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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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 matters because God looks at the heart.
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.