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Newt and the Principles and Practices of the Presidency

January 30th, 2012 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

We’re well past the point of overkill on all the Gingrich business, and the question will be by the wayside after tomorrow.  The fellow tanked in his last debate and seems to be up against it now in Florida.

But as is often the case, clarity comes at the end of, rather than at the beginning.  And reading Andrew and Eric’s fine response to my own thoughts, I think I’ve gained a little of it.

Let us conform ourselves, then, to the internet convention and put all this together in a list:

1)  Character matters more than doctrinal affirmation for public office.

Let’s leave Gingrich out of it for now, and use the hypotheticals.  Person A happens to be a rogue, someone with the moral backbone of a jellyfish.  He repents, but growing new parts doesn’t happen overnight.  Person B happens to have considerable natural virtue, but stammers over Nicea.

For whom should we vote?  The only grounds on which we should vote for the repentant fellow, it seems to me, are those which approach the “theocratic” (a loose word that is often more insult than argument).  Either way, I reject them.  Give me the fellow with a long and stable character than the newly minted Christian.

2)  Teetsel and Walker have, however, read me rather differently. I share some of the fault: the initial post was muddled, even if the cleanup has been fun.  But there’s simply no getting about it:  the fellow they quote and lean on, Mr. Cothran, gums things up pretty badly.

Let us restate the reductio:  if not those who break the sixth commandment, then not those who break the first.  The missing premise, and it’s an important one, is that the commandments are all created equally for all situations.  Calvin puts the point this way:

“Surely [our reason] does not at all comply with the principle points of the First Table…Men have somewhat more understanding of the precepts of the Second Table because these are more closely concerned with the preservation of civil society among them.”

The commandment against adultery is located in the second table, for those who might be scoring at home.  But that means the reductio proposed by Walker and Teetsel (and Cothran) really doesn’t work after all, does it?

3)  On to the matter of repentance, then.  Having been accused repeatedly of being “judgmental” and “unforgiving” toward Gingrich, it’s important to point out that the response itself comes rather close to incorporating theological reasons into the decision.  After all, it’s Wells and Beckwith and I who are suggesting that the repentance is welcome and that forgiveness is genuine, but that the political square operates on a different principle than grace (namely, proven character).

4)  As to evangelicals’ moral witness, the maze that started this whole thing off, well, let’s expand the case.  Catholics have spent a goodly amount of time defending the importance of stable marriages in the public square, and have done so on grounds approaching the natural law.  But I’d make the same case of them: they would undermine their moral witness on the question of marriage by supporting Gingrich, even if that moral witness is made in public using only the natural law.  The point is simply that folks think it’s rather hypocritical to be trumpeting about monogamy’s natural goods, while overlooking someone who already has them for the fellow who has gotten them through grace.  And when it comes to the question of moral credibility, well, it might be the path of prudence to not be judge of ourselves.

In other words, the argument was not specific to evangelicals or their particular theological witness.  I wrote about it in the context of evangelicals because they were leading the charge, so to speak, on behalf of Newt.  The confusion that has erupted, and that manifested itself in Teetsel and Walker’s post, is my own fault and I apologize for it.

But I’ll expand the point a bit, returning to sixth commandment.  For Calvin, and for a few others, the sixth commandment has a special importance for the proper functioning of civil society, an importance that can be discerned by the light of natural reason.

This poses a bit of a puzzle, though, for Christians.  It means that furthering the case for marriage in public might entail telling the narratives and stories of those who have gotten it right the first time about, even if they disagree with us on the distinctive theological principles that ultimately undergird it.

Marriage exists in a culture, and cultures are formed in a variety of ways–including, but not limited to, by the lives and stories of our culture’s most visible members.  By conservatism’s own standards, laws and principles are the last place where marriage is promoted (though an incredibly important place).  Because cultures are transmitted and transformed through non-legal ways, we (desperately) need moral exemplars who can demonstrate marriage’s natural goodness and validity in society’s most visible places.  Mitch Daniels had it right to praise President Obama for this, and we ought to do it quite a bit more often.

Of course, there is grace for those whose marriages fail and forgiveness for those who break their vows.  But grace and forgiveness are theological virtues, and our desperate need for more of them within the church does not weigh against our need for the natural goods of marriage to be on display in politics.

In short, then, conservatives–evangelical or otherwise–who genuinely think that strong families are part of the foundation for a free and healthy society have a compelling interest, on those grounds alone, to choose a representative who can do more than talk a good game about it, but has discovered marriage’s natural goods in a non-theological context and has preferred them to the alternatives.

I don’t expect, then, the President to be a “moral exemplar” if by that we mean a perfect person.  But the steady erosion of the office to a place where only our preferred principles get advocated, and the lowering of our standards for the person who enters it to someone who can say the right thing and move the ball along, regardless of his demonstrated character, does not bode well for the future of our democratic republic.  A good man may be hard to find, but when such immense power is concentrated in a single office, we ought not to give up looking.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.