This is July 4th and I am re-reading the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution written eleven years later; amazing documents. While many consider them to be “inspired,” they are not inerrant; the 28 amendments to the Constitution are witness to that. Also the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments in particular prove that the Constitution has blind spots and must supported by something more if it going to provide the foundation for continuing freedom.
Os Guiness has written in A Free Peoples Suicide that there are many people in America today who scorn religious fundamentalism but are hard at work creating “a constitutional fundamentalism. It is being done through lawyers and judges rather than rabbis, priests, and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical.” First amendment rights are being argued as the basis for opposing agendas and the interpretation of the Constitution itself is at the whim of political bias. Thus this incredible document alone cannot form the foundation for sustainable freedom. It needs to be supported by something else.
Guinness offers; “What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of liberty.” Tocqueville called this moral ecology the “habits of the heart.” Guinness calls it “the golden triangle of freedom…freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom.”
What resonates with me, most likely because we have been assaulted by months of political campaigning, is the diminishing importance of virtue (character) that we see in our nation. We stress a written Constitution over the moral constitution of our nation’s citizenry and leadership. Unfortunately, examples of this are not hard to find.
Look at the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 when he was the sitting president. He was not convicted by the Senate of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”(Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution), and the overall consensus to the whole “affair” was that the character of the president was irrelevant as a public issue. What really matters to our society is competence– not character. Look at the unrestrained greed and unfettered capitalism of the Wall Street crisis and the recession of 2008. Look at the present political scenario and the upcoming election that will boil down to which untrustworthy candidate America trusts more. Our nation has sown the wind by making faith and virtue a private matter; it is now reaping the whirlwind of having two presidential candidates with serious personality flaws.
George Reedy, special assistant to Lyndon Johnson looked back on his experience in the halls of power and said, “in the White House, character and personality are extremely important because there are no other limitations…. Restraint must come from within the presidential soul and prudence from the presidential mind. The adversary forces which temper the action of others do not come into play until it is too late to change course.”(The Twilight of the Presidency, 1970, p. 20)
In spite of their importance, experience and competence are not the most important ingredients to what we should look for in a leader. We need a person of character who has demonstrated trustworthiness in his/her private world as well as in the public square. It is not the rhetoric or the promises for the future, but it is what they have done about keeping their promises in the past, both privately and publicly.
I think Os Guinness borders on the profound when he says, “Externally character is the bridge that provides the point of trust that links leaders with their followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides a leader’s deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint when the dizzy heights of leadership mean there are no other limitations.”
Our Constitution is a magnificent document and we can be thankful for it. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our nation can be sustained by a document alone without the virtue of its leaders and citizenry. “A good government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual and slavery will ensue.” (John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.)
May God have mercy on America!