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.