One of my earliest memories as a small child in the 1950s is listening to a favorite 78 RPM record. On this little piece of yellow vinyl, husband-and-wife cowboy stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans sang:
Have faith, hope and charity,
That’s the way to live successfully.
How do I know?
The Bible tells me so!
Faith, hope and charity are the Apostle Paul’s version of Christian virtue ethics, from the King James Version translation of I Corinthians 13:13. Other translations usually render the third virtue as “love,” and Paul further says that of the three, “love” is the greatest virtue.
I must confess here that all three of these words have much different meanings to me now than even when I was a young adult, and I am now far from being a Biblical literalist. As I have noted in earlier posts, however, the “God language” here is deeply embedded in me, as well in much of the rest of our culture, even among those who rarely see the inside of a church or synagogue. We are all likely influenced by the memes of our childhood much more than we would care to admit.
This “faith, hope and charity” triad falls well into the meta-ethics vector that I have explored in the last couple of posts. It is simple, memorable, and a quite-good summary of Paul’s standard Christian message. The gospel of Luke has Jesus reducing this virtue list down to just two (love God and love your neighbor), as explored in this earlier post about the “Good Samaritan.” And they contrast with, although they are not necessarily incompatible with, Aristotle’s virtue list of courage, justice, prudence and temperance.
The different virtue ethics models, both theological and philosophical, do serve a similar purpose, however, and likely even share the same brain processing area. Using a different part of your brain to exercise metacognition, you mentally step back from the processing of rote rules. You also mentally step back from your “gut” desire to resolve the issue in front of you as expeditiously as possible, and you even put your senses of empathy and compassion on hold for a bit to consider the larger scope of where you are headed. Perhaps, we think, if we can just filter the ethical dilemma at hand through these simple virtues, the “answer” may become more clear among conflicting moral choices.
Even if I don’t buy completely into most religious creeds, what ideas or people do I have faith in? Not so much here as a statement of belief, but rather in its very common Old Testament meaning of trust. In what ethical norms or “heroes” can I place my trust to point me in the best direction when the way forward is murky? In what, or in who, do I have hope for the type of future that I most want for myself and my family? And finally, where is my charity or love priority in this life? These criteria may not be sufficient every time, but this triad sure seems, at least in my thinking, to filter out a lot of bad options and unwise ethical choices.
Maybe the “Cowboy Way” ethic of those old movies and TV shows had some merit. There was oddly always some kind of moral message behind the “good guy” cowboys like Roy Rogers, “righting a wrong” in just thirty minutes of TV time, although there was often a heavy dose of controlled violence and patronizing of the women like Dale Evans (who actually had a more interesting “back story” than her husband). The “good guys” and the “bad guys” were easy to tell apart, and most of us wanted to be the “good guys” when we play-acted the cowboy TV shows as little kids. Obviously, the message of this song, written by Dale Evans, has certainly stuck with me after 60 years.
Many of the old 1950s episodes of The Roy Rogers Show are again available online, which has brought me to a question that has long bothered me. Exactly at what time and what place where these “Cowboy Way” virtue-laden dramas supposed to have taken place?
The anachronisms can drive one crazy. For instance, in what American state was this town, and in what era of American history, where there were no paved streets, and where everyone rode horses except Roy Rogers’ sidekick Pat Brady, who drove an old Willys Jeep? And in this town, all of the telephones were of the old wall-mounted, crank-handle variety, without a dial to be found, let alone the new push-button varieties of the 1950s. Plus, it was a town where every week grown men rode around on those horses shooting at each other, although the bullet wounds were usually superficial to one’s upper arm.
Our childhood moral lessons, it turns out, are full of well-intentioned myth-making, as well as some commercial opportunities. Those “Western” songs sung by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were mostly written by Brill Building songwriters from New York City. And unlike Fess Parker’s noble (and grossly inaccurate) portrayal of the frontiersman Davy Crockett, re-created for us both on television and in Disneyland by Walt Disney, Crockett likely never wore a coonskin cap with a tail like the faux fur hat I owned as a five-year-old. 
That tradition of moral myth-making did not start in the 1950s. King David and King Solomon clearly had great public relations people. That doesn’t invalidate these moral messages and their underlying virtues, but it does tell us to listen to some other words credited to Jesus:
“I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
- A good recent source is Wallis, Michael. David Crockett: the Lion of the West. W.W. Norton, 2012.