Knowing the Moral Vision of a Candidate
We should look for a president with wisdom, compassion, courage and integrity: the wisdom to know what he or she does and does not know; the compassion to recognize the integrity and worth of others, even when they disagree; the courage to listen to a wide range of points of view, without pandering to or dismissing them; and the integrity of character, having listened, to make clear and often difficult decisions. We need a president with the energy to stay focused on his or her enormous task, with the experience to understand the fundamental issues that face our great nation, and with the capacity to form and express a real vision of the direction we must take to address those issues effectively, both here at home and overseas. Finally, we need a president who can communicate that vision and those hopes not only to the people of this nation but to the larger world as well.
Our presidents are quintessentially public persons, committed to the service of the public good. It is entirely fitting, then, that we, as the voting public, should explore and know the moral values and religious beliefs of presidential candidates wherever they are key to their broader public moral sense, and so to the decisions that they will make if elected.
The issue is not a candidate’s adherence to or rejection of any particular religion or article of faith of that religion. It is this: how does he or she conceive of the public good they are putting themselves forward to serve? If, for example, the candidate has as a core moral value that the over-arching purpose of society is to provide individuals with the opportunity for the unfettered acquisition of goods, then that is something we have a right to know. And because such a core value has such profound implications for our common life it may be important to know on what foundation that value is grounded if we are to determine how deeply it is held. This in turn gives an indication of just how far such a president would go in seeking to see that moral value upheld. The same can be said of a candidate who has as a core moral value the belief that the over-arching purpose of society is to maximize individual freedom. That too is a core value of enormous societal implications. Once again it might well be important to know the basis of that conviction if we, the voters, are to assess how firmly it is held. Or yet again, there may be a candidate whose vision subordinates the individual to the collective good. It would be helpful to know that, and on what grounds it is held, in order to assess how far that president would go in order to achieve that end.
The importance of coming to some understanding of the moral values of candidates as they relate to public life—and the strength with which they hold them—is that, while the political rhetoric might have it otherwise, the most important categories of such values are not, in actual fact, mutually exclusive. Each of the examples I have given has significant claims on legitimacy for a public leader. But significant does not mean exclusive. So how would the candidate, should she or he become president, weigh such values, and why? It’s worth knowing.
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