In a president, character is everything,” wrote former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. “A president doesn’t have to be brilliant; Harry Truman wasn’t brilliant, and he helped save Western Europe from Stalin. He doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever. …You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks,” Noonan said. “But you can’t buy courage and decency, you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him.”
The first days of a new administration are a good time to recall that throughout history, Americans have understood that character matters. George Washington explained that our government couldn’t survive without it. Character, he said, was the “surest pledge of wise policy.”
Our culture no longer nurtures the character required for republican government. Hence, the need for God’s people to be involved.
Our particular form of government presupposes a moral people. It assumes that we will exercise self-control. It’s based on the notion — shared by all our founders — that to enjoy the freedom of a self-governing society, we must be citizens of sound character.
The founders, no doubt, were informed by the Apostle Paul, who explained that everyone, regardless of what they believe about God, instinctively knows His law. It’s hardwired into us, Paul explained, part of the reality that’s woven into the fabric of creation. People know right from wrong (Romans 2:14-15).
By that general revelation, Americans commonly understood that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). We acknowledged our “deceitful desires” and lamented the fact that we were far from perfect (Ephesians 4:22-24).
But by 1945, our thinking began to change. The New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his book “The Road to Character,” explains that the world had suffered through 16 years of deprivation. After the Great Depression and the devastation of World War II, people had had enough self-control. They’d heard enough about sin and depravity, too. Pushing aside the horrors of the Holocaust and war, Brooks said, they shifted from a culture of self-control to one that was ready to “cut loose.”
Self-restraint gave way to self-love, self-praise, and self-acceptance. America sped toward a “culture of authenticity,” said philosopher Charles Taylor, where the self is to be trusted, not doubted and where, said Brooks, “Your desires are like inner oracles for what is right and true; where the valid rules of life are those you make for yourself.”
Our Judeo-Christian values once informed us, “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). But, today, says Taylor, we heed that “pure inner voice” inside us. Where we once accepted, “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool…” (Proverbs 28:26), Brooks says we’re now encouraged to live lives that are right for me and me alone.
To fail in this is to “miss the point of my life; to miss what being human is for me.”
When our government was conceived, it was understood that “each person is tempted when he is enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). Today, “you have to love yourself and be true to yourself.” In this culture, “you’re never to doubt yourself and struggle against yourself.”
In our old character-driven culture, we relied on our shared sense of morality to curb the passions of fallen humanity. In today’s authenticity-driven culture, what’s moral for you may not be moral for me. Government, therefore, has no basis for restraining the passions of its citizens. So naturally, our culture no longer nurtures the character required for republican government.
Hence, the need for God’s people to be involved. Authors Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, in their book “The City of God,” remind us that we must never politicize the Christian faith; at the same time, we can’t ignore the need for moral action. And in today’s political climate, it’s our laws that create the moral framework for our nation. Laws define boundaries for our community, they spell out the duties we owe our neighbors, and orient us to the ideals of society.
Today’s politics also remind us that justice matters. Gerson and Wehner make the point that if you’ve ever lived or worked in a neighborhood plagued by poverty and crippled by failing schools, then you know the need for political action. Retreat from such action, the authors say, is only conceivable for those who’ve never known injustice. Some political maturity might be in order, the authors say. It’s true, Christians have often done politics badly, but the answer isn’t withdrawal; it’s to do better. Political engagement isn’t a luxury.
Gerson and Wehner point out that for God’s people, politics is never the ultimate hope, but it is, they say, a present duty. And while government is not our final destination, it is a God-given responsibility. Today, our country needs wisdom, which means it needs moral leaders, which means God’s people must enter the fray.