CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Character and Public Life

Jul 4, 1998

Although Australia is in many ways a thoroughly secular nation, it is interesting to note how biblical literacy comes to the fore when issues of morality and public office are raised. When a public figure is engulfed in a moral lapse, it is amazing to find individuals, otherwise not known for their command of Scripture, coming out of the woodwork, quoting from the Good Book. And of course the citation most often heard is the following: “Judge not, lest you also be judged”.

Indeed, with the latest revelation of political immorality, former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett started sounding like a theology student: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. None of us are Christ-like. This is an unnecessary breach of a person’s private life.”

It seems that whenever some public figure falls from grace, inevitably somebody will throw a few Scriptures like these into the debate and smugly act as if that’s the end to the matter. How many times do we hear thoughts like the following: “Well, I recall Jesus saying something about not judging others, so don’t point your finger at me”?

Of course, taking a verse like Matt. 7:1 out of context is a good way of deflecting guilt and shame, or of making an excuse for immorality. But the biblical view of judging, or discerning, is much more complex. In many places in the Scriptures we are told that we should judge, be discerning, make moral assessments, make prophetic judgments, make ethical evaluations, and the like.

And there is a lot of fuzzy thinking going on as to the issue of public versus private morality. Already many are saying that we must keep the private life of political figures separate from their public performance.

Politicians’ personal lives, in other words, should not concern us. As long as a politician delivers on the economy, or jobs, or whatever, the way they live at home should bother no one.

However, such a view just doesn’t stand up under close scrutiny. What we are talking about here is the issue of character. The issue is not muckraking, or dragging up the past, or politicians being put under the spot light.

A politician, like any public leader, should have certain standards. We expect that politicians bring many qualities to the job, among them, honesty, loyalty, commitment and faithfulness. Character is all of one piece: something that affects the whole person, both private and public. What a person does in private tells us a lot about what that person will be like in public. If a person is willing to cheat on his wife for example, is it not possible that he will also cheat on the electorate?

This false dichotomy between private and public life just does not hold water. If a person is known for dishonest financial dealings with family and friends, surely that tells us how the person will act as a treasurer, bank manager or politician. If a person is known to be a chronic liar, surely that fact is relevant to whether that person should be voted for. This is not a question of being judgmental and throwing the first stone. We all need to be judged, and self-judgment is the best place to begin. But a society that says a person’s moral condition has, or should have, no bearing on public life is asking for, and will get, trouble. One might as well dispense with the police, law courts and any other semblance of morality. All societies, and all individuals, need a moral code to survive. Moral anarchy may sound good in theory but is not possible in practice.

The bottom line in all this is the issue of integrity. Integrity still matters. Simply defined, integrity is the difference between what you say and what you do. Or put another way, integrity is what you do when no one is looking. Character counts, both in public and in private. And in a relativistic age such as ours, it matters even more.

Our real problems today are not economic problems. Nor are they political problems. Our real problems have to do with values, with character, with morality. A country can survive a current account deficit, but it cannot for long survive a value deficit. And the first place to begin in restoring this value deficit is to reaffirm character, integrity and morality, both private and public.

It is interesting to note that character was the only consideration enumerated by the American founding fathers as relevant to qualifications to serve in public office. A person’s politics, philosophy or ideology may be important, but the most important qualification is character. Without good character, good government is not possible. Indeed, more than one commentator has noted that morality, more than anything else, is the key to a healthy and lasting democracy. Politics skills can be learned, policies adjusted. But without character, a nation will soon flounder on the rocks of moral relativism.

We are seeing such an unravelling of the commonweal now. The need for leadership based on character and values is now our most pressing need. We need to recall the words of George Washington in his farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

We have paid a terrible price in the false separation of morality from social problems. Australia’s (and America’s) rising tide of social pathology will only be reversed when we once again acknowledge that character and morality are not optional extras, but are the essence of civilised society.

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