What We Have Become: the centrality of character in leadership

All we have to give to the next generation is what we have become.

Dr. Crawford Loritts

I was an undergraduate when I first heard those words, sitting in my dorm room watching Dr. Loritts preach at the 2012 Desiring God Conference for Pastors. Immediately, I wrote them down on a sticky note and stuck it to my shelf at eye level. Those were words I did not want to forget.

We become like our leaders

Last week, John Piper published an article titled, “Policies, Persons, and Paths to Ruin.” In the post, Piper shared his bewilderment at how so many Christians accept the sins of our national leaders as toxic while they reject specific policies as deadly, when, after all, the wages of sin is death. Thus, he wrote, “It is not a small thing to treat lightly a pattern of public behaviors that lead to death.”

The key assumption of his argument was that “it is a drastic mistake to think that the deadly influences of a leader come only through his policies and not also through his person.” We know this so intuitively that we are liable to miss its truth and significance. David French said as much, when he wrote in response to Piper, “Moreover, outside of politics, we don’t even think twice about these character tests. Why? Because their necessity is self-evident.”

Bad leadership – or more precisely, the bad character of leaders – has a trickle down effect, as does good leadership. When the boss treats employees with respect, employees treat one another with respect. If a youth sports coach has a bad mouth and throws a tantrum at the referee for every bad call, the players become jaded toward referees and disrespect their authority.

Followers imitate leaders. This is central to their responsibility as followers. But it’s more than that. It is a naturally-occurring and often subconscious phenomenon  – put simply, we just do it. You don’t have to work hard to teach children to behave like their parents; they adopt their mannerisms, language, and values for good or for ill. As any parent knows, they’re like sponges!

Now, we all fall short of our moral ideals. But our actions are what people see and embrace (or reject) moreso than our talk – and by “talk” I don’t mean our speech, which followers also imitate, but our stated moral ideals. In other words, when your walk doesn’t match your talk, it’s generally your walk that people imitate, not your talk. “Do as I say not as I do” only works for so long.

And so it is with national leaders. Their character and conduct influence the culture at scale, providing implicit permission to be and act in all the same ways. Thus, when persons of gross immorality reside in the seats of power, destruction (both physical and spiritual) is sure to follow (for the individual and the culture), because imitation is sure to follow. “For they sow to the wind,” wrote the prophet Hosea, “and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

This is an easy “Yes and Amen” for Christians, as laid out by the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Resolution On Moral Character Of Public Officials.” That is, except in a Trumpian universe.

The case against Trump’s character

If this is the case, the question must be asked: what sort of people are we becoming under President Trump? Your answer will depend in part on your assessment of his own character. In my view, the notion that he has had “generally good character as President” must be contested. So, here’s my case against the character of the President, including an indictment of the sort of people we are becoming.

First, Trump is a pathological narcissist. He feeds on attention, whether good or bad. This is borne out by his obsession with “what they’re saying,” what the press or social media is saying, and what the ratings are saying; not to mention his hand sizecrowd size, and being the “least racist person in the room.” Thus, even when former President George W. Bush gave, by all accounts, an encouraging word in support of national unity and against increasing partisanship, Trump made the issue about himself and how Bush didn’t speak up on his behalf during the impeachment trial (as though a former President ought to wade into such a situation!). And let’s not forget how he defiled the national prayer breakfast earlier this year.

Trump’s whole worldview is shot through with the need to win, and if he doesn’t win, it’s someone else’s fault – or, more likely, the system is rigged against him! (However, he and his supporters never seemed to consider what the fact that he won says about the system. He won! Was the system rigged after all? And if so, then what does that mean for his victory?) Lo and behold, 4 years later, Trump is still sowing distrust in our election system.

All of this is bigly narcissistic, but it also betrays a deep insecurity in Trump.

You might not be the narcissist that the President is. But if you’ve felt the urge to not tolerate criticism and aggressively defend yourself, to put your own interests above others, or to boast about your glowing qualities, become stronger in the last four years, you just might be conforming to his character.

Second, Trump does not care about the truth. For Trump, truth is a function of whatever helps his brand, whatever magnifies his own name. This is closely tied to his narcissism. Many of the examples above could be given here again.

Personally, I don’t believe him to be the “liar” that so many label him. This is not to suggest that he never lies, but to note that lying requires an intention to deceive and an understanding that what you’re saying is false. I’m not so sure that Trump typically possesses either of these when speaking, and perhaps that is to his discredit. But you can be wrong and not lie. You can also be hyperbolic and not lie.

