White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Does Character Count?

Published Thursday, May 3, 2007 By David VanDrunen

The question of whether the character of our political leaders really matters is frequently asked. Perhaps it is frequently asked because the answer is not necessarily obvious. On the one hand, many, if not most, people, and certainly most Christians, instinctively believe that character must certainly matter. The idea that those who are entrusted with upholding justice in society would themselves be personally corrupt seems strikingly wrong. On the other hand, thinking theoretically, there seems to be nothing impossible about a person with a lousy personal life making wise and just public policy decisions. Practical examples of this are readily available, and the fact that our social order has not imploded, despite the well-known vices of our political leaders, is undeniable. A firm but moderate answer to the question, Does character count?, would seem to be in order.

First, surely we must answer that character does count. But why is this? The insight of some ethicists may be helpful initially. Many writers who have looked at ethics through the lens of character or virtue have concluded that virtue is a holistic matter. That is, one part of a person’s character cannot ultimately be separated from another part of his character-an individual vice or virtue cannot be viewed as an isolated matter, but is in sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious ways connected with the whole of who that person is. The basic truth of this insight would seem to be confirmed by the teaching of Proverbs about wisdom. In Proverbs, wisdom is an all-embracing thing that determines the entire course of a person’s moral life. The attainment of wisdom involves understanding “righteousness and justice and equity, every good path” (Prov. 2:9, esv). Significantly, it is the same wisdom that is to guide kings in their quest for justice that is also to guide each person in avoiding adultery, laziness, malicious talk, and many other things. The political leader who falls into adultery is reckoned a fool, and fools are precisely the sort of people who are unfit to govern justly.

Yet, were we to stop here, the picture would probably be oversimplified. Though corruption of character adversely affects one’s ability to rule justly, purity of character does not guarantee that one will rule justly either. In other words, more than good character is necessary for just leadership. Among other necessary ingredients are knowledge of relevant subject matters and experience in political decision making. Who would expect a man who is eminently virtuous, yet with no knowledge of other cultures and international relations to make just decisions on matters of foreign policy? While political figures with good character have advantages over those who do not, so also political figures with vast knowledge and long experience have advantages over those who lack these things.

Perhaps this complexity of what is required of people who would rule justly helps to explain why character counts and yet does not determine everything. The sort of people we desire to be our governors-who have wisdom and virtue, experience and expertise-are few and far between. However, few individuals of whatever sort have possessed autocratic power to determine the course of nations by their solitary judgments. By his common grace, God gives rulers their advisors and tempers their power through lower magistrates and governmental systems of checks and balances. Such realities often help to blunt the weaknesses, whether moral or intellectual, of those in power and prevent the worst consequences of their failings from coming to fruition.

Does character count? Of course it does. But other things count, too, and our judgments and evaluations of our political leaders should be nuanced enough to take the many relevant considerations into account.

  • David VanDrunen