Editor’s Note: A version of this article was posted by USA Today. Click here to read it.
Washington is an amazing city. On a recent Saturday night, I found myself chatting with former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. In the late 80’s, Mayor Barry was running around town in an addled state and eventually caught in a hotel with a prostitute smoking what, according to him, was a mystery substance. According to the Feds, it was crack cocaine. Eventually, Congress exerted authority over the city to root out corruption and keep it from becoming modern-day Detroit. Barry emerged from prison fairly unfazed, with a few notable setbacks, and was elected to the city council, where he resides today, still explaining the conspiracy against him.
So what’s the point? Politicians get caught doing immoral things all the time. Look at today’s headlines about Anthony Weiner, Bob Filner, and, in recent months, Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina). Here’s the point: Character counts. Our nation’s leaders serve an important function, with responsibilities far past holding fundraisers and riding in Independence Day parades. They run our government and make decisions that eventually affect all of our lives. Bad or impaired judgment doesn’t usually end in one’s personal life. Dishonesty, compulsions, and addictions damage normal people’s lives. How much more so for people who have great authority and much to lose if confronted or caught once again making the wrong choice. This is not judgment but, instead, common sense.
We have become so afraid of being judged – as well as being perceived as judgmental – that we fail to exercise rational thought. But “judge” we must for several reasons. First, by running for office they have literally asked to be judged. Our vote is a tacit judgment on the fitness of someone to serve as the people’s representative in public office. Secondly, the practical need for sober thoughtful leadership. Lastly, our kids deserve better, and we don’t have to settle. In the gripping book, 7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, Eric Metaxas makes the point that we discarded as provincial the role models of yesteryear. Metaxas reminds us of the very human men who dared great and mighty things and ultimately changed history. George Washington, though complicated, turned down the ultimate power trip of becoming King, not once but twice.
Which brings one to the subject of power. Peggy Noonan correctly pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “How to Find Grace After Disgrace,” that these men are asking the wrong question. Instead of looking to come back from a scandal in order to wield power, they should be asking how to become men of character.
Barry, Filner, Wiener, Sanford, and every one of us are broken people. I stand with the Apostle Paul and several millennia of sinners in need of redemption. Individually, we daily seek God’s forgiveness through Jesus and work to be a blessing to others. On a political level, redemption, just like for everyone else, must follow true personal repentance. Then, and only then, can healing begin for any of us.
However, the goal must not be power. It must be character. Instead of looking to the Bill Clintons of the world as the model for success, we should look to Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. After serving seven months in federal prison for Watergate, Colson returned to Washington, not to try to rehabilitate his political career but, instead, to embrace his failure and to build an international ministry to prisoners and their families. Colson’s prison ministry here and abroad astonished experts on the rock bottom repeat criminal behavior rates which protects the public as well as prisoners and their families. (A 2003 University of Pennsylvania study found that graduates of Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative in Texas were 50 percent less likely to be re-arrested and 60 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated, compared to the matched comparison group.) Chuck died a hero in 2012 after spending his last thirty-six years caring for “the least of these.” He went from being a selfish, power hungry Washington insider to changing the lives of millions. Now that, my friend, is power, redemption, and character. He never became mayor or congressman or president, but I know he heard “well done” from the ultimate Judge.