We hear a lot about “virtue-signalling” these days. The term is new, but the idea is not: its influence on American behavior is as old as the Puritan settlements of New England, from which it spread across the North, into our academic and cultural institutions, and became, in increasingly secular form, the chief feature of a long sequence of social crusades, continuing to this day throughout the West.
Central to the generally Calvinist beliefs of the Puritans was the idea that man was so rotten, so corrupted by sin, that to attain salvation on his own was beyond his power. The only path to Heaven, then, was through genuine faith, and such faith was only available as a contingent gift of God. Just living well wouldn’t do: one might be following God’s law merely for selfish reasons. Only “justification” — the divine act of grace — could be the basis of genuine faith, and of salvation.
That said, justified faith would surely inspire a person to live a Godly life, and so it follows that anyone who does not live such a life is obviously not among the chosen. Given also that it is impossible for anyone truly to know God’s will regarding his or her individual salvation, it makes sense to live as closely as possible to God’s law, and hope for the best.
As Edmund Morgan wrote in his 1966 book The Puritan Family:
Good works, then, however ineffectual to procure salvation, could be evidence of the faith that did procure it. And the desire to see this evidence in their conduct was with the Puritans night and day, driving them to ever greater moral exertions. Of course a “civil” life was no infallible sign of salvation, since it could be produced by external restraints as well as by faith, but an uncivil life was a sure sign of damnation. “If you are heedless of your works,” the Puritan ministers warned their congregations, “if you will live at randome according to your hearts desire you may be sure you are no believer.” Thus every Puritan did his best to obey the laws of God, to be a good citizen, and thus perhaps to bolster faith by concrete evidence of its existence.
A conspicuous act of virtue, then, strengthens hope in one’s own salvation. That it exacts a heavy cost makes it all the more potent.
Which brings us to yesterday’s testimony before Congress by Gina McCarthy, the head of the EPA. Story here.