Ross Douthat: “The persistent advantages of private virtue…”

As follow up on my review of Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart” here’s an interesting observation by Ross Douthat writing in the NYT on what he calls the “persistent advantages of private virtue.” He writes:

Finally, Murray makes a very convincing case — one that I don’t think his more deterministic critics, Frum included, have done enough to reckon with — for the power of so-called “traditional values” to foster human flourishing even in economic landscapes that aren’t as favorable to less-educated workers as was, say, the aftermath of the Treaty of Detroit. Even acknowledging all the challenges (globalization, the decline of manufacturing, mass low-skilled immigration) that have beset blue collar America over the last thirty years, it is still the case that if you marry the mother or father of your children, take work when you can find it and take pride in what you do, attend church and participate as much as possible in the life of your community, and strive to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity, you are very likely to not only escape material poverty, but more importantly to find happiness in life. This case for the persistent advantages of private virtue does not disprove more purely economic analyses of what’s gone wrong in American life, but it should at the very least complicate them, and suggest a different starting place for discussions of the common good than the ground that most liberals prefer to occupy. This is where “Coming Apart” proves its worth: Even for the many readers who will raise an eyebrow (or two) at Murray’s stringently libertarian prescriptions, the story he tells should be a powerful reminder that societies flourish or fail not only in the debates over how to tax and spend and regulate, but in the harder-to-reach places where culture and economics meet.

(You can read the rest here.)

Churches and other religious communities are often filled with men and women of good will who want to help the poor. Typically this is understood in primarily—if not exclusively—material terms.

But for a variety of reasons, churches are not particular well equipped to provide much in the way of long-term direct material or financial assistance. They often can, and do, provide short term assistance but beyond that they usually don’t have the resources.This isn’t to say that churches can’t, or shouldn’t, do more. It is rather to simply acknowledge what seems to be true on the ground at least here in America.

Together with other social scientists Murray argues that it is “private virtue” (to use Douthat’s phrase) which is most effective in lifting people out of poverty. And it is here, as communities that foster virtue, that churches can offer the most effective, long-term assistance to those in need.

Unfortunately, whatever their personal views, most laypeople and even most clergy are liberal or progressive in their thinking. By this I mean that many of us—whether clergy or lay, Christian or not—are uncomfortable with suggesting that the poor are poor because of a lack of virtue. It sounds too much to our secularized ears like blaming the poor for their poverty.

And yet, if Murray and others are correct, without formation in the virtuous life all the direct and indirect aid in the world will not life the poor out of poverty. While it is often the case that the poor are poor because of circumstance outside their control, moving out of poverty is something that they can do, especially if churches provide them with broad social support that often lack.

To be successful in helping the poor in this way, however, means that churches must welcome the poor into our midst and not simply write a check or send a youth group on a short term “ministry experience.” If the Epistle of St James in any indication this has never been as easy for Christians as we imagine it is.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • Dalesideas

    If you are interested in Murray’s book and its implications, Ross Douthat and his co-author Reihan Salam did a more thorough job on some aspects of it in their 2008 work Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. It has less of the statistical detail than Murray’s book but it is as powerful in its own way

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