My charge against Trump is that he is so often so grossly hyperbolic that the reality is diminished. This is what he calls “truthful hyperbole…an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.” Note the word innocent, which it is not, and promotion, which is what Trump does best. He trades in half-truths and slogans that sound good to the choir, but lack any persuasive power for those outside the personality cult  – which is why he has such trouble expanding his base. He may not constantly lie, but neither does he speak truthfully.

Trump thinks and speaks in hyperbole, and this tendency seeps into his supporters. You see it come out most especially when they talk about their political enemies – the Democrats, radical leftists, globalists, socialists, Marxists; they’re all the same to them – and the fate of the nation or the church. This is having an egregious impact on our already dreadful partisanship problem.

In light of this, it’s no surprise that Trump has gone through four Press Secretaries in less than four years…and don’t forget this guy (essentially, a fifth!) who lasted a mere ten days. Let’s face it: speaking for and defending the speech of President Trump is hard work! And it’s made particularly difficult because of his lack of commitment to the truth.

Third, Trump sows doubt and confusion and is prone to conspiracy. I already mentioned how Trump sows doubt in our election system. But he also uses confusion and chaos (a “word salad” of the best words…or not) to divert attention from serious lines of inquiry and circumvent the truth. His recent town hall performance was ripe with material in this regard.

When asked if he was tested on the day of the first Presidential Debate, after explaining that he “tests all the time,” he conceded, “Possibly I did, possibly I didn’t.” When asked about retweeting a bogus conspiracy that we didn’t kill Osama Bin Laden, he tried to wash his hands of any responsibility, claiming, “It was a retweet.” When asked to disavow QAnon, a radical right-wing conspiracy theory, he claimed he didn’t know anything about it…or rather, all he has heard is they are strongly against pedophilia, and on that he and they agree. You’d have better luck getting a straight answer questioning an eighth grade bully about stealing someone’s lunch!

And speaking of conspiracies floated by Trump, of which many could be named, does Joe Scarborough ring a bell? 

The thing about Trump’s penchant for conspiracies is that he normalizes the fallacious thinking that something possible is actual. For instance, it’s possible the Clinton’s had something to do with Jeffrey Epstein’s death. But acting like that’s actually and demonstrably the case is something totally different.

This kind of thinking is now rampant among otherwise decent people on the political right. There is very little slow, careful, and rational consideration of what are plausible and patently implausible narratives. Rather than exercising some restraint and reason, they plunge ahead in the spirit of talk show radio hosts, offering (and believing) their own hot takes. The recent hubbub about Biden’s campaign logo is a perfect example.

In all these ways, Trump is single-handedly eroding the foundation of truth in our society, one of the few things that undergirds the structure of a liberal democracy. The Church of Jesus Christ has a mandate as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” to oppose forces which undermine such things.

Fourth, Trump speaks harshly, cruelly, disrespectfully, vulgarly, irresponsibly, without self-control (shall I continue?)…

We all know this. Let that sink in.

Disagreement arises in regards to just how frequently and how terribly Trump does all this. I would humbly suggest that it’s more than his supporters give him credit for and it’s sufficiently awful to be unbecoming of the Presidency.

There’s his name calling (this list is absurd!) of Crooked Hilary, Sleepy Joe, Little Marco, Lying Ted, Pocahontas, and so on… which is so juvenile it’s sad. But it works! And that’s an indictment on us and the status of our political discourse. Then there’s his demonizing of others, particularly the “fake news media” ( a.k.a. “the enemy of the people”), virtually any Democrat, and any Republican or otherwise who somehow in his mind crosses him. His campaign against General Mattis after his scathing open letter was the biggest 180 I’ve ever seen.

Is it any surprise that right wing extremism has seen huge spikes in recent years? We’re talking domestic terrorism, not just your average MAGA-repping uncle going off the rails on Twitter or at Thanksgiving dinner, though perhaps that too has spiked. Starting while Obama was in office, right wing extremism has now overtaken left wing extremism by a wide margin. The difference in 2020 is startling. Whether he intends to or not (and if not, then he’s an absolute ignoramus for persisting), the President has played a role in this through his comments.

I could go on about his complicity in cancel culturedemeaning women, personal attacks and vociferousness (Did you watch the first debate this year? Do you remember the 2016 primaries?)… but I won’t, because most Christians I know will at least denounce this behavior in word

And yet, many still like the fact that Trump fights. He’s a counter puncher, after all, and they appreciate that, even if they do so with a pit in their stomach. But what is this impulse to punch back but the vice of revenge? Jesus was reviled and did not revile in return. That Jesus’ followers would admire someone who acts this way and thank him for doing so on their behalf is the lowest form of cowardice and reveals the rage and malice in their own hearts.

As followers of Jesus, we know that our words matter, our speech matters, our tone matters...bigly. We will be judged for them! And here’s why this is crucial for this discussion, because “out of the heart the mouth speaks.” What is in the heart of a man who speaks as Donald Trump does? Do you want to be influenced by that? Do you want our nation to be led by such a one?

We are not immune

All of this, and I have not even touched his history of sexual immorality and marital infidelity; his lack of transparency with the American people (for instance, about his tax returns or the deadliness of Covid); his blasphemous use of the word of God as a prop for political gain; his nationalist bravado, divisiveness, and pouring of gasoline on already hot topics in the culture; or his mob-like “loyalty at all costs” style of leadership.

For me, the reality is clear: Donald Trump does not direct us to our better angels. Instead, he preys on our demons.

I have witnessed Christians threaten violence – even if afterward they claimed it was only a joke (this too is folly); use intimidation tactics – justifying them by saying, “that’s what it takes” to get your point across with some people; name call, demonize, and dehumanize others – both across the political aisle and those who wouldn’t “fall in line.” And no, you don’t need to do exactly what Trump does to have been influenced by him. His very presence and position defines deviancy down for all of us.

Do you love your neighbors more now than fours years ago? Critically, do you love your enemies – even political ones – more now than four years ago?

Can you have a calm, respectful, and substantive conversation with friends or family about…well, just about anything, after 4 years of Trump as President?

Are you more impatient, have a bit shorter fuse, feel more empowered to throw some rhetorical elbows than four years ago?

Are you holding to your guns and mammon a bit tighter than you were in 2016?

Can you see the fear-mongering demagoguery of A.O.C. plus 3? How about MAGA nation? (If you can only see one and not the other, there’s a problem.)

Are you more concerned today about church and national unity or party unity and destroying the other side?

We are not immune to the spirit of the age, the presence of abiding sin, or the influence of our President’s character.

The world is watching

The world is watching as large segments of the church (or, white evangelicals at least) continue to support the President for reelection. It is excruciatingly painful to square placing any value on character while simultaneously supporting Donald Trump. The church’s message to the world (including our black brothers and sisters) – whether intended or not – is clear: as long as a candidate agrees with us on the hallowed trinity (i.e. abortion, sexuality, and religious liberty), it doesn’t really matter what kind of person he or she is; when it comes to politics and power, we won’t sweat the “small” stuff (i.e. issues of character).

We’ve made our covenant. We’ve purchased a strongman to save us. He will fight for us! We need only be silent.

I pray the damage this has done and will do within the church and to her witness is recoverable.

As for 2020…

Where does this leave us in 2020, days from the election?

As regards your vote, I leave that for you to decide. (You can check out what I have to say about voting here.) But let’s at least stop speaking and acting like character isn’t a significant criterion in voting for candidates for public office. These matters aren’t frivolous, they are life and death.

Bear in mind what Loritts said, “All we have to give to the next generation is what we have become.” Your character will be your legacy (and that goes for the candidate you support too). Not the politicians you voted for – they will soon be out of office. Not the policies of the candidate you based your vote on – they can change with the stroke of a pen.

What you have become – that’s what you pass on. That’s what others will take from you. That’s how you will be remembered.

One thought on “What We Have Become: the centrality of character in leadership

  1. We heard the same arguments being made against Trump due to his shoddy character in 2016.

    I can understand a Christian who’s hesitant to or abstains from voting for Trump because of his character, for many of the hurdles you outline in the post.

    I just can’t understand how people act like the choice is between an immortal man of putrid character, Trump, and a decent man—Biden—who simply stands for immortal polices, abortion being the prime example. This is a false dichotomy.

    Yes, Jesus isn’t on the ballot, so, if we cast a vote, we’ll all be voting for a sinner.

    But just as Christians are quick to point out Trump’s major character issues, so too they must also point out Biden’s—and stop acting like Biden’s character is good and only his policies are bad.

    Promoting bad policies is a moral issue, and so is using your VP status to profit off of foreign countries illegally (but most in the media won’t even investigate the damning allegations and evidence).

    Something Piper said years ago stuck with me, and would be wise for us all to employ if we vote: “vote as though you’re not voting.”

    Character and policies matter—both Trump’s and Biden’s.

    Jesus is supreme and we can vote with biblically-informed consciences and trust that God’s sovereign rule and will will be accomplished no matter who occupies the White House.


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