In his first inaugural address in 1789, George Washington said he hoped "that the foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” He called on “free government” to exemplify the attributes that will make its citizens proud and “command the respect of the world."
The kind of public and private morality that Washington called for in our nation’s leaders did not require them to be perfect. But it did necessitate integrity and congruency regardless of the situation.
If America is going to remain a beacon of hope and freedom, it must repudiate that which degrades and debases our common morality. As Washington said, we must instead embrace values that engender the loyalty and trust of the citizenry and “command the respect of the world."
James Allen wrote, “Circumstances do not make the man, but reveal him.” He was right.
Throughout the ages, seemingly great men and great women have been exposed as less than noble, less than genuine and even less than human when presented with power, influence, fame or faced with challenging circumstances. The reverse is also true — seemingly ordinary men and women, when thrust into the most difficult situations, or provided a compromised path to prominence, have risen to extraordinary heights of courage, character and selflessness.
Observing how a person treats both other people and the truth, especially when in a position of power or of prominence, will manifest much about who they are deep inside, and what they will likely do in the future. What you are at your core is the basis of your strength and is also what enables you to do what is right — under pressure, or even when no one is looking. That core, exposed in such circumstances, actually reveals the source of personal integrity.
Sheri Dew, CEO of Deseret Book, provided this excellent observation:
“Anything that lacks integrity is unstable, as any engineer will tell you. A bridge or skyscraper that has structural integrity simply does what it was built to do. It isn’t necessarily perfect. It could have flaws. But, under stress, pressure and repeated use, it does what it was built to do. Even in extreme circumstances it will do what it was designed to do. If, on the other hand, a structure does not have structural integrity, it will at some point fail.”
Public service, especially the presidency of the United States of America, is filled with pressure and uncomfortable circumstances. The question will be whether our elected leaders demonstrate integrity and morality in public discourse and private moments.
Will our leaders stand up under such pressure, power and prominence and — regardless of the setting or circumstance — prove worthy of our trust? In short, do they have integrity?
In addition to evaluating our prospective leaders, we must also look into the mirror and look deeply into our hearts to ask uncomfortable questions about who we are as citizens and as a nation. It can be devastatingly disappointing to watch self-serving leaders crumble and reveal their true stripes and identity. Ultimately the test is to ensure that our individual and national structural integrity reveals and demonstrates our greatness to the world.
There are no perfect politicians. All of us fall short. We all have need of repentance and mercy and understanding and forgiveness as we strive to overcome the cracks in our own structural integrity. It is interesting to note that most leaders who fail do not fail because they lack the right strengths or talent. Leaders fail because they allow their weaknesses to become the dominant force in their behavior — turning tiny cracks in their integrity into gaping holes in their morality.
In an interview with Larry King during a rather public and painful moment for our country, when many were questioning the moral character of the sitting president of the United States, a religious leader I admire said: “I forgive the man. … I am not trying to hold any malice against him or anybody else. I think that's my responsibility to extend the hand of forgiveness and helpfulness. But at the same time, the position of president of the United States of America carries with it a tremendous trust. In my judgment, an inescapable trust.”
The inescapable trust of leadership matters and, as Washington observed, is part of what makes America great at home and abroad. The candidates for president of both major political parties are asking voters to trust them — while their dishonesty continually causes citizens to question their integrity and morality. We cannot and must not normalize any behavior in our leaders that is immoral or lacking in integrity.
As one religious leader asked: “Is it asking too much of our public servants to not only make of this nation the greatest nation on earth politically, militarily, but also to give moral leadership to the world?”
Those minor cracks of integrity and gaping holes of private morality will destroy freedom and the structural soundness of this nation. Now, more than ever, there is indeed an inescapable trust required of American leadership.
Boyd Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a Utah based think tank and advocate for elevated dialogue and public policy principles.