We all sense that the current crisis in our nation is more than just a passing bit of social unrest. The anger legitimately directed at racism and police brutality has somehow morphed into an indiscriminate rejection of the past, a desire to sever us from all that came before. Thus the vandalism and toppling of statues of the Founding Fathers, Christopher Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant – and Stevie Ray Vaughn (is nothing sacred?!).
This renunciation might seem all-of-a-sudden to many people. In fact, it’s been prepared for years by bad education and, even more, the erosion and weakening of that foundational virtue, piety.
By piety I mean reverence for the people, wisdom, principles, and institutions that precede us and have shaped who we are. Piety looks to our parents: Honor your father and your mother. It extends to our community, town, and country. Most of all it looks to God – to the Source of all life and good. And this looking back to sources contains a blessing for the future: Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land the Lord your God is giving you. (Ex 20:12)
Piety is the virtue that inclines us to receive instruction from those who have gone before us. We regard them as having some wisdom to teach us, not only about this world but the next. Piety disposes us to be taught.
The piety of Israel is heard in the Psalmist’s words:
We have heard with our ears, O God,
our fathers have told us the story
of the things you did in their days,
you yourself in days long ago. (Ps 44:1)
The people of Israel were pious – they looked to receive the truth from their fathers. Saint Augustine echoed this in his words, Happy are we if we do the deeds of which we have heard and sung. For the Christian, the model is Jesus Christ Himself, who in his sacred humanity was pious towards his parents and his people’s traditions.
But piety is first of all a natural virtue. The Romans prized it highly. To drive home its importance, Virgil repeatedly refers to Rome’s founder as pious Aeneas. In fact, one scene from the Aeneid serves as a great summary of piety’s importance for a nation. As the Greeks are sacking Troy, Aeneas salvages what he can from the city. He hoists his aged father on his shoulder and, taking his son by the hand, leads them out of the city.
That is, he brings with him both the wisdom of the past and the promise of the future. That image is perhaps a first-century anticipation of Edmund Burke’s observation: “Society is a contract between the past, the present and those yet unborn.” Piety draws from the past to provide for the future.
As the Romans intuited, piety is essential for a free people. Ordered liberty requires something that comes from beyond it – beyond present trends, or control by the state; an order that reaches beyond the present to give future generations more than mere government can provide.
We live in an impious culture, which if it will not change will not long be free. For us the past has nothing to teach; only the present matters. Wisdom is discounted; only technology is worthwhile. We are increasingly cut off from the examples of our flawed but noble past. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote about such impiety: We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. Likewise, we refuse to receive the wisdom of our founders and wonder at our current confusion.
I’m not an old man, but I remember a line in political discussions, “What would the Founding Fathers think?” It served as either a powerful rebuke or legitimate question. Today it would be just a quaint suggestion – that those 18thcentury men might have anything to teach us . . . or that their writings and our founding documents might wisely impose some restraint on us.
Our culture celebrates impiety as liberation from outdated ideas or constraints. Our celebrities traffic in it for laughs and to burnish their “woke” credentials. The more dismissive of the past, the more woke you are.
In fact, all that impiety does is leave us vulnerable to whatever ideological virus is in the air. The impious are fickle – rootless, unprincipled, chasing after novelties. Having nothing stable, they have nothing to give the descendants they will not have. They are history’s orphans: no patrimony to receive or to bestow.
It’s not the impious who are free but the pious. Those tethered to the wisdom of the past are not seduced by ideologies or panicked by demagogues. Piety prompts a reverence for the rule of law rather than an arrogant or casual dismissal of it. What is more, devotion to lasting principles means the pious have something to contribute. They have materials from which to build. Piety thus serves as the necessary foundation for reform, which is why two of our greatest reformers – Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. – rooted themselves in Christianity and our nation’s founding.
Most of all, religious piety contributes to a free society. Religion has been the bearer of wisdom, both human and divine, throughout the ages. Faithful people are pious people. Their piety extends, yes, to the goodness of their nation – but also and more importantly to the wisdom bestowed by the devotion of centuries and millennia.
Their piety emancipates them from slavery to the ideas, trends, rulers, and mobs of the here and now. The pious have the capacity to judge rightly even their own rulers because they have received the wisdom of the past. Such people bear within themselves something of eternity itself.
May we be a pious people that revere the best of our nation’s founding and principles – but more importantly that reveres the eternal truths to judge rightly here and now. May we be like Aeneas – carrying with us, out of the wreckage, the wisdom of the past with a view to bestowing it on the future.
(This article is based on the address given at the 2016 Acton Institute Annual Dinner.)
*Image: Aeneas Carrying [his father] Anchises by Carle van Loo, 1729 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]