Van Ens: Where is the president’s moral plumb line? (column) |

Van Ens: Where is the president’s moral plumb line? (column)

Jack Van Ens

A bricklayer uses a plumb line to gauge whether the wall he builds is vertically straight. Does the presidential office exhibit a moral plumb line that measures how upright its occupant is?

What does the presidential office’s moral core look like?

The president serves all citizens, not only his constituency. In the past, most Americans expected the chief executive to practice mutual respect, generosity toward differing convictions, listening to others from the heart and resolve to improve after making mistakes.

“With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable,” wrote Utah’s Republican Sen. Mitt Romney in an op-ed for The Washington Post on Jan. 2, 2019. The GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee judged that Donald Trump “has not risen to the mantle of the office.” Lacking character is “… where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.”

Sen. Romney believes the Oval Office’s moral plumb line has disappeared. Most Trump supporters care less about character flaws because they like the president’s blunt style that produced a giant tax cut and seats conservative judges.

Character counts little in the presidential office, laments Rice University’s presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “He’s (Trump) dynamited the institution of the presidency,” Brinkley told The Associated Press. “He doesn’t see himself as being part of a long litany of presidents who will hand a beacon to a successor. Instead, he uses the presidency as an extension of his own (wrecking-ball) personality” (The Denver Post, “Trump Takes Wrecking Ball to How Washington Works,” The Associated Press’s Jonathan Lemire, Dec. 30, 2018, p. 6A).

Whether the president’s personality is decisive or abrasive, whether his tax-cut favors the rich or benefits all Americans isn’t the defining trait of his presidency. Trump’s guiding principle that money matters more than morals stains the presidential office.

On the Tuesday prior to Thanksgiving, the president rejected the CIA’s conclusion that the Saudi Crown Prince ordered the barbaric execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” Trump evasively replied. A waffling response washed of moral judgment.

The Saudis “are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it. We got it … I don’t wanna hurt jobs,” said Trump in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Oct. 13, 2018, when pressed for a moral response to the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a frequent critic of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The president avoided the biblical imperative that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to what’s bad” when governing (Romans 13:3).

Trump stains the presidential office, says Max Boot, former Editorial Features Editor at The Wall Street Journal. He sizes up the corrupt president as “… a liar, a cheat and a bully without an ounce of dignity, empathy or decency. In place of his soul he has a black hole. The only way to make himself feel better — to fill the emptiness inside — is to abuse those weaker than himself,” writes Boot.

Humane people know in their guts that its abusive to separate immigrant children from parents, to mock as anarchists sexually-abused women and to evade paying taxes. These wrong actions tarnish the presidential office’s moral core.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt keyed in the Oval Office’s moral plumb line during the 1932 presidential campaign. “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 insisted.

“It is pre-eminently 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, Anne O’Hare McCormick, “Roosevelt’s View of the Big Job: The Presidency is ‘a Superb Opportunity for Applying the Simple Rules of Human Conduct,’ Says the Candidate,” Sept. 11, 1932).

Now is the hour for citizens to apply the moral plumb line our Founding Fathers believed measures how upright a president’s word and conduct are.

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

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