The recent downfall of former Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg has refueled the debate that began with the thwarted presidential campaigns of Gary Hart and Joseph Biden: Does a leader’s personal moral character have any bearing on his ability to serve in public office?

With the news media continuing to look into such issues as drug abuse, adultery, and academic cheating, new questions are being raised about moral standards for leaders, reasonable public expectations, and the appropriate role of the media. CHRISTIANITY TODAY asked religious leaders, public officials, and other observers of the political scene to comment on the current climate.

Pros And Cons

“The public absolutely has the right to expect a certain moral standard from its leaders,” says Harry Dent, who served as special counsel to former President Richard Nixon. “… When people ask others to entrust them with a position of public honor …, [character] issues very definitely should be subject to examination.” Dent currently heads a ministry known as Laity: Alive & Serving.

Theologian Carl F. H. Henry agrees there is a connection between the private and the public. “If a congressman has an affair with a prostitute abroad and happens to be on a committee that governs funds to that nation, would not the threat of public exposure affect his political conduct?” he asks. “Do not the sins of the leaders contribute to the downfall of a nation?”

For Robert Dugan, director of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Washington Office on Public Affairs, the idea of holding leaders to a moral standard is rooted in the Bible. “In the Scriptures, higher standards are demanded of those who would presume to teach,” he says. “… So reasoning from that, I certainly believe people who are going to choose their leaders have every right to expect that they will be of excellent personal moral character.”

But defining those standards raises a problem. “I don’t think there is one carefully spelled-out moral standard for all leaders to follow,” says Patricia McClurg, president-elect of the National Council of Churches. “There is a general public expectation that the leaders will be leaders in all areas of life and in their personal life as well. But I don’t believe there is one absolutely clear job description here.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong (R-Colo.) also expresses concerns about a litmus-test attitude. “Issues of character and moral behavior are not only valid, they are an essential part of the equation when people are deciding who they want to vote for,” he says. “But, having said that, I’m really ill at ease about the direction that all of this is taking us. We’re getting into a situation where every candidate for every office and every appointed position is going to be asked a laundry list of highly personal questions.… And if the list gets long enough, I would assume that there is probably no candidate who could get a good score on such a thing.”

Drawing The Line

Where should Americans draw the line on what character issues are appropriate for public debate? U.S. Rep. Floyd Flake (D-N.Y.), an African Methodist Episcopal clergyman, says the Bible can help determine a standard. “I think there is a reasonable expectation that is consistent with our historical Judeo-Christian teachings in terms of living within the framework of some morality,” he says. “However, I think we also understand that our biblical interpretations talk about forgiveness and repentance, and that also needs to be included in the equation.”

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas says it is appropriate to question a political figure’s personal moral character if there is reason to believe that person is guilty of indiscretion. However, he adds, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to go on a witch hunt—a ‘do you now or have you ever’ line of questioning.…”

Senator Armstrong adds that the circumstances surrounding past behavior are helpful in determining whether questions are appropriate. “If it had come out that Judge Ginsburg had smoked marijuana as a youth, in a setting of immaturity, I would have felt that was a lot less serious than the fact that he evidently did so when he was well into his thirties and indeed was already a professor of law at one of the nation’s most important law schools and a role model for students.”

Ungentlemanly Code?

The proper role of the news media lies at the center of much of the discussion. In the past, the press corps honored an unspoken “gentlemen’s code” stipulating that reporters avoid covering private matters. Today, with that code apparently shattered, some people are questioning the press’s qualifications to delve into character issues. At a recent political gathering in Iowa, the Democratic presidential candidates were bombarded with questions about smoking marijuana. One reporter was overheard saying, to the amusement of a colleague, “If anybody ever asked us these questions, we’d be in big trouble!” Theologian Henry, a former newspaperman and magazine editor, says journalists have moral responsibilities in the current climate. “Is ethical integrity due from media leaders no less than political leaders?” he asks. “I would argue that indeed it is.”

Thomas contends that some of his colleagues’ intentions in pursuing character issues are less than honorable. “To a certain extent, the press looks for something new in every election.… Frankly, no issue is sexier than sex. It sells newspapers and air time and all the rest.…” Yet Thomas agrees it is valid for the media to be asking character questions, especially in the areas of drug abuse and illicit sex.

Flake, observing the trend both as a clergyman and as an elected official, sounds a cautionary note. “I think the danger is that this new emphasis on character issues opens the door for persons with axes to grind, realizing that the public is waiting, and almost salivating, to hear bad news about politicians. All it takes is one person who has a problem with you as an elected official to create an image that may not necessarily be true.”

By Kim A. Lawton.

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