“The Character Issue”

                                                                  August 2, 2015


I Samuel 16:1-13


So, how’s the presidential campaign going?

This past week Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush both spoke at the annual convention of the National Urban League. The New York Times reported that “In a biting surprise attack, delivered as Mr. Bush...waited backstage… Mrs. Clinton portrayed him as a hypocrite who had set back the cause of black Americans.

This was the same week in which former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush appeared together on the cover of Time magazine—showcasing their civility and their ability to work together.

While Jeb didn’t respond directly to Hillary’s remarks, his aides, the Times reports, “could barely hide their disgust over Mrs. Clinton’s remarks, which they spoke of, bitterly, as uncivil and uncalled-for.”

That’s how it’s going—and my guess is that’s how it’s going to go.

On one of the rare positive notes, I read recently that Bob Vander Plaats has been meeting regularly with Donna Red Wing of One Iowa, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iowans. The purpose is to encourage “a mutual modicum of respect and a commitment to civility,” Red Wing said. This is actually an amazing story that I don’t have the time to talk about today—but these two leaders are relating to each other through, as one person put it, “Quiet conversations and being Iowan.” So there is some hope.

We need civility in our public discourse—and don’t find it often enough.

I was thinking about all of this and remembered the seventeenth century Puritan, George Fenwick, one of the founders of Old Saybrook, the small, Connecticut town whose Congregational church I served before coming here—eight years ago this week. On the Fenwick’s grave are the words, “A Good Man Is A Public Good.”

“A Good Man Is a Public Good.” That epitaph suggests that there is a connection between the virtue—the personal morality of a woman or a man—and the well-being of the community. The “public good,” it would seem, is enhanced by the goodness of an individual.

Many today would agree with those sentiments written over three hundred years ago. Civil character enhances our common good.

So this morning I want to lift up the “character issue.”

I have to confess that talk about character does make me a little jumpy.

After all, the last great “character crusade” in this country was Prohibition, an ill-fated attempt by Protestants to use the government to make people virtuous. And the smugness of so many makes it hard to talk about “character.”

People have used the language of character to exclude women, gays and lesbians, foreigners, anyone who wasn't white not only from power but even from public debate.  We need to be careful lest talk of character serves to exempt large populations and interests from public dialogue.

I recognize, too, that it's far easier to talk about social ills than individual behavior. But the fact is: it is individual behavior—greed, violence, criminal actions, racism, disregard for others—that has led to the sick society in which we live.

This is the division. It was said that the buzz phrase of the Iowa Democrat’s Hall of Fame Dinner last month was “income inequality.” And when the “Family Leadership Summit” was held here in July, moderator Frank Luntz said, “It won’t just be about policy. It will be about personal character…”

We have an opportunity to join in an important discussion about what we want not only from our leaders but also from ourselves. But for the most part, with the exception of the yammering from the religious right, the churches haven’t had much to say. One prayer of confession states: “We have been silent when we should have spoken.” Those words are probably appropriate in this case.

Character matters.

And in an attempt to find leaders with character, we often consider their religious leanings. This is the case in Iowa as we move toward the caucuses. And even more so, the candidates often try to convince voters of their piety.

Scott Walker tells us that his presidential bid is “God’s plan” for him.

Before he announced his candidacy, former Ohio governor John Kasich told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he was “trying to determine if this is what the Lord wants.”

Of course, it’s not always this way. When Donald Trump was in Ames last month, he shocked some in the audience by the language that he used. He struggled with his response when asked if he had ever sought forgiveness by God, finally admitting that he hadn’t, saying “I don’t bring God into that picture.” Between the language and that statement, one woman from Lovilia concluded: “He sounds like he isn’t really a born-again Christian.”

As Pope Francis would say, “Who am I to judge?” But probably not. Probably not.

As we follow the story in First and Second Samuel this summer, we are learning, as the people of ancient Israel learned, that piety is no guarantor of character.

Earlier this summer we heard the story of Samuel finding David and anointing him as king. David and his brothers were lined up in front of Samuel, who hears a voice whispering in his ear: “Pay no attention to his outward appearance and stature…The LORD does not see as a mortal sees; mortals see only appearances but the LORD sees into the heart.”

At first that sounds like good news to those of us who are not tall, beautiful, or wealthy. God looks beyond these things and sees—what?—our good hearts? Our virtuous character?


There must be something else here as well. Something beyond appearance. Something . . .it must be . . .in the heart.


But we know where this story goes. And it isn’t a pretty place. This is David who will take off his clothes and go dancing in the street. This is David who will watch as Bathsheba takes a rooftop bath. This is David who, after a liaison with Bathsheba—indeed, what could fairly be called the rape of Bathsheba—that results in a pregnancy, will have her husband killed. This is David whom one writer calls “an oversexed bandit.”

This is David, of whom God said to Samuel: "This is the man. Rise and anoint him."

For David, too, there was the “character issue.” He was not a paragon of virtue. And yet we are told that the Spirit of God came mightily upon David. He was remembered as Israel's greatest king. And when Jesus of Nazareth came riding into Jerusalem a thousand years later, the people welcomed him with the shout: “Hosanna to the son of David.”

This morning we read the Psalmist’s assessment of human character: “They are all corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one.”

The real character issue is this: none of us have much. At one time or another we all show how intemperate, imprudent, unjust, and lacking in fortitude we are. Most of us would admit that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love are in short supply.

As much as we desire virtue or character in ourselves and our leaders, as much as we would like to see character encouraged and rewarded in our children, we have to start by accepting its absence in our own lives.

Most of our Presidents have been morally tarnished in one way or another. Many have committed adultery or lied to the nation—or both. But even without the revelations about our elected leaders, our moral sense has been corroded by what has been called the “steady drip-drip-drip of everyday lying and cheating.”

Character is important. But it isn't everything. For, in a sense, all character is shot through with holes, riddled with defects.

Beyond character is forgiveness—the ability to accept it, the ability to offer it. When the character of others lets us down, when our own character isn't enough, by the grace of God we can discover the reality of the forgiveness that allows us to go on anyway. The Christian concept of “repentance”—of turning in a different direction—can be a gift to our society.

In fact, it might be that until we understand the need for and the possibility of forgiveness, there can be no virtue, no character, only a weak self-righteousness. Paradoxically, if character is to develop, it will grow out of our sense of sin and failure rather than out of some false perfectionism.

The character issue will probably be with us for some time now. And that's a wonderful opportunity for those of us in the church to offer something significant to our society.

We can’t rely on our politicians—or for that matter our athletes and our celebrities—to be our exemplars or to teach character to our children. That is not their job. That responsibility belongs to parents—and to faith communities like this one who, in baptism, have received children into our love and care and promised to uphold and encourage parents. It is a tough job. And we have got to do it.

Character matters.

It matters because God looks at the heart.

Character is possible because the God who looks at the heart also forgives and invites us to live in ways that offers that forgiveness to others.

A good woman, a good man, is a public good. Perhaps the first step toward a new public good is for each of us to learn again the forgiving love of God and to share that love with our neighbors.