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Religion's virtue - Tom Purcell

Ben Franklin wouldn't care for the results of the study. Neither would G.K. Chesterton.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, more Americans have no religion these days -- fewer folks embrace and practice the structure and order that traditional religion can bring.

That's not helpful to a republic.

A republic is a fragile thing. Ours was designed with checks and balances to keep charlatans and rogues, who slip into one branch of our government, from dominating the others.

But here is where our republic is even more fragile: It will survive only if voters are clear-thinking, virtuous and more concerned for their country than their individual wants and needs.

"True religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness," said Ben Franklin. "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."

They have more need for the government to help them pay their mortgages, for instance?

That idea is repulsive to me -- repulsive to my value system, which was shaped by my Catholic upbringing. I was taught kindness and private charity, but I was also taught that it is wrong to take from your neighbor.

My religion articulates well what we all know, deep in our hearts, to be true: that there is good in this world and there is evil, and with every decision we make, we move toward one and away from the other.

My religion says we have free will -- that we are free to choose good or evil -- and that the virtuous path, harder though it generally is, is the right path.

Greek philosophers had names for what is good and virtuous. They believed that prudence, temperance, courage and justice were virtues we all long for and should master.

While we strive to master good, we must root out the bad: excessive pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. These are known as the seven deadly sins (and activities I usually save for the weekend!).

The truth is that most all religions on the planet are in agreement 99 percent of the time. Each celebrates courage, love, kindness and sacrifice. Each detests cowardice, selfishness, sloth and greed.

This is because these concepts weren't invented by religion. They were alive and well long before organized religion came into being. The same concepts are found in Greek mythology.

But that is the point of religion. Its intent is to provide a road map to help us navigate the world -- navigate good and evil and choose the more virtuous path. It is as though we are adjusting a radio dial and trying to tune into the perfect signal -- tune in to beauty and truth. Religion at its best helps us tune in better.

Many religions have their imperfections, but organized religion has done far more good than ill in America. The simple fact is the more folks who freely practice the traditional organized faiths, the better off a republic will be.

Aren't kids who have simple values hammered into them by the nuns at their school more likely to become better citizens? Aren't they more likely to work at being humble and charitable -- more likely to expect nothing from their government but the opportunity to pursue their own happiness?

Traditional religion at its best brings out the best in people -- honesty, dignity, compassion and so on. The more people who work at practicing such qualities, the better off a republic is going to be.

In any event, if traditional religion goes to the wayside, "religion" won't go away. It will simply be practiced in new forms. That brings us to G.K. Chesterton.

"When people stop believing in God, it's not that they believe in nothing," said Chesterton, "it's that they believe in ANYTHING."

At the same time they believe the biblical concepts of eternal damnation are silly and outmoded, they demand that their government stop man from causing the oceans to rise before an enraged Mother Earth wipes the lot of us off the planet!

Then, they vote for the candidate who promises them salvation.

Tom is a humor columnist nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail him at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.