Before the election, 52 percent of Americans said Hillary Clinton didn't have strong moral character, and a whopping 66 percent said the same of Donald Trump. Yet exit-polling reveals that 81 percent of "white evangelicals," 58 percent of "Protestant/other Christians" and 52 percent of Catholics voted for Trump, while 71 percent of Jewish voters, 45 percent of Catholics and 39 percent of "Protestant/other Christians" voted for Clinton.
The intervening months have validated voters' character concerns: Secretary Clinton used a private email server that, according to State Department investigators, "did not comply with the Department's policies...implemented in accordance with the Federal Records Act." Worse, she allowed staff to delete email evidence under subpoena. As for President Trump, we know he has made a number of—ahem—troublesome hirings and firings, while making "492 false or misleading claims." And now his administration is facing a maelstrom of scandals, congressional investigations, independent-counsel inquiries and even suggestions of impeachment.
These stats and facts lead to a number of questions: Does character still count? Are we living in a "post-character" America? And if so, where does that leave us as Christ followers?
The word character means "the moral qualities distinctive to an individual." It comes from the Greek kharakter: an "engraved mark," a "symbol or imprint on the soul."
To be sure, only God can see into a person's heart. So, assessing someone's character is a thorny task. Yet Proverbs 27 provides some guidance: "As water reflects the face, so one's life reflects the heart." Put another way: to know the heart, to get a sense of someone's character, look at how he lives.
That's what many people of faith asked their fellow Americans to do in 1992, during then-Governor Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. Back then, many Christians worried that candidate Clinton's character flaws would lead to problems for President Clinton and the nation.
Turns out they were right. By the late 1990s, after it was revealed that President Clinton had an affair with an intern and then committed perjury and obstructed justice in order to cover it up, Washington was gripped by a political scandal and constitutional crisis. All three branches of the federal government were afflicted by paralysis. A cloud of doubt hung over U.S. foreign policy and national security decisions. Closer to home, kids were forced to grow up too fast — and parents were forced to discuss too much, too soon — as evening newscasts turned into R-rated programming. As many warned, the White House didn't change President Clinton's character, and the nation wasn't immune from his character deficit.
Yet those 2016 exit-polling numbers reveal a dramatic change among Christian voters. How and why did this happen?
One possibility is pragmatic voting. Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush (and an evangelical who opposed Trump), concludes that many Christians "sensed real hostility to their institutions from law-school liberalism" reflected in the agenda of President Obama and Secretary Clinton.
Gerson may be on to something. After eight years of heavy-handed mandates demanding that Christian employers ignore their conscience, of government muscling-out religious liberty, of marriage-redefinition and transgender bathrooms — and a promise that all of that would accelerate — many prayerful people reckoned they had to do something, anything, to reverse their country's downward slide. So, they held their noses and voted for someone with major character flaws.
That was understandable and defensible. However, pragmatism can lead to its own slippery slope. Each time we justify this or rationalize that, lower our standards, wince at a candidate's behavior and then tell ourselves "nobody's perfect," accentuate one candidate's character flaws but downplay the other's, we push character further down the list of qualities that matter.
Friends and Foes
The reality is that character always matters — no matter what we tell ourselves.
Think about it: Even the least-judgmental, most-live-and-let-live people among us want their kids to develop good character. So, they challenge them to work hard, make good choices, learn from bad choices, keep their word, admit mistakes, and treat people with dignity and respect.
Even the least-judgmental, most-live-and-let-live people among us want their kids' teachers, coaches, babysitters and friends to have good character because character can be transferred from one to another. That "imprint on the soul" becomes indelible.
Even the least-judgmental, most-live-and-let-live people among us want their doctors, neighbors, accountants and mechanics to have good character because if they don't, it could harm them.
Character counts in our elected officials for all those reasons and a few others.
A president's character sets an example for young people. If the president — the most ubiquitous person in America — is unfaithful, untruthful, unkind or unscrupulous, it sends a message to kids that's the very opposite of what we teach them. We need our leaders to be people of good character because if they're not it has a corrosive effect on those whose character is not yet forged.
In addition, the people we elect are a reflection of us. A president's character says something about America to the rest of the world. If the president has major and obvious character flaws, allies might worry about him keeping his word, and foes might exploit his character flaws to their advantage.
Finally, a president's character affects us and our world in ways that the character of other leaders doesn't. We're not talking here about the prime minister of Canada or the CEO of Walmart. Owing to the reach, role and resources of the United States, America's president makes history daily, wields immense political, military and regulatory power, and can impact the lives of billions of human beings. It is for this very reason — because presidents are entrusted with such great power, because every decision they make is a search for the least-bad option, because we trust them to "bear the sword" — that they need to be people of character.
Perhaps this is why Proverbs 16 tells us "the throne" — the seat of power — "is established by righteousness." Proverbs 29 adds, "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice."
The conundrums and headaches of politics are enough to make us dust off our sandals and withdraw from the world. But what if God doesn't want that? What if He wants us to be "Christ's ambassadors" in a post-character world?
We are not the first generation to live in such a world.
David, who had his share of character issues but also had a heart for God, once asked, "When the foundations are being destroyed" — when the stuff upon which we build our culture no longer matters — "what can the righteous do?"
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, David's answer is comforting and clear: Remember that the Lord is still on His throne — our King is not in Washington — and remember that "He loves righteousness."
That's another word for good character. Genesis describes a time when the earth was "corrupt." Yet Noah rose above the mess around him. He was "a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time" — a man of character. How did Noah stay on the right track in the anything-goes world of his day? "He walked faithfully with God." It's simple to understand but hard to do, especially when the world around us is a mess. But Noah did it — and with God, so can we.
The culture surrounding Abraham was godless. But God showed in His dialogue with Abraham that He will save a city throbbing with evil for the sake of just ten righteous people. Why? Perhaps it's because He knows that through just one person of character, He can change the world. That's what He did through Abraham.
Moses was called to serve as heaven's ambassador to Pharaoh. God choose him because he was "more humble than anyone else." And that made all the difference. Speaking through Moses, God challenged His people to rise above the world with words that are just as apt today: "Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong."
Many years later, another child of God heeded those words. Rather than following the crowd. Mordecai interceded for his people and persuaded Esther to do what was right with words that still pierce our hearts: "Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?"
Herod was so poisoned by selfishness that he murdered uncounted children in a mad attempt to eliminate any threat to his power. But God had better plans, and He used Mary ("blessed among women") and Joseph ("a righteous man") to carry out those plans. Mary and Joseph literally delivered the Good News to the world at a time, not unlike ours, when character didn't seem to count.
Each of these heroes had to face political-cultural-governmental challenges to their beliefs. It's telling that none of them withdrew from the world or surrendered to it.
As we strive to follow their example, there's one more thing we must do.
When he moved into the White House, President John Adams offered a prayer. "May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof," he wrote. Similarly, Paul implored believers to offer "petitions, prayers and intercession" for "all those in authority."
These men understood that our leaders need our prayers. In some mysterious way, God uses intercessory prayer to help the one in need — and to help us see the one in need in a new light. That seems especially important today.