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Why A President’s Character Should Still Matter


The prevailing comeback to those who question Donald Trump’s moral fitness for the office he seeks is something along the lines of, “We’re electing a president, not a pastor.” Laura Ingraham is a case in point.

My, how far we’ve come. There was a time conservatives were routinely accused of being hypocrites because they dared to uphold “traditional” values such as staying married and not having casual sex while sometimes not living out those values in their own lives. Now it seems many conservatives are dismissing the requirement that their candidates give even lip service to traditional morality, and defending doing so on the basis that such quaint ideas as virtue don’t matter when the country is falling apart.

Erick Erickson is right that Republicans who support Trump owe Bill Clinton an apology. Talk about hypocrisy. The cognitive dissonance is deafening, and the irony tragic. While some would have us believe that the answer to our woes is to give up altogether on the ideal of a virtuous leader and get behind someone who may lack character but who can supposedly “get things done,” the truth is we threw in the towel on virtue in favor of utilitarianism a long time ago, and that is in part why we are where we are today.

This Is a Result of Tolerance Run Amok

It is the rare parent who hasn’t at one time or another chastised a naughty child with the words, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” In a worldview that acknowledges something called sin, shame is a good thing, a necessary step on the road to repentance and ultimately, forgiveness. In the secular culture, however, the idea that someone should be ashamed of bad behavior is seen as impossibly backward and intolerant.

Now that tolerance is the highest virtue, any identification of another’s behavior as wrong is deemed out of bounds.

Now that tolerance is the highest virtue, any identification of another’s behavior as wrong is deemed out of bounds. The tolerance police go so far as to invoke the biblical teaching of judging not, lest one on the same basis be judged, completely ignoring that the passage refers to God’s eternal judgment of souls, not human judgments about earthly behavior.

How can we teach our children to live an upright life without judging behavior? We can’t. But the logical conclusion of a wholesale rejection of the application of judgment is that we can no longer call any behavior wrong. That is, of course, the point to which postmodern “reality is subjective” thinking has brought us. It just used to be the case that conservatives didn’t embrace it.

Some Shame Is Healthy; Some Shame Is Unhealthy

Last year Monica Lewinsky gave a poignant TED talk about her experience of being publicly shamed after she was revealed as the young intern victimized by the predatory sexual behavior of a sitting U.S. president. It is important to note that there are two types of shame: that which one experiences within himself as the result of bad behavior, and that which is imposed on a person by others who wish to embarrass or show him or her in a bad light.

If that shame led her to feel the kind of remorse and regret that are the precursors of redemption, that is a good thing.

To Judeo-Christian thinking, the first kind of shame is necessary and appropriate. When one sins, one should feel ashamed. That is what conscience is all about. It is that sense of shame that, in a healthy conscience, drives the sinner to confess, make reparations, and seek reconciliation with the one sinned against and with God. In the quintessential book on shame, “A Scarlet Letter,” Hester Prynne may have worn the visible badge of shame, but it was Reverend Dimmesdale whose body wasted away in a visible manifestation of the inner torment, brought on by unconfessed sin, that was eating away at him.

The second kind of shame, that imposed by another with the aim of punishing the wrongdoer or harming his reputation, is the sort Hester Prynne endured, and it has no place in the Judeo-Christian faith to which I subscribe. The Eighth Commandment calls believers to protect one another’s reputation. How ironic that we find ourselves living in a world in which biblical morality has become a relic from another time but public shaming and general nastiness are a national pastime. It all depends, of course, on what the sin is. Some animals—and their transgressions—are less forgivable than others.

Lewinsky did not deserve the horrible treatment she got at the hands of an insatiable public beast and the media who were only too happy to feed it. But if she at some point in her ordeal felt shame at having made a very bad decision, and if that shame led her to feel the kind of remorse and regret that are the precursors of redemption, that is a good thing. That is the kind of shame that is necessary for true healing.

We Need to Uphold Standards Even When We Fail Them

Trump is a mirror of this country’s soul, and as such, he gives us permission to remain in the muck rather than aspiring to something better. No, no one is perfect. In the eyes of a just God, no one is even good. But a great country needs great men and women who, even as they fail, as we all fail, understand the importance of virtue and the need to hold it up as an objective worth reaching for. When we give up on the ideal and on the desire for leaders who embrace the ideal, we sell our national soul. It seems we did that a long time ago.

When we give up on the ideal and on the desire for leaders who embrace the ideal, we sell our national soul.

As a parent, I have spent more than 20 years teaching my children right and wrong. I still have a few more years to go. In that time, my children have seen me fail over and over at the very things that I have tried to teach them. By the world’s logic, that makes me a hypocrite and I ought to just give up and quit paying lip service to principles I am an obvious failure at keeping.

But as a parent, my calling is to keep teaching right from wrong even as I daily fail. To quit doing that kind of teaching would be a huge betrayal of my vocation. Instead, what I try to do (and yes, I fail at that, too) is to model repentance. Ideally, when I fail, I acknowledge it, ask for forgiveness, fix my eyes on the truth, and head out to try again.

Trump, on the other hand, in his recent sit-down with Megyn Kelly, expressed his belief that such self-examination and reflection is a waste of time: “To look back and say, gee whiz, I wish I didn’t do this or that, I don’t think that’s good . . . in a certain way I don’t even think that’s healthy.” If our leaders refuse to learn from their mistakes, how can we expect our children to do so?

Instead of a president who mirrors us, granting us permission to cut moral corners as long as we are heading in the right direction because hey, that’s what he does, we need a president who even in his own failings hands us a telescope, bids us look out the window, and encourages us to reach for something higher.

This is why I reject the argument that character no longer matters in our leaders, and cannot rationalize or justify to my children a vote for a man like Trump. Someone who has repeatedly shown himself to be sociopathic in his capacity for self-justification, who seems to have no apparent sense of shame, is not someone with whom I am comfortable entrusting the moral steering of a nation. He may very well be given the wheel, but he won’t get it with my help.