When a moral crisis engulfs a nation, that nation needs many things: collective self-restraint, urgent and wise dialogue, swift and righteous decisions, and an unbending commitment to unoppressive order and impartial justice.
But as much as any of these things, if not more, a nation in moral crisis needs leaders with public moral credibility. No matter how independent and fractured a society may become, people are still wired to look for leadership, especially in a storm. Leaders prove their worth in crisis.
Of course, every leader, no matter how immaculate their character or how sterling their reputation, will be criticized. No leader will win everyone, and in a hell-bent world, sometimes the leaders with the most integrity get the least respect. So it is no inherent sign of integrity that a leader is affirmed by those he leads, and no inherent sign of corruption that he’s condemned by the same.
But a leader without character simply cannot lead well in a moral crisis, because he will lack the credibility that gives his words and decisions traction in the hearts of those he aims to lead. Further, with no particular moral compass, his aims will never be aligned with the deepest levels of the God-given conscience God has wired into human beings.
Morally bankrupt leaders can still lead through the rawest levers of power, position, and rhetoric. But a nation in crisis needs far more than these things. A nation in crisis needs leaders with moral credibility who can speak to the ethical fabric of people’s hearts and the rational conscience of entire communities. Leaders need to legislate, too, because speaking alone is never the end of leadership. But even legislation will be misguided when the leader’s own moral compass has no guide.
When the rafters are on fire, we hope the frame holds. When the frame is rotten, we still have a foundation. But when the foundation’s fractured—what then?
Where there is no morality, there is no character. Where there is no character, there is no credibility. Where there is no credibility, there is no trust. Where there is no trust, a people in crisis will often find itself further enflamed, rather than guided, by its leadership.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, and the lead-up to whatever conflagration comes next, what our nation has needed from our central leader is not only the proper political response and the right kind of public statement, but the moral character and credibility to lead in followable ways through challenging times.
Unfortunately, to put it lightly, neither character nor credibility are present in this case, and neither character nor credibility are switches that can be flipped. So we must pray that God grants our leader the wisdom to overcome his character, and a miracle of societal trust if and when trustworthiness is proven.
Then, as we pray, we ought also to reflect on this: No nation can predict all its crises, but in the future we can be far more vigilant about placing in office only those with the proven character and demonstrated credibility to respond judiciously when those unpredictable crises inevitably come to pass.