A Lesson in Virtue From ... Jack Abramoff?

Rules Aren't Enough

John stonestreet

A new Washington scandal reminds me of an old one. And that without virtue, there aren't enough rules to save us from ourselves.

A recent Wall Street Journal article told the story of what is "shaping up to be a sprawling Washington influence scandal." And yet, the person at the heart of the scandal will not serve any time in prison because, tragically, he took his own life shortly after his misdeeds were exposed.

The story of the late Evan Morris promises to be, according to the Wall Street Journal, "one of the biggest U.S. investigations into Washington's influence business since the bribery and corruption case surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff rocked the nation's capital in the mid-2000s."

Reading the story broke my heart, especially for Morris' young family. But it reminded me of what I learned from my own interaction with Jack Abramoff years ago.

Now if you don't recall the Abramoff case, he was, to put it mildly, a high-powered Washington lobbyist. His corruption and bribery investigation led not only to his conviction but to the convictions and/or guilty pleas of twenty-one other people, including two White House employees and a member of Congress.

Abramoff wrote a book describing what he had done and how to really reform the system.

And that's where our paths crossed. Chuck Colson and I spoke with him fresh out of prison. It was one of the last interviews that Chuck and I did together, and I remember remarking at the time how crazy it was to be in on an interview with two people whose names were synonymous with government corruption.

Now, Chuck's personal reformation was beyond question, but I wondered about Abramoff. And it struck me that he didn't come across as particularly evil. On the contrary, he was a devout Orthodox Jew who used much of the money he made in his crimes to fund synagogues.

He didn't set out to be nefarious — he just found a way around the rules and exploited his "cleverness" for personal gain, as well as the benefit of his clients.

I recall noting to Abramoff how, in the aftermath of the scandal, the response of the government was to add more rules and regulations. I then asked him, would they work? Will it keep corruption out of the lobbying process? Without hesitation, he said no, because lobbyists will always find ways to get around regulations.

Chuck agreed, saying that "People don't reform themselves unless they're forced to . . . Either their conscience strikes them, they're driven to repentance out of gratitude for what God has done in their lives and they start doing the right thing, or the law gets them. Free societies depend on that work of the conscience."

We all agreed that "cleaning up American politics would require a consensus among members of all faiths, and a renewed determination to just do the right thing."

The solution to scandals like the Abramoff one and the recent one chronicled in the Wall Street Journal requires more than just rules.

What's needed is "a revolution in the mentality at the heart of our representative government, and a revival of ethics harkening back to the founding ideals of our country." This revival "is the only way to return integrity and sanity to Washington."

It's not that Christians consider rules to be unimportant — of course they're important. But they can't, by themselves, make us moral people. That takes virtue, which is about what happens on the inside, not conformity to external regulations. It's what the late Dallas Willard called a "well-formed heart" or what Edmund Burke called the "moral imagination."

Think about it. Do our educational, governmental, and cultural institutions promote the classical, cardinal virtues, like prudence, self-control, courage, and justice? Is the Church inculcating Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity? It's exactly these questions that Chuck Colson, Robert George, and other leading figures addressed in a DVD video series called "Doing the Right Thing." You can check it out at And we'll also link you to that incredible interview with Jack Abramoff.

Scandals are always part of a fallen world. But a society that fails to cultivate and catechize these virtues in its institutions and in the hearts of its citizens is headed for ruin.

Originally posted at

From BreakPoint. Reprinted with the permission of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. "BreakPoint®" and "The Colson Center for Christian Worldview®" are registered trademarks of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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