It requires a virtuous citizenry to make a democratic government work.
The great project of Socrates and Plato in Athens 400BC was the inculcation of that virtue necessary for their experiment in democracy to work and not fall into mere self interest. Politics is the good man doing the right thing, even if it is against his own self-interests.
This posture by Socrates/Plato was in direct opposition to the Sophists, rhetoricians who taught the skill of persuasion unyoked to the eternally good, true and beautiful. For them, such things were unsure and therefore of no ultimate value in the “real” world of politics and commerce. They taught others the skill of how to persuade others to do things their way.
This is the perversion of democracy, its downside, its Achilles Heel. For if a democratic society is splintered into mere interest groups, each of whom only seek their own interests, then there can be no true polis, no true city.
The only way that this perversion can be checked is if virtuous people are voting. The state cannot make people virtuous but it depends on people who love the good.
For Socrates it was philosophy to the rescue. Teach others to see that the good, the true and the beautiful were not matters of taste and preferences. They are real entities which can be discerned by the mind, only if men would recognize that the things of this world are temporary and passing, only shadows on a cave wall.
Translated into the 21st century, this is the contribution of the church. While we know that we travel to a city whose builder and maker is God and that the City of Man passes away, yet we also know that the world we live in has not become nothing and fulfills no purpose in God’s plan. We know that it is a godly means to create order and justice so that citizens can live quiet lives of peace.
It is just here that it seems the vision of the church has faded. Are we producing good people who love the good? I don’t even think that is on the table for discussion in most churches. We are interested in compassion understood as giving alms, forgiveness, mercy – all of which are biblical values and at the core of the biblical message and world view.
But I do not think the church hits the note of virtue. The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith alone, as necessary and first order as it is, becomes in my circles the only note struck, the only bell rung. We glory in how far a sinner can go and yet still be rescued by God. But we have forgotten the life of virtue that makes a man a good man. Even this is hard for a Protestant to say. Because of the radical nature of the evangelical evaluation of the human condition we distrust any paradigm which speaks of the good man. For all our righteousness is as filthy rags, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us. This certainly says something that needs to be said. But it doesn’t say all that needs to be said.
The church should be an instrument productive of virtue and good living, where a revived and restored people go out into the market place of ideas and propound the blessings of good living and godly virtue – the life of self control, faithfulness, responsibility, work, marriage vow keeping, etc.
I would commend to you the reading of Peter Kreeft’s book Back to Virtue and After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by NT Wright.
When the church lives in a revived condition, much as happened during the First and Second Great Awakenings, society is transformed. Men and women spill out of churches into a corrupt and troubled world and bring order and love to the moral confusion and sloppy living of a lost culture. In America this is our hope. Our hope is not the political process itself. It has no power to make a man a good man. God can make a bad man a good man.
This is our hope. This is the way. Socrates’ vision was the right vision. Jesus made the vision possible.