There is a strong connection between virtue and successful self-government.
What should we laud or lament in the year just ended? Where should we turn our attention in 2011?
One troubling trend, I suggest, dwarfs all others in importance. It's the shrinking influence and declining prestige of religion in our nation today.
Increasingly, Americans see religion as a private matter with little to contribute to public debate -- even on issues with moral dimensions, such as marriage and family, abortion and euthanasia.
In the crusade to banish faith from public life, judges order county courthouses to be stripped of plaques listing the Ten Commandments, and activists attack Christian hospitals that decline to perform abortions.
Our growing distaste for religion springs, in part, from our modern hatred of constraints on our behavior, and from our equating freedom with living exactly as we please. Judeo-Christianity presents an obstacle here.
It holds that there are universal moral truths -- accessible to reason -- that should shape our conduct, and that create obligations to others that require sacrifices we might prefer not to make.
In recent decades, the rise of psychology -- which is replacing religion as a vehicle for understanding what it means to be human -- has greatly facilitated our cherished project of throwing off moral constraints.
Almost 50 years ago, psychologist Philip Rieff spelled out the implications in his seminal book, "The Triumph of the Therapeutic."
Rieff wrote that our society's model for the organization of personality -- our paragon, or character ideal -- has undergone a radical shift. The Christian model of man, he explained, dominant for 1,500 years, has been increasingly replaced by "psychological man" as our society's primary character type.
The "soul" has been replaced by the "self."
Why does this matter? Traditional Christianity, Rieff observed, made great moral demands on believers. Its goal was salvation; consequently, it exhorted believers to "die to self," repent of sin, and cultivate virtue, self-discipline and humility.
Psychological man, however, rejects the idea of sin and the very possibility of truth. He aspires to nothing higher than "feeling good about himself," and sees nothing more at stake in life than what Rieff calls "a manipulable sense of well-being."
While Christian man strives for virtue, says Rieff, psychological man seeks only health, safety and material well-being. While Christian man works to control his impulses, psychological man rushes to release them.
As psychology edges out religion in American life, the language of good and evil is disappearing. As the "self" replaces the "soul," we no longer place priority on cultivating virtue, or see it as possible or even desirable.
The consequences for our personal lives are evident everywhere -- from our crumbling families to our voracious consumerism and our shallow and juvenile popular culture. Increasingly, we aspire to nothing nobler than a big-ticket "entertainment center" in the living room or a Lexus in the garage.
But the growing influence of the psychological model of man also has serious, long-term implications for the health of American democracy. That's because it undercuts a principle at the heart of our nation's founding -- the idea that there is a profound connection between virtue and self-government.
America's founders understood this connection well. They knew that democracy is more than a political arrangement -- it's also a moral and spiritual enterprise.
(This is one reason self-government has been so rare in world history.) To flourish, a democracy requires men and women who are not just conglomerations of desires, but virtuous citizens -- honest, courageous, self-controlled and public-spirited.
A society that takes "psychological man" as its character ideal does not foster citizens of this kind, for honesty, generosity and self-restraint don't come naturally to human beings.
These traits are difficult to acquire, and require suppression or rechanneling of baser human instincts. Only a society with a moral system based on claims of transcendent truth can help its citizens overcome their selfish tendencies, and successfully cultivate virtue.
James Madison, one of American democracy's greatest architects, explained the connection between virtue and freedom this way: "Is there no virtue among us?
If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea."
Today, we Americans take our democracy for granted. But our founders warned that our system of self-government is an experiment, and is not guaranteed to succeed. If we allow the "ordered liberty" they envisioned to degenerate to license -- as our embrace of the psychological model of man makes likely -- our experiment may fail.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.