'Tis the season: Character matters

August 25th, 2016

Read Rev. Howell's previous 'Tis the Season articles covering the 2016 election here.

Before we turn to the relationship of religion and politics, the separation of church and state, and ways Christians might think about policy matters, let’s weigh what kind of person we might want to vote for — or not vote for. We probably would all agree that the character of a potential leader matters. But how much? And what does our interest in a candidate’s character reveal to us about our own?

Once upon a time, reporters looked the other way when confronted with presidential misbehavior. I think character mattered more back then, which oddly enough was why moral lapses were hushed up. In recent years, character has gotten more flabby, but reporters pounce on every little innuendo or mixup. We are an exceedingly permissive society, but then nothing is ever forgiven.
Should we insist upon stellar character in leaders? Or do we want whoever will get the job we want done? Do we harbor the crazy idea that a politician who’s not squeaky clean but a bit crooked actually will get stuff done in a crooked world? Many Americans would rank Jimmy Carter as being morally pure but maybe not as effective as, let’s say, Bill Clinton, who was far less pure. As Christians do we seek effectiveness or holiness? 
Presidential historian Talmage Boston suggests the President should be the nation’s “conscience-in-chief.”  Who else might exhibit virtue more publicly and have a larger impact on society? Doesn't a President's uprightness matter in terms of the kinds of people we become, and who represents us morally on the world stage?

In American politics, we are addicted to character assault. The harshness of the fault-finding is relentless and corrodes something at the core of our national soul. Think about it: if any one of us were subjected to constant nit-picking, if a bevy of snoops were making public an email you sent two years ago or something you said at a party last month, if your lamest moves and weakest moments were paraded in public, if a fact-checker were applied to every story you recounted from your college years, none of us would emerge unscathed.

As Christians though, we know we are all flawed, fallen, broken people in need of mercy — and so are the politicians. We need healing and growth badly. Spouting a harsh critique of a candidate may make you feel good; chiming in with others who loathe the same candidate you do may feel chummy. But criticizing somebody else doesn’t make you good, does it? As you become closer to Jesus, you are less likely to cheer or even notice fault in others, much less carry on about it. Your own goodness, your character, your holiness: you have enough to work on without letting too much of your moral zeal get wasted on ruminating on what’s wrong with others.

If we care about our nation’s character and morals, we realize these are not finally the responsibility of the President, Congress or Supreme Court. Real change can’t be legislated. Transformation happens in the heart, in many hearts, in communities that choose to be different, and better. For centuries, the Church has assumed that we have a weighty responsibility for the character of the world.  How is God asking us to resume that large task?

This post originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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