Although Mondays are normally reserved for lightly edited questions from students, today I’m fudging a little. This is a question from a teacher about what his student had said.
We had a heated discussion in the government class I teach after I assigned an online article of yours in which you claimed that it's impossible to be a bad man and a great statesman. Here's what one of my students wrote:
“I've been thinking a lot about whether a bad man can be a great statesman. I know that this is possible from history. David lusted after women, killed the innocent and lied. I'm not saying I judge him for that -- I respect his choice by God -- but he did commit all these evils, and he was corrupt. Or look at Jefferson. I would say he was a good statesman, but we now know that he had illegitimate children with his slaves. FDR was morally flawed -- he cheated on his wife. I'm not defending sin. I just have a difficult time hearing Christians criticize anyone for his actions. Do any of these critics respond with forgiveness, as they are commanded to do? Some, probably, but the vast majority sit on their high horses. Their righteousness is like filthy rags. That's why I can't agree to the author's otherwise persuasive argument.”
What do you think?
It’s striking how readily people soak up ideas from the secular culture and then put a Christian spin on them. Your student’s reasoning is that since anyone can be forgiven, therefore we are not entitled to judge the character of those who ask to rule us -- instead we should forgive them. What he overlooks is that only those who repent of their wrongdoing can be forgiven for it, and that rulers in general are much
more well known for obstinate persistence in evil than for repentance. Because some obstinate sins are even more reckless and dangerous to the common good than others, as citizens we have both a right and a need to judge the character of those who rule us. Your student judges only those “filthy” citizens who try.
Since your student is trying to reason from the Bible, you might point out to him that the Bible actually requires certain kinds of judgment. For example, Christ demands in 7:24, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment,” and in Matthew 7:16 he warns against those “who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” Read in context, His famous statement in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” is not a condemnation of judgment in general, but of judging others by higher standards than we apply to ourselves.
You might also point out to your student that the sacred writings of the Christian tradition repeatedly emphasizes the need for rulers to have wisdom and virtue. This theme runs throughout the book of Proverbs, not to mention the historical books of the Old Testament, which link every national calamity to the sins of the rulers and people. King David was able to do great things not because of his sin, but because of his willingness to repent of his sin. Would he have been such a great ruler if he had not listened to the prophet Nathan, who called him to judgment?
As I’ve written on this blog, it's true that a bad man may occasionally do something good. When he does, however, he does it either because of some spark of virtue left in him, or else for some bad motive like admiration or glory -- in other words, by coincidence. Though such things happen sometimes (rocks sometimes fall from the sky), you can't count on them. If you want someone you can trust, you should seek a man who is wise and good. Who could deny that? We shouldn't judge character hypocritically or self-righteously, but we must judge character.
Only a fool would hire a thug to babysit his children, and only a crook would hire a crook to balance his books. What is it that makes this common sense inapplicable when we hire scoundrels to rule the country?