There’s a politician recently enmeshed in sexual harassment with whom I once sat at dinner. He offered no reciprocal conversation but instead delivered an hour monologue of quotations from Founding Fathers about God and the Bible. It seemed very odd and also not very interesting, having heard these well known quotes many times before.
Count me increasingly wary of politicians who obsessively advertise their purported religious commitments. Another politician I know who was recently exposed as a sexual predator had self-identified on his Twitter as fore-mostly a Christian. The truly devout politicians whom I’ve known have not felt need to so advertise. Public officials ideally acknowledge they are under a transcendent authority, as did the Founding Fathers, without in public repeatedly claiming great piety for themselves.
The just defeated senatorial candidate in Alabama made a political career out of public piety and “Christian values” without having actually advanced those values meaningfully in public life except to create a caricature of their proponents. Charges of his inappropriate interactions with underage girls when he was in his 30s earned him national notoriety, but some evangelical notables remained supportive. He received strong support from Evangelical voters amid national polls, in sharp contrast with the past, showing Evangelicals no longer esteem personal character in politicians, instead satisfied that agreement on issues is sufficient.
Setting aside whether politicians of dubious character are long term effective advocates for causes important to Evangelicals, is personal probity of itself important for public officials? The Founding Fathers largely thought so, most of whom likely agreed with John Witherspoon, the only clergyman and theologian among them, who said the “people in general ought to have regard to the moral character of those whom they invest with authority either in the legislative, executive, or judicial branches.” Quoting from II Samuel, which cites King David, he also noted, “If we give credit to the holy scriptures, He that ruleth must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” (David of course was confronted by the prophet Nathan over his adultery with Bathsheba: “Thou art the man.”)
Witherspoon articulated historic Christian social teaching, however haphazardly heeded, about the importance of character among civil magistrates. Evangelicals more often than not have stressed the importance of personal morality by public officials and their role in reforming society. Arguably John Wesley’s revivalism was a reaction in part to the low morals of British state and church typified under the long premiership of Robert Walpole, who openly kept a mistress by whom he fathered a child. A statesman friend recalled that Walpole “laughed at and ridiculed all notions of Publick virtue…and thus he was more dangerous to the morals, than to the libertys of his country, to which I am persuaded that he meaned no ill in his heart.”
Wesley’s older brother the Rev. Samuel Wesley was a fierce critic of the prime minister, and John, who was more politically reticent, recalled Samuel had “exposed Sir Robert Walpole and all other evil ministers.” The social and political morals of the later 1700s, after decades of revivalism, are often contrasted with earlier in the century under Walpole. Wesley’s statesman disciple William Wilberforce in this tradition advocated personal and social morality, which included the aim of righteous magistrates who would reform public manners through policy and their own example.
American Evangelicalism continued this expectation of high morals by public officials and, like Wesley, inherited the demand for civic rectitude from the Puritans. In this tradition my predecessor as IRD president the late Diane Knippers, a leader in Evangelical political witness, wrote an editorial calling for President Clinton’s resignation over the Monica Lewinsky affair, a call she certainly would have made of a public official from either party. That Evangelicals would two decades later discount personal character in favor of only policy agreement would have stunned her.
Electoral options of course never offer ideal choices. All candidates, like all voters, fall short. Neither Christians nor other realists can idealize politicians or political movements, which even at their very best offer only a cloudy approximation of earthly justice. But Christians and particularly Evangelicals, if faithful to the best of their traditions and calling, will to the extent within their influence advance the loftiest vision for societal morality led by officials with high character. Christians when faced with unsavory choices shouldn’t deny this reality much less romanticize such choices, instead acknowledging the lamentable tragedy, while praying and working for better options in the future, in God’s own time.
Magistrates of high character may not always talk about God. My experience is to be wary when politicians do. Per II Samuel’s admonition that rulers “must be just, ruling in the fear of God,” public officials may not share our specific theology yet live and govern in deference to the divine order, in pursuit of the common good. This common good assumes human dignity for all, a dignity that just rulers will honor both in their governance and in how they personally treat others.