Stellar New York preacher Tim Keller notes, "Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace."
Ideally, presidential candidates as well as pastors should be aware of their own sin and Christ's salvation-but any candidate who admits sin or even weakness in these latter days of negative advertising and gotcha! journalism is committing political suicide. George W. Bush's 1990s comments-"when I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible"-are probably as close as we're going to get.
Bill Sammon's The Evangelical President (Regnery, 2007) is the fourth volume of the Washington Times reporter's readable saga of the Bush administration. Sammon writes that when he told Bush the title of this volume, Bush asked, "Meaning what?" Sammon said it had both a religious meaning and a non-religious meaning in the sense of being a passionate advocate for liberating Iraq and warring against terrorism.
That's a broad definition, and "meaning what?" is a good question. Sammon quotes White House chief of staff Josh Bolton's sense that religious beliefs led Bush to restrict use of embryonic stem cells, but "the more important influence of his faith is in the comfort and confidence it gives him to follow his own moral compass."
I believe Bush is genuine, but that last sentence indicates the role "faith" often plays among presidential candidates. It gives them confidence: Their faith is often faith in themselves, a needed commodity among those who spend two years telling people, "Choose me! I'm the best." But presidents need the humility that awareness of sin brings.
Presidents also need to keep academic theorists in their place. Bill Greene's Common Genius: Guts, Grit & Common Sense (Laissez-Faire, 2007) declares its thesis in its subtitle: How Ordinary People Create Prosperous Societies and How Intellectuals Make Them Collapse. That's populist overstatement, but historical evidence does support Greene's lively argument that nations fall when "soft science" intelligentsia impose on them abstract theories that entice in the classroom but fail on the streets.
Greene notes as well current university problems: "Rules governing the range of acceptable thought have become overpowering, a situation reflecting the decline of academia. Recognition and awards go to those 'scholars' who most rigorously conform to and find a way to confirm prevailing notions." And one problem of the Democratic Party is that academics play a large role in developing its unrealistic policy prescriptions.
Bush appointees Lawrence Lindsey and Marc Sumerlin, in their book What a President Should Know (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), don't mention anything about Christian humility, but they do stress the need to reach for perspective beyond staff members subject to White House groupthink. The authors know that the West Wing is a small place with narrow staircases and often a narrow vision to what's needed to make the incumbent look good.
This useful book's common-sense prescriptions concerning economic and military policy become uncommon when political pressures emerge. For example, the question "Is the war winnable?" obviously needs to be asked before committing troops, but "winnable" cannot be defined merely in military terms: If political considerations and media opposition hamstring U.S. forces, the chances of winning decline.