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Why Americans Should Vote for the Virtuous

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why Americans Should Vote for the Virtuous

As we head for the mid-term election Tuesday, it is, I suspect, with little enthusiasm. Public trust in politicians generally and in Congress and the White House specifically is near the bottom of the dumpster. We have little confidence in the government's ability to solve problems and according to a new CNN poll, “Nearly 7 in 10 Americans are angry at the direction the country is headed” with three of those Americans “very angry.” Anger may turn out the vote, but it’s nothing to celebrate.

The popular perception of American politics, to steal a phrase from novelist Evelyn Waugh, is “a sweaty tug-of-war between teams of indistinguishable louts,” a great herd of independent minds babbling about leadership while providing none.

Sometimes lack of leadership is a deficit of skills, but most often it’s a deficit of virtue. As Alexander Havard writes in his book Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence, “It is my contention that leaders either strive to grow in virtue as surely as they breathe or they are not leaders. Life for them is a quest for personal excellence.”

In addition to the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage, and self-control), Havard emphasizes the “virtues of the heart”—magnanimity and humility—as foundational for leadership. Leaders need both.

Leaders, he writes, “always have a dream, which they invariably transform into a vision and a mission. It is magnanimity—the striving of the spirit toward great ends—that confers this lofty state of mind.” Magnanimous leaders believe in the possibility of greatness for themselves and in the possibility of greatness for others—all others. 

At the same time, Harvard insists, “Leadership consists of more than just ‘thinking big.’ A leader is always a servant—of those in his profession, family, and social circle, his countrymen, and indeed the whole of humanity. And the essence of service is humility. Leaders who practice humility respect the innate dignity of other people, and especially of fellow participants in a joint mission.”

Magnanimity, however, has fallen on hard times. “Modern society’s weird mélange of individualism and collectivism has spawned generations of small, self-centered people on the make.” Too much of our politics can be summed up in the question, “What’s in it for me?” What’s often in it for politicians is status, preferment, influence, special treatment, adulation, increased ability to control the lives of citizens, pork for the district, and support from special interests resulting in reelection or—even better—election to a higher office with more privileges, perks, and power. 

“Humility,” Havard writes, “has also seen better days. Modern culture holds this marvelous virtue—understood as service—in something approaching contempt.” 

  1. The humble leader makes the strange and countercultural claim: “It’s not all about me.” That I am not the center of the universe, Havard points out, is fundamentally a religious idea. “Humility is an attitude that pertains to a man’s relationship to God; it is the habit of living in the truth—the truth about one’s metaphysical situation and about one’s virtues and defects.” The humble leader can then live the truth about others: they are made in the image of God and in serving others we serve God.

“In contrast to humility,” Havard writes, “pride engenders not truth but falsehood, not service but selfishness. If I fail to grasp the essential truths about myself and other people, I will begin to lose touch with reality. Pride will transform my interior self in to a fictitious realm; it will blind me to the beauty of service.”

The old joke runs that Washington, DC is 100 square miles of ego surrounded by reality and many Americans would agree. Yet while I’m hardly a Washington insider, I’ve met virtuous leaders in Washington. Officials who evince magnanimity and humility are also in your state capitol, in your county seat, school board, and city hall. And we need more of them.

Some virtuous leaders are running for office. We’ll decide their fate on Tuesday. Midterm elections are notorious for low voter turnout, maximizing the impact of those who vote. 

If you use magnanimity and humility as the criteria, you’ll know who deserves your vote. You’ll know by the tenor of the ads they run, how they treat their opponents, their past job and life histories, the people with whom they surround themselves, the way they shake your hand and answer your questions, and the ideas that they propose.

If we’re tired politics as “a sweaty tug-of-war between teams of indistinguishable louts” (and I certainly am), we have our opportunity on Tuesday to make a difference. And while on election isn’t a panacea, we’re fools if we don’t make the most of it.

Jim Tonkowich is a writer, commentator, and speaker focusing on the role of religion in our public life. His new book, The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today is available from St. Benedict Press and other online retailers. 

Publication date: October 29, 2014