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It’s been years since I read Peggy Noonan’s beautiful biography of Ronald Reagan, When Character Was King (Viking, 2001), but I’ve been thinking a lot about that title. If conservatives in this country want to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan, or simply want to be true to conservative principles, they will not overlook the question of character when choosing a president (or a nominee, as the case may be). Of course, being an admirable human being does not by itself make one a good president. Character is not a sufficient condition for being a great leader, but it is, I believe, a necessary condition.

No doubt, every politician in our day (or any day?) is bound to over-promise, overestimate his (or her) own importance, and come across a wee bit weasel-y from time to time. But that doesn’t mean we have to settle for the lowest common denominator of personal integrity. Just because Jesus isn’t running for president, doesn’t mean we might as well vote for Barabbas.

We are whole people, with private lives and public lives that cannot help but bleed one into the other. Among other considerations, Christians should insist that wherever possible–and evangelicals will play a big role in choosing the Republican nominee–that their political leaders are men and women with a track record of honesty, self-control, self-sacrifice, fidelity, wisdom, prudence, courage, and humility.

Along those lines, I’m struck by this passage at the end of Noonan’s book:

I asked him [Reagan] how he viewed his leadership. He replied, “I never thought of myself as a great man, just a man commited [sic] to great ideas. I’ve always believed that individuals should take priority over the state. History has taught me that this is what sets America apart–not to remake the world in our image, but to inspire people everywhere with a sense of their own boundless possibilities. There’s no question I am an idealist, which is another way of saying I’m an American.” (317)

“I never thought of myself as a great man.” The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. I think that’s how an even more famous man once put it. Two paragraphs later, Noonan expanded on an overlooked aspect of Reagan’s humility.

He added that he had gotten through his presidency only with the help of prayer. “I’ve prayed a lot throughout my life. Abraham Lincoln once said that he could never have fulfilled his duties as president for even fifteen minutes without God’s help. I felt the same way.” (317)

Better historians than me can argue about the personal faith of Reagan and Lincoln, but few (especially those who will vote in Republican primaries) will doubt that they were good men and great presidents. I’m sure their successes can be attributed to many things: hard work, common sense, strong convictions, and a little bit of luck (or happy providences, if you will). But surely they would not have been able to accomplish all they did, with such enduring admiration, if their lives were marked by self-aggrandizement, personal meanness, and wild inconsistency.

Is there one candidate Christians must vote for? No. But are there Christian graces, or at least common grace virtues, that we should pray for and look for in our leaders? Absolutely. Don’t ask “who would I like to have a beer with?” or “who sticks it to the people I’m most fed up with?” Ask: “Who would I trust to put the interests of others above his own? Who has the wisdom, the discernment, and the honesty to make the right decisions when no one is looking?” That’s not all that’s needed in a president. But it’s a start.

When it comes to doing good in this world, no amount of charisma can overcome a dearth of character. In the short term, perhaps. But in the long run: people do as people are. Character is king.


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11 thoughts on “When Character Was King”

  1. Greg says:

    Just because Jesus isn’t running for president, doesn’t mean we might as well vote for Barabbas.

    But can we vote for Samson? :)

    Or should we vote for the genteel guys who want to tie Samson up, so as not to offend the Philistines?

  2. doug sayers says:

    Good words, Kevin, thanks.

    I suspect the presidency can be a lonely job; thus it would be best to have someone who lives,continually, before the face of God; someone who would not ask the people to do anything that he/she would not do themselves.

    Can’t help but wonder if this was a discreet way of dissing a certain candidate running on the Republican side. :-)

  3. Zach says:

    If you think character matters, then you should not like Lincoln. He was not a good guy.

    Thomas DiLorenzo has written whole books on this. Check out Lincoln Unmasked.
    http://www.amazon.com/Lincoln-Unmasked-Youre-Supposed-Dishonest/dp/0307338428/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1450794595&sr=8-1&keywords=lincoln+unmasked

    And here’s an interview with DiLorenzo:

  4. WoundedEgo says:

    It is amazing that Teapublicans (including most Evangelicals) consistently ignored the facts and hold Reagan up as a paradigm of “Conservative virtue”. But the fact is:

    1. Reagan was a serial tax raiser.
    2. Reagan nearly tripled the federal budget deficit.
    3. Unemployment soared after Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts.
    4. Reagan grew the size of the federal government tremendously.
    5. Reagan did little to fight a woman’s right to choose.
    6. Reagan was a “bellicose peacenik.”
    7. Reagan gave amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants.
    8. Reagan illegally funneled weapons to Iran.
    9. Reagan vetoed a comprehensive anti-Apartheid act.
    10. Reagan helped create the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.
    http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/02/05/142288/reagan-centennial/

    His enduring false legacy is testimony to acting ability not to his character, religion or conservatism.

    Trump has character only if you think Mussolini and Hitler had character.

