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Election Central

Does character matter in the race for President?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a campaign rally in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)The writer of Proverbs found that a good name was more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed better than silver or gold (Proverbs 22:1). He believed your name, which encompasses both your reputation and character, to be of greater value than your situation. But what if that situation is being the President of the United States?

Are candidates willing to trade in their character in order to attain the office? Are constituents willing to bypass character in order to satiate their outrage?

This election season has had its share of noteworthy moments. These moments were lights that illuminated the name and character of particular candidates. Recently, Donald Trump has made the news for his usage of vulgarity at campaign rallies. To the extent that crowds even cheer for him to say something offensive.

If the axiom holds true that you are whom you associate with, Hillary Clinton's character found the spotlight last week as well. Supporter Madeline Albright said there is a special place in hell for women who don't support each other. In a rather indirect fashion, the former Secretary of State insinuated and sought to coax support for her female candidate friend, who also happened to be the Secretary of State.

Ted Cruz's campaign staff allegedly spread rumors on the night of the Iowa caucuses that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race. This was after the campaign sent a questionable mailer out. This campaign mailer appeared like an official document from the state of Iowa, though it wasn't. From the Cruz campaign, it warned about voter violation should they fail to participate in the upcoming caucus. The fewer candidates in the race and the more people who participate in the election process, the better Cruz's chances.

These candidates are vying for the most powerful position in the world. While character is not a requisite, it is on the wish list for many. The office of the president has a long line of individuals whose character was imitable and whose legacy is storied.

George Washington never told a lie. John Adams tamed his tongue, finding that those who could not should be seated at the children's table. Andrew Jackson was willing to confront individuals who were spreading lies about his wife. Dwight Eisenhower found that his freedom was an opportunity to exercise self-control.

But alas, nostalgia is a form of denial. Trips down a memory lane often provoke selective listening and obstructive viewing. It would be easy, and untrue, to say that we have never been here before. Throughout the great American experiment, we have been led by individuals whose character was less than stellar. Thomas Jefferson had Sally Hemmings. The first Baptist president, Warren Harding, was quite the womanizer. And Bill Clinton.

However, past indiscretion is not a license for present laxness relative to standards. Our past explains but should not constrain us. Character may not be a requisite for the office, like being an American born citizen who is at least thirty-five years old, but it should considered.

After all, if we want America to be great, doesn't that start with the individual who is at the front of the group? "Do as I say not as I do" is not only confusing to read but impotent when attempting to stir to action. Rather, "righteousness exalts a nation whereas sin is a disgrace to one" (Proverbs 14:34).

So what is character?

Søren Kierkegaard spoke of character as 'engraved,' deeply etched. Dwight Moody found character to be what you are in the dark. And John Wooden believed character to be what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think about you.

But James Davison Hunter has a very helpful definition of character. He finds that character is a conviction of truth with an abiding, authoritative presence in one's life, reinforced by habits. For Hunter, character is the not the absence of fault, but the identification of fault in an effort to improve on it.

Character does not require someone to be perfect, but it does require that person to be in a community whereby imperfection is identified and correction is consistent.

Better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today.

The biblical narrative is replete with stories about how a perfect God uses imperfect people to accomplish his purposes. God is not bound to the character of people, nor limited by their morality. But the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the earth to give strong support for those whose heart is blameless (2 Chronicles 16:9).

If the past is prologue, we are in for an interesting campaign season. While we may have little influence as to the character of the candidates, we do have great control over our own character. And since politics flows down stream from culture, maybe we could take the advice of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin when he says: "The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself."

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