I was asked recently whether we really ought to snoop into the private lives of politicians. For all their private vices, my interrogator continued, haven’t many wicked emperors in the past been effective national leaders? Doesn’t the question of personal peccadilloes divert attention from a discussion of more legitimate political concerns?

Given the rash of media revelations about the lives of presidential candidates—dirty tricks, exaggerated résumés, plagiarism, premarital conception and extramarital liaison (and who knows what next)—it is natural to ask: Is it really all that important to focus on the personal morality of politicians?

Should evangelicals in particular concentrate on the importance of character and moral integrity in public life?

Yes and no.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Sin stains the story not only of some prominent politicians and candidates, but of all their media critics, and of evangelical leaders also. Even the so-called Moral Majority—from which liberal press and liberal politicos distanced themselves—must admit its own immoralities. The matter of choosing a president or governor or congressman is not a matter of immaculately conceived voters nominating sinless leaders. We live in a sinful society to which we are all contributing units.

2. Not even civil government requires inner purity. Government is concerned with justice, public conduct, and fair dealing. Legislation concerns what is lawful and unlawful. That does not mean that motivation is wholly irrelevant—the distinction between intentional murder and accidental manslaughter is important. But the courts do not decide whether defendants are moral or immoral; only whether they acted ...

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