The Clintons & Character

Shouldn’t one’s history matter? What is it about the history of Bill and Hillary Clinton that would give anyone confidence in their character? I know some people will be upset with me for focusing on that. They will say that policies are what matter, not personal character. Well, I have a lot to say about the policies of both, but I won’t back down on the significance of personal character.

It was during Bill’s presidency that we heard the constant refrain from his backers that private character is not the same as public character, and that we should only look at what happens publicly in assessing someone. I respond that that is not the Christian way. What one is privately will ultimately bleed over into what one is publicly, and we need to be discerning.

We know, for a fact, that Bill Clinton did have sex with Monica Lewinsky, regardless of his protestations at the time. We also know this was not just a rumor fueled by some imagined “right-wing conspiracy,” as Hillary alleged. It was a revelation of the character of her husband. And frankly, I don’t see much difference between the two when it comes to character. