Personal and Public Morality in Politics
Is adultery a sin? Yes it is and if we can't still draw that line in the sand, there are no more moral lines. And is marital infidelity a public concern? I think it is.
Some say that leaders should only be judged on the basis of their policies, and that personal moral failures, while regrettable, are not really relevant to the job. It is true that those who focus incessantly on personal morality often end up looking like the Pharisees who were ready to stone the woman taken in adultery. But what can we learn from the Washington-produced dramas of the combustible mix of sex, money, and power?
First, effective public leadership cannot be severed from the trustworthiness of personal character. Ethics and integrity do matter, and not just superficially. Leaders need to be believed. They have to engender trust not only in their policies but also in their moral integrity and judgment. Leaders must create a climate of faithfulness to shared commitments among colleagues and supporters. Thus, leadership derives credibility from example, and not simply from pronouncements. Morality in politics is not defined only by the pragmatic effectiveness of policies. A firewall between the personal and public dimensions of our lives is a secular fiction, and it is dangerous to both people and politics.
The question "What's more important, a leader's personal morality or his or her public policy?" may really be the wrong one. The more important issue may be the connection between the personal and the public. The idea that public leadership can be partitioned from personal integrity is a dangerous illusion. The fact that several past political leaders have gotten away with doing so hardly establishes a reliable pattern of leadership for the future. Old styles of leadership are now passing, and new models are already in formation.
In the end, leaders lead by behavior and not just by skill. In any institution, people yearn for leadership that is morally seamless. Yes, they want imaginative and effective policies. But they also desire leaders whose example walks their talk. A healthier blend of talent and character is needed to shape our next generation of leaders.
Is the sin forgivable? Of course it is. We all have flaws, as Jesus was quick to point out to those who would have stoned the adulterous woman. But we don't get past our flaws by denying them and trying to manage the public fallout. In his or her heart, every leader knows that this denial--in the words of Jesus--is the path to destruction.
In the future, we need leaders with the ability to navigate the troubled waters of their inner lives as well as the turbulent seas of public discourse. If institutions and societies are ultimately shaped by both the personal and the public ethics of their leaders, the concept of "spiritual formation" should become increasingly important as a component of the education needed for leadership development. Ultimately, personal integrity is vital to public trust. Effective leadership is finally sustained not just by what people say but by who they are.
Posted by: Brian | June 3, 2008 12:25 PM
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