You Can Trust Me

The Seattle Times columnist Eric Lacitis recently conducted something he called a Presidential Character Poll to find out how important character really is to voters. Lacitis listed 27 character flaws--everything from adultery to wiretapping--and asked 700 people how much they cared about each fault. Not much, it turned out. One typical ballot came back marked, "These aren't character flaws . . . they're criteria for being a politician." It makes me wonder: Do Americans care anymore about the character of their public officials? Several recent polls indicate that the answer is no. Columnist Charles Krauthammer reflected on this phenomenon in a recent column. "The last four years," Krauthammer wrote, "have shown that presidential character and national well-being can be quite independent variables." The belief that character doesn't count has been repeated so often that it appears to be part of our civic catechism. But the belief is dead wrong. If I had to name the single idea that is potentially fatal to democracy, the notion that character doesn't matter would be it. I'm not just talking about politicians who break the law. I'm talking about people whose embrace of the truth is purely provisional--people who lack integrity, or wholeness of character. To understand how vital integrity is to civil society, imagine that your club began electing officers who pilfered the club's silverware. Soon enough, traditional sanctions against spoon stealing would become an anachronism. After a while, club members would start wondering where the furniture and carpets disappeared to. Corruption at higher levels is a much more serious problem, of course. And yet the polls tell us that Americans are willing to support even candidates who have broken the law. We seem to have forgotten that our form of government was established on a foundation of public trust. But you can't have informed consent, or trust, when those who govern us are known liars. You see, the damage is not confined to a particular election. When we accept low standards of character--indeed, when we reward chiselers, cheats, and liars--we lose our ability to demand principled behavior in any area of life. For example, the latest educational rage is teaching character in our schools. But how can we demand that our young people live lives of integrity when they see us putting known criminals like Washington, D. C., Mayor Marion Barry into office? How can we demand that our kids obey the law when they see adults cheering on sports figures with long rap sheets? And how can we tell kids to say no to sex when they see trashy TV programs becoming hits because so many adults watch them? The answer is, we can't. A nation that does not demand high standards of character in its leaders will end up being a nation of barbarians. Anyone who doubts that ought to accompany me into a prison one day. Jesus said that the one who is faithful in small things will be faithful in big things. When we hear people say that character doesn't matter, you and I should remind them that the reverse of Jesus' words is true, too: that someone who isn't faithful in small things won't be faithful in big ones, either.


Chuck Colson


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