The word honor has little currency these days. Outside the unique world of the military, there are few people, young or old, who navigate their lives by that shining star. Similarly with shame. Embarrassment is something people try to avoid. But shame is deeper, more moral in content.
People rocket to stardom for their shamelessness. With the advent of social media, people who once were shy about having their picture taken now photograph themselves in circumstances most people would once have been ashamed to publicize. (Notice: Photograph themselves.)
Anthony Weiner is a political example of how shame has left us and opened us to danger. Caught essentially exposing himself via Twitter, he resigned his seat in Congress in 2011—but under political pressure, not the pall of shame. Less than two years later, he was running for New York City mayor, in the meantime still flashing himself to random women via cell phone. When caught in the same scandalous behavior after his supposed rehabilitation, he continued his campaign as though he had been caught failing to recycle. In a recent ad, Weiner compared the political obstacles he is facing over his bizarre and unfaithful sex life with “people all around New York City who get up in the morning with a pretty tough day ahead of them.” Like them, he’s sort of heroic.
On the voter side, while it is true he dropped 10 points in the July 29 Quinnipiac poll, from 26 percent in first place to 16 percent in fourth place, nonetheless 16 percent of New York’s likely Democratic primary voters name Weiner as their first choice for the city’s mayor. While 40 percent say his recent behavior disqualifies him for the office (but only 40 percent), another 40 percent see it as only a factor though not necessarily disqualifying.
Weiner is only the most recent example. And these things are nothing new. Bill Clinton was equally shameless when his kinky relations with Monica Lewinsky were all over the news and the focus of attention on late-night comedy programs. Even when faced with impeachment over lying to a grand jury in connection with the scandal, he refused to step down. If cell phones had been available to Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, history might have been different.
Democratic elections are no guarantee against bad people getting into political power. Our Founders understood this. So they gave us a republic of limited government secured by checks and balances within a system of separated powers. But even that is insufficient to protect the public against power hungry, abusive narcissists. A political culture that includes a moderate love of honor and fear of shame adds a restraint for office-holders and office-seekers alike. These sentiments, like good character in general, function as an internal policeman, watching and restraining when the press, the public, and political opponents cannot see.
Ideally, the fear of God, the love of Christ, and the fruit of the Spirit are a public official’s best restraint and guide (Ezekiel 36). But as these are rare among the politically ambitious, honor and shame are a more likely and more reliable restraint to supplement the genius of modern republican institutions. But we cannot expect the restraint of shame in our leaders if we, from whom they are chosen, have forgotten how to blush (Jeremiah 6:15).