ALEXANDRIA, La. – The citizens of a democratic republic get the leaders they deserve because, after all, they choose them. Elected officials, then, are merely a reflection of the majority of those who voted to place them into office.
In the wake of sex scandals involving President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, the mantra among many in society became, “Character does not matter when it comes to political leaders.”
Those who espoused this view insisted that private behavior has no bearing on public leadership.
Many in the American electorate bought the premise that leaders can privately be selfish, greedy, dishonest and even perverted, all the while making altruistic decisions that are in the best interests of those who elected them to office.
Believing someone can be vile in private while virtuous in public has resulted in a U.S. Congress with an approval rating, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, that currently stands at 12 percent. Additionally, a 2012 Gallup poll found that politicians were among the least trusted professionals in America.
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” observed Benjamin Franklin. What one of America’s most well-known founders understood is that a truly virtuous people would elect as leaders those individuals who possessed integrity and virtue.
While definitions and understandings of virtue and integrity may abound, I recently heard a simple explanation offered by Bob McEwen. The former U.S. Congressman from Ohio spoke at an event I attended and he shared that integrity and virtue consist of two concepts, morality and character.
“Morality is not engaging in behavior that is wrong,” according to McEwen. Though many in contemporary America reject the authority of the Bible, it does contain prohibitions that our society embraces. Stealing, murder, lying and infidelity are still viewed as behaviors that are wrong.
Moral people, simply put, sincerely seek to not do that which is wrong. Morality is good and noble. However, according to McEwen, integrity and virtue require more than morality. In order to be considered a person of integrity, a person of virtue, one must also pursue character.
“Character is doing that which is right,” McEwen said. It is not just enough to not do wrong. A person must do what is right.
McEwen said that if your child came home and told you the kids at school were calling a little girl names and added that he or she did not participate in the name calling, you would be happy. Your child did not do something wrong. He or she acted morally.
But a question remains, McEwen said: Did your child do what is right? Did he or she exhibit character by standing up for the little girl?
The two wings of morality and character are necessary for integrity and virtue to take flight. Both concepts are required. “You can’t do what is right if you are at the same time doing what is wrong,” McEwen said.
If Americans do not start electing men and women of integrity, people of virtue, who care more about the condition of the country than about their own fortunes, I fear the future of the United States is bleak.
In order for Americans to start electing people of virtue, it will require the realization that the electorate is the real problem, not those who have been elected. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” is famous line from the comic strip character Pogo created by Walt Kelly.
Those who occupy elected positions are nothing more than a reflection of the majority of people who voted for them. If we don’t like what we see, we must start with our own integrity and then select and elect those who represent our morals and our character.
Recent developments in New York City might be a glimmer of hope that some citizens are coming around.
Anthony Weiner, a candidate in the New York City mayoral race, has plunged in the polls as a result of revelations he has engaged in at least three online affairs since resigning from Congress for the same sin. His actions have included explicit conversations and lewd photos shared with women, despite the fact that he is married and has a child.
Weiner’s behavior is so perverse that it has gotten the attention of some New York voters. As a result, quite a few are saying enough is enough. Some are saying they are not going to vote for a man void of morals and bereft of character.
I have a voting litmus test for those who want to excuse the behavior of politicians like Weiner and still maintain that elected leaders don’t need morality and character.
First, would you be comfortable leaving your daughter or your wife alone with the candidate for an extended period of time? Second, would you buy a used car from them? If you can’t answer either question with an unqualified yes, perhaps you should consider another candidate.
“The States [the government] are as the men are; they grow out of human character,” observed Plato. It is past time for integrity and virtue to matter again.
If our elected officials are to possess morality and character, the attributes must first be embraced by the electorate.
“Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” said John Adams, America’s second president. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)