“Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”
Southern Baptist Convention, June 1, 1998
“Is it not baffling, then, that so many Christians seem to be sure that they are saving human lives and freedoms by treating as minimal the destructive effects of the spreading gangrene of high-profile, high-handed, culture-shaping sin?”
Theologian and pastor John Piper, October 22, 2020
One of the sad realities of the present moment is the extent to which many millions of Americans have to be convinced that some rather foundational civilizational values are in fact true and good. In the constitutional context, for example, no longer can one simply say, “Your plan will violate the First Amendment” and hope to win an argument. Instead, one often has to go back a step, and first convince an audience of the virtue of free speech before one can even begin to create any concern for a violation of a person’s legal rights.
Similarly, we’re no longer in a position (especially in parts of the American Christian community) where one can point out a political leader’s serious moral defects and expect believers to think there is any serious problem with those defects—unless and until one can tie those defects to specific poor policy choices. The leader, in this conception, is essentially a producer of specific laws and policies, and it’s the laws and policies that then shape the nation, not the character of the man or woman in power.
Interestingly, I’ve never really seen this principle applied outside of politics—and I never heard it strongly argued before the age of Trump. In the world of business, for example, we see even CEOs or managers who run profitable enterprises fired and even disgraced for personal scandals that are completely unrelated, say, to their plans for a new product line.
Moreover, outside of politics, we don’t even think twice about these character tests. Why? Because their necessity is self-evident. In a company, in a church, in a military unit—everywhere, really—leaders are culture-makers. They’re culture-shapers. And they have an immense impact on the institutions they lead, the people they lead, and the communities they influence.
And this brings me to John Piper and the two quotes above. Last Thursday, hours before the final presidential debate, Piper became one of the most prominent Evangelical leaders in the United States to speak as plainly and clearly about the power of character to shape a nation as Evangelicals did in 1998, when Bill Clinton was in their crosshairs. It was an important moment, not least because he took the trouble to explain not just that “character counts,” but why it counts so very much.
His essay, published on the Desiring God website, begins with an explosive claim, that the sins of “unrepentant sexual immorality,” “unrepentant boastfulness,” “unrepentant vulgarity,” and “unrepentant factiousness” aren’t just deadly for an individual’s soul (absent repentance), they’re deadly to a nation.
Wait. Deadly to a nation? Can he be serious? Here it’s worth quoting Piper at some length:
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.
This is true not only because flagrant boastfulness, vulgarity, immorality, and factiousness are self-incriminating, but also because they are nation-corrupting. They move out from centers of influence to infect whole cultures. The last five years bear vivid witness to this infection at almost every level of society.
There is a character connection between rulers and subjects. When the Bible describes a king by saying, “He sinned and made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 14:16), it does not mean he twisted their arm. It means his influence shaped the people. That’s the calling of a leader. Take the lead in giving shape to the character of your people. So it happens. For good or for ill.
Piper is absolutely correct. We see the power of leaders in scripture, and we see the power of leaders in our own lives. That power emanates from leaders at the smallest scale (our own families) to the largest scale (our president).
In my career I’ve been in institutions that were led well and institutions that were led poorly, and one of the cardinal characteristics of good leadership is that the leader creates an environment where he or she models and rewards virtue and excellence.
Virtuous leadership is a great gift to the people you lead and influence. It’s an act of love. If you’ve ever gone from a dysfunctional environment to a place where character truly counts, it’s as if an immense weight is removed from your shoulders. It’s liberating. It’s invigorating. It’s life-giving.
Let’s put it this way: While even healthy institutions are never perfect, in a healthy institution, virtue is rewarded and vice is the rebellion. In unhealthy institutions, the opposite is often the case—vice is rewarded and virtue is rebellious. And that reality creates a radiating set of pressures that place immense strains even on good men and women.
I’ll never forget, for example, watching Mitt Romney—a wealthy and powerful man in his own right—deliver his speech explaining his decision to become the first senator in the history of the United States to vote to convict an impeached president from his own political party. The difficulty of the moment was evident from his delivery. It is hard to defy those with more power, even if you possess considerable means and influence.
We know this to be true. We feel it in our own lives in those times when we are faced with the terrible choice—defy or comply. When dysfunction reigns, destruction often follows. When vice is the path of least resistance—especially when that vice permits us to indulge in our own temptations—then sin can spread like a virus.
In 1998, Christian leaders knew this. They watched, aghast, as some secular cultural leaders began excusing or minimizing adultery for the sake of defending a powerful man. They were stunned when the avatars of pop culture hounded and mocked Monica Lewinsky for her role in the affair. Other leading figures mocked Clinton’s critics as puritanical. These words might sound strange in the #MeToo era, but I was there. I remember.
What were the lessons radiating from the Oval Office? Marriage is not sacred. Lies about sex are of little importance.
What are the lessons radiating from this Oval Office? Marriage still isn’t sacred. Lies about anything are of little importance. Cruelty can be a virtue.
Are those lessons having an effect? Undoubtedly, yes. Moreover, it’s remarkably easy to adopt the ethos and methods of the world’s most powerful man. Imitating Clinton required finding a Monica. Imitating Trump requires merely opening your Facebook app, hurling insults, and hitting “enter.”
But wait, you might object. Those sins are serious, no question, but they are nothing compared to the sins that Trump fights—including mainly the sin of abortion. But where do those sins come from? As Piper says, they come from “the very character that so many Christian leaders are treating as comparatively innocuous, because they think Roe and SCOTUS and Planned Parenthood are more pivotal, more decisive, battlegrounds.”
Trump cannot end abortion. Even if SCOTUS overturns Roe, it will not overturn abortion. That will require a culture that emphasizes love, selfless sacrifice, and mutual support. If a “pro-life” president uses his immense power to flaunt “boastfulness, vulgarity, immorality, and factiousness” even as he purports to modestly change policy, he is ultimately destructive to the culture Christians seek to create.
Piper puts it more bluntly: “It is naive to think that a man can be effectively pro-life and manifest consistently the character traits that lead to death—temporal and eternal.”
One last thing…
I don’t have much to say to introduce this song, except that it’s based on one of my favorite psalms, beautifully sung—and it’s a reminder that as earthly leaders fail, our Heavenly Father will not:
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.