The Donald Trump presidency and our recent outbreak of pastoral and denominational scandals have brought into focus how much we need both the right ideas and also personal integrity from our leaders. Too often, our tendency is to think that all that matters is a leader’s ideas, or just that they’re on our “team.” We’ll put up with childish behavior, boorish or creepy treatment of associates, and other warning signs, so long as they support the right “principles,” the right denominational cohort, or our preferred political party.
Prioritizing a person’s ideas or affiliations over character is a huge mistake. In politics, Richard Nixon was the ultimate mistake on this front, though to be fair, Nixon did a good job of hiding his paranoia and profane character from the public before Watergate. (Some politicians glory in their flaws, of course, rather than trying to hide them.) In church, we’ve seen a reckoning against charming celebrity pastors and powerful denominational leaders. But if they were on “our side,” we may have been less disposed to see the train wreck coming.
No leader is perfect (save for a certain carpenter’s son from Nazareth), and we shouldn’t expect them to be or treat them like they are. But we also need to step back, as a culture and as churches, and re-think our expectations of leaders.
The right balance between principle and character will depend upon the office that the person is seeking. Presumably we’ll have more flexible personal standards for political officials than for pastor (a recent divorce, for example, would be more likely to disqualify the latter than the former). Political commitments are essential for the politician, not the pastor, and so on.
But we should want all our leaders to meet basic standards of personal integrity, as well as intellectual affinity for the true and the good. (These often go together, but not always.) Tribal allegiances of party and denomination remain relevant, of course, as we can’t function without them. But they can’t be the controlling factors.
These two priorities—integrity and intellect—should change the way that Christians think about choosing leaders, voting for politicians, or withdrawing support from a leader who’s on your political or denominational “team.” Lots of white evangelicals reviled Barack Obama, for example, and I certainly disagreed with him on most major social issues. But he set an excellent example for the nation on a personal level, especially in his dealings with his family and his dignified bearing as president.
I agree more often with the positions taken by Donald Trump’s administration (though I have sharp disagreements on some issues) than Obama’s. But Trump’s observable character flaws should still make him a highly problematic choice for Christians. We need to take both ideas and also character into account. I couldn’t vote for President Obama because of differences of principle, and I couldn’t vote for President Trump because of personal character. I’m not saying that all faithful Christians must make the decisions I did, but I am saying that both principles and character must factor into our decisions.
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