Does personal virtue matter for those who hold public political office?
I ask this question specifically to evangelical Christians, in part because I am one, and in part because there is evidence that between 2011 and 2016 we have taken a U-turn on our answer. Note this quote from the linked article:
In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals said that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Now, 72 percent say so — a far bigger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.
Is that U-turn justified (were we wrong in 2011) or have we lost some sense of our moral bearing and stand in need of correction?
I will answer that question in 3 parts. First, what is the connection between personal virtue and public justice in the general citizenry? Second, does that principle also apply to leaders and those who hold public office? Third, does this hold up from what we know from Scripture?
What is the connection between personal virtue and public justice?
J. Brian Benestad, in his chapter in Five Views on Church and Politics, argues that personal virtue is critical for political justice. His argument is focused on the relationship between the church and the political world and so he is primarily concerned with the personal virtue of believers who are engaging the political process.
Benestad’s argument also applies to the general citizenry of a nation. He bases his argument on Augustine, who taught that “the attainment of justice in a political community depends on the presence of justice in the souls of individuals” (186).
Just laws, of course, are critical to justice, but even just laws cannot restrain evil people from doing wrong. Or, to put it as Benestad does: “People with disorder in their souls will not be inclined to give others their due” (186). Disordered souls lead to disordered society. Benestad goes on to explain the interrelationship between personal vice and public injustice by quoting Aquinas:
“But the principle of morals are so interrelated to one another that the failure of one would entail the failure in others. For example, if one were weak on the principle that concupiscence [lust] is not to be followed, which pertains to desire, then sometimes in pursuing concupiscence, he would do injury and violate justice.”
By contrast, a society where virtue is practiced (a “rightly ordered soul”) will still have just laws but would also not have much need of their enforcement so those who practice virtue will naturally practice public justice.
In evangelical circles, this argument is simply taken for granted. It is used by many to argue against more stringent gun laws. The problem, it is said, is in people’s hearts and laws cannot change hearts. Therefore, gun laws will be ineffective. If guns cannot be used, another weapon can be found. There’s a merit to this argument, even though it oversimplifies the problem and downplays the interplay between public justice and personal virtue. Indeed, Benestad also expounds on the way in which just laws both restrain evil and contribute to the virtue of the citizenry. The relationship between laws and virtue is not merely one-directional. A just society should have both just people and, given that we live in a fallen world, just laws, which can restrain evil even when personal virtue is absent.
My main point here is merely to say that there is a close connection between personal virtue and public justice.
Do these principles also apply to elected officials?
First, in a Democracy, political leaders are also citizens, also under the rule of law, and therefore also under the principles described by Augustine and Aquinas above.
Second, political leaders are the ones primarily responsible with creating and applying laws. They will have a disproportionate influence on whether those laws are just or unjust and whether those laws will be applied fairly or not.
Third, political leaders are an example – for better or worse – to the general citizenry. Leaders who demonstrate pride, falsehood, petulance, greed, etc. will see those same characteristics mimicked by those they lead.
Does this hold up with what we see in Scripture?
First, we see this in the patterns of the kings of Israel. Weak or wicked kings led to weakness and wickedness in Israel and Judah. Good kings were able to lead the people in reform – even if short-lived.
Second, the oft cited example of David as the exception to this is not quite as strong as it may seem. David’s personal transgressions with Bathsheba and Uriah led to disasters for Judah, not just in his lifetime, but for generations to come. When David was at his best he exemplified contrition, justice, and communion with God, but at his worst I don’t think he’s a terribly good example of who we should elect to public office.
Third, this seems to fit with the rest of Scripture including warnings in Proverbs against foolish kings, the example of John the Baptist’s experience with Herod, and the descriptions of rulers and authorities in Revelation who come against the people of God.
Finally, is this a veiled attack on Donald Trump?
I don’t want this to be a sort of passive aggressive attack on our President, implying things, but not just coming out and saying what I think. For clarity and fairness I will be explicit in what I am and am not saying here.
First, most importantly I want us to see the principle, and then apply it fairly, including to those who are “on our team” politically. It applies to President Trump, and to other political leaders, liberal and conservative.
Second, there are maybe three categories of ways in which people respond to President Trump. Based on my Facebook and Twitter feeds some see him as a genuinely virtuous person, a righteous warrior of sorts. They believe that he is unfairly maligned by the media and liberals. While I think that there have been many instances where his political enemies have been unfair to him, in my estimation, he is clearly his own worst enemy. His Twitter feed – that he himself writes – is enough to show serious issues of character and “disorder in the soul.” I would challenge those who want to paint Trump as virtuous to spend time listening to what he says and writes: Out of the mouth (or the Twitter feed) we can know what is in someone’s heart.
There are also those who are appalled at what Trump says and does but feel they are painted into a corner because there is a greater threat on the other side. This post isn’t about those who feel this way. There’s another discussion to be had about that, but it’s not this post.
Finally, though, I am concerned about the sizeable group of evangelicals who in 2011 saw a close connection between personal virtue and public justice and then changed their mind in 2016. Based on the poll cited above, this is not a small number. I am concerned that in an effort to “win” politically, we have “lost” some sense of our moral bearing. Indeed, I have seen many evangelicals downplay sin and its effects, and even take up the same brash and vulgar language of President Trump, mimicking both his attitude and speech patterns. Frankly, this causes me to grieve for the state of the American evangelical church. I even feel a certain sense of abandonment and loneliness in this regard, a sense of being left behind, of desertion.
I continue to have hope for the evangelical church in America because I believe that where God’s people are gathered in Jesus’s name, the Spirit is present. That Spirit will continue to sanctify us. We should, of course, be most concerned about our own personal virtue. As God’s people, may we set the example of sanctification and love, of holiness and justice to our neighbors.