A Higher Loyalty: Ethical leadership in church and state

I recently read A Higher Loyalty, by James Comey, former FBI Director. Comey, as you may recall, was fired by President Trump for his role in the Russia investigation. The book is a fascinating and instructive read for observers of leadership in both church and state. Comey lays out a strong case for ethical leadership which he describes as “seeing beyond the short-term, beyond the urgent … with a view toward lasting values.” He highlights truth, integrity and respect for others as key lasting values, saying these “serve as external reference points for ethical leaders to make decisions, especially hard decisions in which there is no easy or good option.”

He goes on to say that “a commitment to integrity and a higher loyalty to truth are what separate the ethical leader from those who just happen to occupy leadership roles. We cannot ignore the difference.”

It’s no secret that Comey finds President Trump sorely missing in qualities that make up ethical leadership. Trump’s tendencies to bully, demean, malign, lie and create chaos are well-documented. Leaders across the political and religious spectra have noted them. Although these personal qualities are generally separate from the policies his administration seeks to enact, all the same, they hinder his ability to effectively inspire trust across national and international borders.

As institutions central to democracy, such as a free press, agencies of law and order, and truth itself come under attack by Trump, we need to ask ourselves, “Should the church care about what is going on in the government?” 

My answer is a resounding yes. There are three lessons for us to learn here.

Democracy is designed to reflect its citizens

If we abandon the democratic process, and leave it to “the professionals,” we abandon ourselves. Our republic is designed to be a reflection of society as a whole; thus our voices need to be heard. At the same time, it’s important to note that the move toward undermining a free press, truth-telling, and agencies of law and order, represents a slide toward fascism. This doesn’t bode well for the church. History shows that repressive governments ultimately repress human rights, religious rights and rights of minorities. This undermining of ethical values impacts every single one of us.

The ends don’t justify the means

Many in the church have taken a stance that Trump’s ends justify the means. If he is delivering policies amenable to “our” worldview, then don’t worry about how we got there. Just be glad we got there. Personally, I’m not a conservative, so his policies don’t line up with my understanding of a safer, better, more prosperous country. But even if I were and even if they did, there’s still trouble with this way of thinking. When the ends justify the means, we sacrifice ethical behavior in the short term. This has disastrous consequences.

For instance, very few people remember how much good Richard Nixon did for the environment — establishing the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Rather, we remember Watergate and his impeachment.

Likewise, when church leaders circumvent ethics, morality and human decency, when we forsake the truth for a lie, others won’t ultimately remember the good we have done. Rather, they will remember the harm we caused along the way. The rampant culture of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is an example of that. How many thousands of Catholics have left the church because of pedophilia? A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a Catholic friend. She told me she felt such anger toward a church that preached holiness and personal responsibility but made no amends to the many thousands of families directly and indirectly impacted by the unsafe culture.

The values Jesus’ own life demonstrated — truth, integrity, and love — resulted in his crucifixion. But if he had avoided crucifixion, he would have sidestepped every lesson he was here to teach.

When it comes to leadership in both church and state, unjust means undermine ethical ends.

Resisting the future is resisting God

In the end, the Bible foresees an end time that is diverse, rich and joyous. The Bible teaches that we will worship God alongside people of every nation, tribe and language. Yet many in the church resist this very future. To resist this move toward embracing diversity is to resist the movement of the Spirit itself.

Russian interference in the elections aside, new studies show that voter support for Trump may have been more grounded in fear of losing cultural status than in fear of economic loss. The common wisdom was that Trump won because he spoke to “the little guy” about economic gains. A new study reveals a more likely explanation: white Christians voted for Trump because they feared the loss of cultural and religious ascendancy. In other words, they feared change.

When our government opposed the abolition of slavery or civil rights, it was on the losing side.

When the church stands against the unfolding evolution of the world, it is on the losing side. White people have to learn how to live in a plurality of ethnicities, to be one among many. Christians have to learn how to live side by side with people of other religions. These emerging pluralities are not going away. It doesn’t mean you can’t be white, or Christian. And that those identities aren’t important. But you can’t insist the whole world is just like you, because it’s not.

In closing

We in the church understand the concept of a higher loyalty. The lasting values that provide external reference points for us include love, grace, truth, honesty, compassion, equity, justice, freedom, unity and creativity. It’s time for us to live by those once again. And to call our government to account for operating ethically. We may not, and we need not, agree on policies. But we must insist on ethical leadership.

Jesus was the exemplar of that higher loyalty. He sacrificed his own life in pursuit of this loyalty. Shall we do less?

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