Virtual Voices

Virtue vs. ideology

Campaign 2008

In an article for Christianity Today, Daniel Taylor and Mark McCloskey argue that when it comes to picking a president, candidates' virtue should trump their policies or ideology.

Taylor and McCloskey outline seven virtues: the four classical virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance) and the three Christian virtues (faith, hope and love).

Then they argue that one should look at how a candidate embodies these virtues instead of at his or her ideology. Taylor and McCloskey note that only character can predict how a candidate will respond to unforeseen events, like 9/11. They argue that policy and ideology are concepts that "work better in textbooks and tracts than in Washington."

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How do you read a candidate's character? The authors urge people to look at candidates' private lives, at their willingness to stand for conviction when it's not politically expedient, how they treat opponents, how they respond to power, and how they handle adversity in their own lives.

The ideas in the essay mesh with those embodied in the Evangelical Manifesto recently drafted and signed by evangelical leaders like Os Guinness and Rick Warren. The Manifesto condemned the politicizing of faith: "Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality."

Taylor and McCloskey propose a political criteria that tries to transcend the political categories of Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. It's not an exclusively Christian definition (a non-believer can embody the virtues as Taylor and McClokey define them), but it's carefully evangelical as the manifesto defines evangelical - free from any party, partisan ideology or economic system.

Do their arguments hold up? It seems difficult to separate candidates' "prudence" and "justice" from their policies, and what about candidates like Obama, whose virtue is less tested because he's young? Jimmy Carter - called the Democratic nominee most shaped by faith until Obama - also comes to mind as a good man who made a terrible president.

Yet Carter's piety didn't always include prudence or courage. Taylor and McCloskey argue, "[B]eing virtuous is, in itself, an expression of competence. Since virtue is a requirement for leadership, a lack of virtue in a leader is a sign of incompetence and grounds enough for rejecting that leadership." And an historical perspective is relevant. As Taylor and McCloskey look back into history, they make the case that bad leadership (Nixon and Johnson) and good leadership (Truman and Reagan) often transcends political labels.

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