    On the Teaublican side, Rand Paul has demonstrated some character (commitment to principle) but the others are all shills and bozos.

    On the Democrat side, Hillary is simply another Republican and flip flops endlessly.

    But Bernie Sanders has been consistent, even when it cost him over the course of a lifetime in his commitment to standing against injustice. He comes down on the right side of pretty much every issue. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, organized a sit-in against segregated housing at his University, was arrested for campaigning for civil rights, voted against NAFTA (which shipped our jobs abroad) and every other “free trade agreement”, against Bush’s invasion of Iraq (when you were deemed unpatriotic to do so), and refused to take money from SuperPacs for his current campaign so he would become President without owing any favors to the rich and corporations. Now that’s character.

  5. Cédric says:

    Executive summary: Kevin DeYoung doesn’t like Donald Trump.

  6. Ethan says:

    I have no objection to pastors using their blog to air their personal views on political matters, and I take no issue with DeYoung’s affinity for conservative politics. I agree that we should expect a certain standard of personal conduct and integrity from our elected leaders. However, I believe that this focus on “character” as the determining factor in a successful presidency is simplistic, and a fundamental misreading of history.

  7. Curt Day says:

    The good news here is that Kevin is not writing about sexual sins. The bad news is the what seems to be the unexamined claims about conservatism and Ronald Reagan.

    For example, why, outside of the abortion issue, should evangelicals embrace conservative political ideology and/or the Republican Party? For one thing, both the party and much of the ideology supports neoliberal Capitalism. That kind of Capitalism wants to sever business’s social responsibility ties. It wants to almost destroy government involvement in business and its ability to hold businesses accountable. And though that might sound like a good thing to many, when a government is a true democracy, then we are crippling democracy’s ability to hold businesses in check.

    Of course the above may not bother people so remember Reagan’s hostility to unions. And then look at how pay has either increased, decreased, or stagnated for many Americans since unions have been in decline.

    Or one could look at Reagan’s foreign policies. He supported people like Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein even when they were acting as what we know them to be today. He supported the apartheid regime in the other USA, the Union of South Africa. He, along with Thatcher supported Pinochet. There is the Iran-Contra Scandal and his policies in Central America. Remember how the World Court found the United States guilty of conducting/supporting terrorism in Nicaragua. And then there is his support for the brutal regime in El Salvador. Of course, both were pursued in the name of ‘Anti-Communism.’ But both followed an ends-justify-the-means ethic. And both reacted as if Communism was a monolith and so if the Communists tried to represent the poor and oppressed, in the end, American foreign policy did as well. The violence seen in that conflict led to the beginning of the MS-13 gang that came to America.

    Now more criticisms of Reagan could be written, but the problem should be evident by now. That Conservative political ideology and icons, icons such as Reagan, have grave faults. Thus both must be vetted. In addition, we, as Christians, can’t afford to embrace any political or ideological tribalism. That applies to the political Conservatives who will agree with Kevin here. And it applies to anti-Capitalist Leftists like myself. As Christians, we must use the Scriptures to point out the faults and sins of our own political parties and ideologies. If we do not do that, we will begin to conflate our ideologies with our faith and that will produce stumbling blocks to those who hear us preach the Gospel because they can all too easily observe where our ideologies and icons sin.

  8. Todd says:

    The same ideas have been impressed on my heart as my husband and I watched Ken Burns’ series on the Roosevelts. Character begins at home and the transformed are humble enough to lean on God as the source of all good.

  9. Bill says:

    Posts like this remind me of how voices like Tullian Tchividjians are sorely missed. The old rubric of let us bathe Christianity in the philosophers search for virtue. There we will find the answer in a leader. The only successful leader is the won who has character. Is there not something else we can write on besides this, reinforcing conservative Christianity with Republicanism. Reagan’s belief in the free market left people to fend for themselves because of the belief that it would take care of people. The push for the American Dream left people in debt trying to find a peace and it marginalized people of color. I think the gospel coalition can do better on its blog posts.

  10. Neville Briggs says:

    If we want to get the scripture’ perspective on the character of politicians , perhaps we should carefully examine the actions of Pontius Pilate. Self interest, hidden agenda, populist policy, political expediency over justice, denial of responsibility.
    The most profound question that occurred to Pilate was ” what is truth ‘ ( to which he had no answer )

    Pilate, a ruler in the kingdom of this world came face to face with Jesus ,the King of the Kingdom of God, and that politician had his character exposed for what it was, or was not, and the kingdom of this world was exposed for what it was, or was not. Judgement day for politicians.

    There’s not much choice in any country for any election candidate, you can choose a politician or a politician.

  11. WoundedEgo says:

    The character studies of Saul and David are deep, especially with the Bathsheba event.

    I named my first born son “Josiah” and when he was 8 years old I wanted to remind him that he was named for royalty. He said, “I know, I was named after the good king Josiah… and you’re my evil parents!!”

    Parenting is tougher than it sounds…

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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