rightly sure how my seven-year old brain worked, but I pretty much liked the idea of using the Beatitudes as my axiom for virtue. I figured they were all pretty straight-forward.
For example, from “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” I realized the importance of being humble. Likewise came such character demands as appreciation, obedience, a sense of justice and the courage to uphold it, forgiveness, honor and friendship. But it was with the last one where I lacked the experience to interpret and queried the kindly sister to help me by giving me an example.
“Simple,” she responded, “remember when the Romans persecuted the Christians?”
I sullenly thanked her, disappointed this would forever stay the one Beatitude I could never live up to. “Who in America persecutes anyone for their religion?” I thought. My small boy understanding naively wished I could have been born in ancient Rome, just so I could live up to this final beatitude.
We cannot say today’s civic organizations offer the same opportunity to teach virtue like they did in the days of George Washington. As society adopts a greater acceptance of amorality, fewer and fewer laic establishments risk teaching virtue. Sure, our athletics programs teach sportsmanship, but not the whole of virtue. Yes, our secondary schools help develop knowledge and technical understanding, but legal restraints prevent them from discussing doing so within the milieu of virtue. And let’s not even speak of colleges and businesses, where ethics often seems an elective, a pre-requisite to nothing. Only one secular institution remains today where virtue endures as a vital component – Scouting.
Scouting doesn’t displace other secular institutions, but it does enhance them. That’s why you often see a Boy Scout uniform beneath the high school sports uniform. That’s why you see the Boy Scout motto behind the disciplined success of some of our most well-rounded academic successes. That’s why you see the Boy Scouts among the more creative musicians, actors and artists in various high school productions.
Of course, scouting means much more than all this to me. Scouting helped me achieve something I thought impossible.
You see, a few years ago I had the honor of representing scouting at an elementary school open house. It was actually pretty cool. We had the boys dress up for a War of 1812 skit – something they had just learned about in school. They had everything, uniform costumes, tents – they even carried fake muskets and wrapped themselves in fake bandages. At the end of the evening, the principal of the school came up to me and said, “You know, someone just came up to me and said he was going to sue us because you are here.”
“Why?” I pleaded, a little bit shocked. “Was it because our boys carried those toy guns?”
“No,” calmly replied the principal. “It’s because the Boy Scouts believe in God.”
I couldn’t believe it. After all this years, I finally earned my stripes on that last Beatitude!