This week, all of Washington is abuzz about journalist McKay Coppins’s profile in The Atlantic of US Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), which revealed Romney’s forthcoming retirement from the world’s most important deliberative body.
The piece, excerpted from Coppins’s forthcoming book, Romney: A Reckoning, is striking because in it, the senator does not retreat into euphemisms or PR-speak in disclosing what he believes to be the problems in the country and in his own party. Instead, he lets his “yes” be “yes” and his “no” be “no,” no matter what people might think of that.
Setting aside for a moment whether one agrees or disagrees with Romney’s viewpoints, now might be the time for us to reevaluate what we once knew about the importance of character—not just in public office, but also in the church.
As I read the profile, many thoughts came to mind, but one memory kept flashing to the forefront. Several years ago, I was interviewed on a media format I rarely engage—a drive-time radio comedy/news/sports/politics show. One of the hosts challenged me on my saying that a lack of character makes someone unfit for office. He said he had found evidence that I once thought the exact opposite.
Now, there are lots of things that I have said in my life where I now think the exact opposite (I’ve discussed some of them here), but I was hard-pressed to think how this was one of them. The radio host pointed to a panel I had done back in 2012, when the controversy in the evangelical world was over whether Christians could vote for Mitt Romney, then the Republican nominee for president, given the fact that he’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I don’t—and didn’t then, either—endorse candidates for office, but I made the case that Romney’s faith did not at all represent a moral dilemma for those who disagree with him theologically, as I did and do. I’ve had theological discussions with four former presidents of the United States in my life—sometimes with a lot of agreement, sometimes not. In every case, I was reminded of how few presidents in American history would even have the categories to have theological conversations.
In fact, one of the many reasons I admired Romney at the time was the fact that he didn’t try to sweep all those differences away into some “least common denominator” civil religion to play identity politics with the evangelicals. He was clear that he believed in the teachings of his church and gladly served as a missionary and as a stake leader. But he was also clear that his oath would be to uphold and defend the United States Constitution, not any pronouncement from Salt Lake City.
I can believe a person to be wrong on his or her religious convictions and still believe him or her to have the character and competency requisite to lead in a civil office. That didn’t—and doesn’t—seem contradictory to me at all.
Campaigning for public office in a democratic republic can be compared to a job interview. A citizen is delegating someone to “bear the sword” of public justice (Rom. 13:4), as the apostle Paul put it.
Imagine if you were a shift supervisor of a grocery store in your town, working to hire a new manager. Imagine that you also served on the pastor search committee of your church at the same time. You are interviewing candidates during the day—to work in the meat or produce or frozen food departments of your business. And you are interviewing candidates at night who might preach to and shepherd your congregation.
A candidate comes forward who believes Jesus was a good man, but probably not God. He says the idea of a Trinity doesn’t make sense to him, and when someone quotes the Nicene Creed, he says it’s all incomprehensible to him.
When asked what he would say if he were asked at the Judgment why he should be admitted to heaven, the candidate says, “Well, I worked hard, paid my taxes, and went to church every Christmas Eve; if that’s not good enough for you, I don’t know what to tell you.” Does that disqualify the candidate? Well, in this case, it depends on whether the interview is in the daytime or at night.
If you’re looking for someone to manage products and people and to make a profit in the produce department, personal regeneration, much less theological consensus, is not a necessary qualification. As a matter of fact, you might well be mistreating your employers if you hire a born-again produce manager who ends up throwing away boxes of spoiled fruit at the end of a week because he didn’t know how to anticipate inventory.
At night, though, those interviews would include a different set of criteria. You might well end up hiring a pastor who has to ask Alexa to do basic multiplication (people have, after all, hired me before) but who meets the biblical qualifications for the pastorate and who shares the doctrinal convictions of the church.
You would never in that context say, “This candidate thinks Habakkuk is a kind of cannabis, and when asked about the Holy Spirit, shrugged and said ‘I can teach it whatever way you want.’ But he knows how to invest our building fund in a way that will pay off our debt in half the time.”
