WHY CHARACTER MATTERS
by Bob Wheeler
In this current election cycle we are confronted with an unpalatable menu of two presidential candidates, both of which have serious character flaws. Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Trump are noted for being particularly honest. In addition Mr. Trump has a reputation for being a ruthless, cutthroat businessman and a twice divorced adulterer. In his campaign so far he has repeatedly made wild, unsubstantiated claims against some of his opponents and openly ridiculed others. When called to account he has refused to back down or apologize. Never in American history have we seen such a spectacle at such a high level.
Nevertheless the argument is being made in some Christian circles that a Christian must vote for Trump in order to keep Clinton out of the White House. To vote for a third party candidate, or to stay at home, the argument goes, amounts to a vote for Hillary. But this amounts to saying that we must vote for a rogue in order to keep a scoundrel from getting elected. In either case we wind up with a bad president. It is a bit like asking the voters to choose between the hangman’s noose and the firing squad. We are dead either way.
But does character really matter in a presidential candidate? Mr. Trump may not be a Christian, it is argued, but neither are most politicians. And the policies advocated by the Democrats (abortion, homosexuality) are abominable. So why not vote for “the lesser of the two evils”?
The fact of the matter is that character is important – it determines how a person will perform once in office. A government position is a public trust, and as such it requires trustworthiness on the part of the person who holds it. Someone who is corrupt, dishonest or unwise will routinely make bad decisions, or decisions that run counter to the public interest; and that, in turn, has an adverse effect on us all. One does not make a thief the president of the bank.
The Book of Proverbs in the Bible has a great deal to say, in fact, about government and human relations. Most of it was written by King Solomon, the ancient king of Israel who was renowned for his wisdom. He certainly had much occasion to reflect on the principles of good government.
We much begin by asking, what is the purpose of government in the first place? Why have a government at all? The obvious answer is to protect the lives and property of its citizens from foreign invasion and domestic violence. In order to do the latter the government must enact laws, apprehend criminals, try them in court and punish the guilty. The ultimate goal is to establish justice. “A king who sits on the throne of judgment / Scatters all evil with his eyes” (Prov. 20:8; NKJV – cf. Prov. 17:15; 24:24, 25; 25:2).
How well a government discharges its responsibility has an effect on everyone under its jurisdiction. “The king establishes the land by justice, / But he who receives bribes overthrows it” (Prov. 29:4). And this, in turn, requires good character on the part of those who exercise power. “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; / But when a wicked man rules, the people groan” (Prov. 29:2). “It is an abomination for kings to commit wickedness, / For a throne is established by righteousness” (Prov. 16:12). If the civil magistrate is to administer justice effectively, he must not be a criminal himself.
So what, then, are the specific qualities of character required in a civil magistrate? First and foremost is honesty. The Solomon describes a dishonest person this way:
“A worthless person, a wicked man,
Walks with a perverse mouth;
He winks with his eyes,
He shuffles his feet,
He points with his fingers’
Perversity is in his heart,
He devises evil continually . . .”
He doesn’t say what he means; he disguises his real intentions, and his intentions are invariably bad – that is why he takes great pains to disguise them. And what does he accomplish by doing this? “He sows discord” (v. 14b). People who have been cheated are rarely happy about it. Most will desire revenge of some sort.
Dishonesty, however, eventually results in failure. “Therefore his calamity shall come suddenly; / Suddenly he shall be broken without remedy” (v. 15). The pretense cannot be maintained forever. Eventually the liar is found out and the scheme collapses. “What a perilous web we weave / When first we practice to deceive,” as the old saying goes. It is no wonder then, that “Excellent speech is not becoming to a fool, / Much less lying lips to a prince” (Prov. 17:7).
Beyond the question of basic honesty one can also look at a candidate’s basic temperament. If he is proud and boastful, “wise in his own eyes” – “There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 26:12). “Pride goes before destruction, / And a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Does he speak before thinking? “Do you see a man hasty in his words? / There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 29:20). “The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, / But the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil” (Prov. 15:28). Does he slander others with false accusations? It causes needless divisions and conflicts. “A perverse man sows strife, / And a whisperer separates the best of friends” (Prov. 16:28). How does he respond to criticism? “Do not say ‘I will do to him just as he has done to me; / I will render to the man according to his work’” (Prov. 24:29).
Mr. Trump, in fact, fits the biblical definition of a “scoffer”: “A proud and haughty man – ‘Scoffer’ is his name; / He acts with arrogant pride” (Prov. 21:24). He is incorrigible (Prov. 9:7,8), and as a result knowledge eludes him (Prov. 14:6). “Cast out the scoffer, and contention will leave; / Yes, strife and reproach will cease” (Prov. 22:10).
In a democracy the people are supposed to be sovereign: the ultimate authority to make decisions rests with them. Government officials are supposed to be public servants, serving the people. The President of the United States arguably occupies the most powerful and important position He is commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military. He controls the nation’s nuclear arsenal, state secrets, and treasury. He has sworn to uphold the Constitution. The people, the voters who put him into power, are counting on him to perform the duties of his office in good faith and in the public’s best interests. But if he / she is a liar and a crook, if his word cannot be taken at face value, the people’s trust has been betrayed and the president becomes a lawless tyrant. Grasping and corrupt politicians are the undoing of a republic.
In this election neither majority candidate is fit for high office. The evangelical community cannot afford to be identified with either one of them. “And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues’” (Rev. 18:4).