Back in 1997, Character Above All, the first of two volumes on US Presidents, was published. It featured essays about ten Presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush. Essayists included presidential biographers Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and David McCullough, journalists Richard Reeves and Tom Wicker, and former presidential speechwriters Hendrik Hertzberg and Peggy Noonan. The basic premise of the book, simply, was that character is central to a successful presidency.
But what is character? I suppose most people would expect a Christian to talk about moral rectitude in describing it. And certainly, Christians believe in aiming at living moral lives.
But many will be mistaken about why Christians seek to be moral. They'll think that Christians seek to be moral in order to win "salvation points," as though earthly life is about compiling enough virtuous acts to impress a God wary of admitting any of us into His Kingdom. That's not the case at all.
As we've already discussed in previous installments of this series, Christians are aware that they, like the rest of the human race, are sinners. We believe that our relationship with God has nothing to do with our behavior. Instead, it has everything to do with what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Christ has done everything to make those who believe in Him acceptable to heaven. When a person comes to believe--or trust--in Christ, several things happen:
- By God's grace, we receive forgiveness and the new, everlasting life that Christ's death and resurrection have bought for us.
- The Holy Spirit sets to work on reconstructing us from the inside out, showing us where our characters and relationships need repair and renewal.
- Out of gratitude for God's gracious acceptance of us, we're motivated to pray, "Your will be done." The Spirit empowers us to see and to do God's will, facilitating the process called sanctification. By this lifelong process, we're helped to live differently in this life and prepared for the one to come.
This is why Christians can be forgiving of the frailties and imperfections exhibited by political leaders. Jesus teaches us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." He also warns us that if we're unwilling to forgive others, the forgiveness that He offers as a free gift to those who come to God in His Name will be blocked. We can't ask God to overlook our imperfections as people if we're not willing extend this same charity to others. Christians who are overly concerned about the morality of political leaders, engaging in gotcha games, exhibit the same hollow religiosity that the Pharisees of Jesus' time showed. Remember, he called them "whitewashed tombs," appearing to be morally incorruptible on the outside, but filled with sin on the inside. Self-righteousness leads to arrogance and harsh judgments. The righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ leads to humility and charity.
Yet, I do think that character should be among the factors Christians should weigh in deciding for whom they will vote in 2008. Or in any election, for that matter.
Here's what I believe character is: A lifetime journey toward both integrity and wholeness in our relationships. (For a Christian, the relationships include both God and other people.)
People of character haven't always and don't always do the right thing. But they're committed to making midcourse corrections their entire lives in order to make their journey to integrity and whole relationships.
George Washington, America's greatest president, was revered in his lifetime because of his character. He exhibited this very tendency to making corrections in his life. As a young soldier in the French and Indian War, hungry for glory, he undertook an unnecessarily risky military operation that subjected his men to slaughter. Others, in similar circumstances, would have arrogantly defended their actions and flung mud at their detractors. But Washington learned from his mistake. That's a sign of character.
During the 1884 election, it was alleged that Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland, then single, had fathered an illegitimate child. Cleveland accepted responsibility for the child and revealed that he was supporting its mother. The revelation didn't torpedo his candidacy. He received kudos for his honesty and was elected.
In April, 1961, John Kennedy allowed the CIA and a group of Cuban exiles to go forward with an assault on Cuba's Bay of Pigs. The US role was to have been a secret. Our military was to provide no support to the exile fighters as they sought to topple dictator Fidel Castro. After the exiles were slaughtered, Kennedy regretted the entire operation. He went on national television and took complete personal blame. His approval ratings went up.
In my posts on Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, I trace the evolution of his character. It too was characterized by a process of learning, re-orientation, repentance, accepting blame, and learning the greatness of humility.
Conversely, presidential candidates and presidents have been hurt by what seemed like lack of character. Gary Hart, an undeniably intelligent and gifted person, was eliminated from consideration for the presidency in 1988, not because he had a dalliance with a woman on board a boat called The Monkey Business, but because people perceived a pattern of monkey business in his character. Fairly or not, they reasoned that a man who was so inconsistent in keeping his commitments to his wife might be inconsistent in keeping his commitments to the country.
And I share in the widespread belief that if Richard Nixon had gone on TV in June, 1972, to acknowledge the connection between the Watergate burglars and his Committee to Re-Elect the President, his presidency would have been saved. Instead, the ensuing cover-up revealed a pattern of paranoia, deceit, and dirty tricks. What brought Nixon down more than anything was a character moving in the wrong direction, Nixon's extraordinary talents notwithstanding.
Character does matter.
A prime Biblical example of a leader with character is King David. Israel's greatest king, the Bible describes David as "a man after God's heart." But he was also a murderer and an adulterer.
Yet even after his sins and crimes, David was forgiven by God and by Israel. He was allowed to continue as king of Israel. That's because David repented for his sins. After a horrible "fall," he resumed his lifetime journey in the direction of integrity and wholeness in his relationships.
Now, if you think that repentance is four weeks at a rehab center, designed not to change a life, but to rehabilitate a bad public image, you haven't caught what Biblical repentance is. It's far more than saying, "I'm really, really, really, really sorry."
In the Old Testament, the word for repentance has the meaning of turning to walk toward God after having made the mistake of turning away from Him. The repentant person does a U-Turn away from sin.
In the New Testament, the most common word for repentance means to change one's mind. Biblical repentance isn't about embarrassment over one's wrongs followed by a maudlin statement of contrition; it revolves around a desire to live in a right relationship with God and others. It involves a commitment to change directions so that one more the repentant person is walking toward integrity and wholeness in relationships.
David's prayer of repentance is Psalm 51 in the Old Testament. It shows what repentance is, as well as the confidence that a believer in the God of the Bible has:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.Of course, candidates who display patterns of behavior that indicate blindness to the need for integrity in leaders, candidates who repeatedly make the same moral mistakes, ought to be eliminated from consideration for any public office. But it would be wrong to demand the perfection of others that we ourselves can't attain.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
When Christians consider who they should vote for to be their President, it's good to ask, "Is this imperfect man or woman the type of person committed to taking the long journey in the right direction? Is he or she committed to learning from his or her mistakes?"
Such a candidate of character will be worthy of our consideration.