Now, let’s suppose you go back to the daytime interviews. A candidate comes to you, and you know him from your church. He posts Christian memes to social media all the time and is heavy into “discernment” against bad doctrine. He also has a record of sexually harassing his fellow workers at the last three grocery stores for which he worked. His references say, consistently, “Don’t trust him, because he lies all the time.”
When you ask the prospective employee why he called in sick so often to his last workplace, he says to you, “Probably because of how much cocaine I was doing, but I’m only selling it now, not using.” When you ask him about why so much money went missing at his last workplace, he says, “There’s nothing that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of my peers,” and winks at you.
Right after that, you interview a woman who has a record of honesty, straightforwardness, and integrity in all of her previous workplaces. Every employee who has worked for her testifies that she’s truthful and fair. She knows exactly how to keep the shelves in her area stocked, to reduce waste, and to bring in a profit. And, from everything you can tell from her past background, she can be trusted with the bank receipts. She’s also active in the Mormon Women’s Relief Society in her neighborhood, where she works with at-risk youth and single mothers.
Of the two options, you are obviously going to hire her over the church guy. In fact, if you did the reverse, you would be violating your duty to your business obligations.
Might you be wrong? Sure. Maybe the woman is just playing the long game. She’s been waiting to embezzle funds until she got to a grocery store without so many security cameras. Or maybe she’d never thought about how much more work she could get done with cocaine until she talked to the other candidate, while they waited to be interviewed. You might be surprised, but generally, someone’s past record of integrity will show you how that person will operate in the future.
A boring preacher might still manage a business well. A skilled marketer might teach the Bible poorly. But character and competency matter for both the grocer and the pastor, just in different areas.
Whatever one thinks of Mitt Romney’s perspective, no reasonable person doubts that what he is saying publicly lines up with what he’s saying privately. To think one thing internally and to say the opposite externally, Jesus tells us, reveals something twisted in the human heart (Matt. 22:18; Mark 7:14–23). At its most literal level, that’s what integrity means: a holding together, an alignment of mind, mouth, and conscience.
We live in a time, though, in which leaders—whether in the civil or in the spiritual spheres—often say things they know to be not true, because they are afraid of the loudest and angriest among their own people. Sometimes the fear is a lost primary election or being booed at a convention.
Sometimes the fear is what former congressman Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) called “the assassin’s veto”—the threat of physical violence against oneself or one’s family (the Coppins profile reveals that Romney was spending $5,000 a day on security for his family).
The pull of the tribe over one’s conscience is strong. You start to wonder if you’re crazy. You start to know that when you walk in the room and everyone stops talking and looks down, they were probably talking about you. You start to be embarrassed that your friends don’t want to be seen with you.
Political theorist Yascha Mounk writes in his forthcoming book The Identity Trap about the problem of internalized shame and the “reluctant heretic” (meaning heresy against one’s group identity, not against one’s religious conviction). Such a person is “so nervous about disagreeing with prevailing sentiments that they practically seem to apologize for their own ideas.”
These dissenters think they are being charitable or shielding themselves from criticism, but instead, Mounk argues, they signal “that they themselves seem to regard their views as somehow illicit,” and thereby “encourage the enforcers of orthodoxy to use moral shaming or rank intimidation to shut them down.”
In such a context, it is very hard to let one’s “yes” be “yes” and “no” be “no.” In such a context, it is all the more necessary that someone—at least someone with a conscience, even with fear and trembling—will do it anyway.
Mitt Romney is leaving Washington. He will never sit in the Oval Office. He’s remained faithful, though, to the vows he made and to the oaths he swore. How many are left who will be willing to feel the sting of exile when they believe they have to choose between the truth and their tribe?
As long as we keep acting as though personal character is irrelevant for—or maybe even worse, a detriment to—leadership, we will find that there are very few. Once you learn to justify the breaking of one vow, the breaking of the others gets easier and easier. If history has taught us nothing else, hasn’t it taught us that?
Character matters, all the time. Character matters, everywhere.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.