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Temperance, or moderation, might seem like both the least attractive of the classical virtues and the least significant for a political leader. The elder George Bush often used the vocabulary of moderation and caution and got himself satirized on television and in the comic strips as timorous and weak ("wouldn't be prudent" was a laugh line for people whose main association with the word temperance is the benighted attempt in the last century to ban alcohol). But temperance is as crucial as any of the other virtues because its lack renders them less effective. Temperance is self-restraint, the ability to control (even say "no" to) harmful drives, impulses, and passions (one reason Aquinas thought it the most difficult virtue, even if the least lofty). It is an expression of discipline and self-mastery that allows a leader to function under pressure, including external pressure from extremists and ideologues to act rashly to accomplish immediate and simplistic goals.

Lincoln's conciliatory attitude toward the defeated South is a marked example of temperance amidst extremists (think also of Nelson Mandela). Harry Truman was noted for temperate intemperance, writing many angry letters and memos (including one calling for the destruction of every major Russian city) but having the temperance to never send them.

Personal intemperance makes a politician more susceptible to debilitating weaknesses such as anger, lust, and an inordinate need for popularity. Many argue that Bill Clinton's sexual appetites were irrelevant to his political leadership, but his famous overnight polling and use of focus groups to detect which way the popular winds were blowing suggest both an intemperate need to be liked and a lack of moral courage to make unpopular decisions. How much longer did Vietnam go on because of Lyndon Johnson's vanity and penchant for ignoring unpleasant realities, or Nixon's bitter, personal anger toward peace activists? Moderation matters.

Faith, Hope, Love—in a President?

Even those who acknowledge the relevance of the four classical virtues in evaluating presidential candidates might question the significance of the three biblical ones. And perhaps as virtues tied to a specific religious tradition they are potentially controversial. But to the extent that these too are universal qualities (as many social scientists and philosophers argue), they can be expressed in ways that both the religious and secular can affirm.

The ultimate expression of faith may be religious, but in nonsectarian terms it has to do with commitment to a larger story than one's individual life. Politically, faith is commitment to the story of America—its fundamental worth, its potential for good, its ability to heal its wounds. In this sense, both Martin Luther King—a prophetic critic—and Ronald Reagan—a vocal advocate—demonstrated great faith in America. The key issue in assessing this quality in a candidate is not whether they engage in happy talk about the country, but whether they are capable of calling people to have faith in its essential worth and to work to better realize that inherent possibility.

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How to Pick a President
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