Van Ens: Strong character shapes leaders to pursue good, decent goals (column)

Jack Van Ens
My View

Ancient Greeks believed their leaders needed to show moral character. “Character” is formed by what we do and say in the dark when we assume no one is looking at us or hearing our conversation. Strong character shapes leaders to pursue good, decent goals. Bad character catapults them over slippery slopes of deceitful, bad results.

Our personal lives and national destiny are chiseled from the granite of character. When a president narrows the gap between what is promised and what is performed, character grows. Moreover, several noteworthy presidents testify how ethical resolve, moral persuasion and governing as an agency of human wellness for all people raises character in the Oval Office.

Prior to his presidency, Woodrow Wilson served as head of Princeton University. Although he was Princeton’s first president to lack a theology degree, being the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers shaped Wilson’s core values.

Biographer Patricia O’Toole writes of a moral urgency that shaped Wilson’s politics and personal life. He “… felt most alive when he was waging a moral war,” notes O’Toole. Her hope is that readers will seize what’s most compelling about Wilson’s character — “the story of a president who succeeded and failed by hewing his moral convictions — (and this) will start a serious conversation about the possibilities and complexities of moral leadership in a fractured world” (“The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made,” Simon and Schuster, 2018, p. xviii).

Other presidents have defined their major duty as winning at all costs, shading what’s true to satisfy their base, promoting short-term financial fixes for the wealthy few, praising dictators who deny human rights, belittling opponents during electioneering seasons and treating the office of president as a reality show scripted to sack rivals.

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A president who habitually shades the truth reveals faulty character. He struts wobbly arguments, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s gusto expressed for King Henry V at Agincourt.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt rejected such a deceitful utilitarian ethic that gets results but narrows the common good for all citizens.

Campaigning in 1932, FDR defined the presidential office’s moral dimensions.

“The presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient,” Roosevelt noted. “It is primarily a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified” (The New York Times, “Roosevelt’s view of the big job,” Sept. 11, 1932).

At the turn of the 20th century, another Roosevelt wrestled with the responsibility of presiding as moral leader over the United States. Occupying the Oval Office in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. wrote to Maria Longworth Storer on Dec. 8 about not having to rank No. 1 in every legislative fight.

“Every day, almost every hour, I have to decide very big as well as very little questions, and in almost each of them, I must determine just how far it is safe to go in forcing others to accept my views and standards and just how far I must subordinate what I deem expedient and, indeed, occasionally what I deem morally desirable …”

Does our nation still expect the person filling the presidential office to practice civility, read widely and refrain from self-aggrandizement? Scripture co-opted classical moral values from Roman culture with which God endows leaders and citizens, “… whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious … think on these things (Philippians 4:8).

Why is a president’s moral voice important to our national destiny?

Historian Jon Meacham succinctly answers: “And those voices carry the farthest when they call for fairness, not favors; for simple justice, not undue advantage” (“The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” Random House 2018, p. 44).

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, to enhance Christian worship through storytelling and presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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