Character and Civics

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Credit: Wikipedia

The economy is booming.  There is genuine hope for a diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and North Korea.  Pressure is mounting on Iran to come clean about its nuclear ambitions.  And the President of the United States is embroiled in a controversy over whether or not campaign finance laws were violated when his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid an adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, $130,000 during the closing days of the 2016 election to, ostensibly, keep her quiet about an affair she now claims to have had with Mr. Trump in 2006.

If the accusations against President Trump are true, this episode is morally disquieting – and not just because campaign finance laws were potentially broken.  Not only that, the responses to this episode are themselves morally disquieting.  Many who are opposed to the president see this episode as a convenient way to defeat a political enemy.  The moral turpitude of what has allegedly happened is merely a pretext for a political power grab.  Many others who are aligned with the president are quick to cast the allegations against him as nothing more than a witch hunt.  Even if they suspect the charges might be true, they calculate that sexual immorality is a small – and, I would add, historical – price to pay for the power of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Whatever your political proclivities, these accusations present Christians with much to ponder.  On the one hand, it is important for us to remember that character still matters in our leaders.  All the way back in the sixteenth century, Niccolo Machiavelli famously argued that political leaders do not need actual virtue.  They simply need to project the appearance of virtue:

It’s seeming to be virtuous that helps; as, for example, seeming to be compassionate, loyal, human, honest, and religious.[1]

This is nonsense.  Appearing to be virtuous while not actually being virtuous is, plainly and simply, hypocrisy – a sin that Jesus fiercely and consistently condemns.  Hypocrisy in virtue is not only immoral; it also is dangerous.  If a person cannot lead himself by cultivating in himself basic virtues, he will struggle to lead others as well as he could.  Self-leadership is a necessary prerequisite for other-leadership.

This is certainly not to say that our leaders need to be perfect – no leader is, has been, or ever will be.  But it is certainly preferable that our leaders be self-aware.  Self-awareness cultivates both humility and curiosity – humility over how one has fallen short and curiosity about how one can grow in competence and character.

At the same time it is necessary to encourage character in our leaders, it is also important demand character in ourselves.  A critical part of personal character development, according to Jesus, is to carefully consider our own shortcomings before we concern ourselves with the iniquity of others.  Jesus explains it like this:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  (Matthew 7:3-5)

Notice that Jesus does not prohibit holding others accountable for their specks of sin, but He first wants us to hold ourselves accountable for our own planks of peccancy.  Understanding and addressing our own struggles with sin gives us both wisdom and empathy to help others in their tussles with transgression.

Over the years, as I have watched the dialogue that unfolds during scandals involving the character of our public officials, I have come to suspect that at least a segment of our population doesn’t care too much about helping the people involved.  Instead, it only cares about maximizing the power it has.  Depending on one’s political preferences, maintaining or overturning the power this or that politician becomes the driving and deciding factor in how some people respond to any given moral crisis.  When this happens, we’re not really defending our politicians, even if we like them, or honoring them, as the Bible instructs.  We’re simply using them.  And that’s a character crisis in us that, though it may not make the headlines, should certainly serve as food for thought in our hearts.

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[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Tim Parks, trans. (New York:  Penguin Books, 2009).

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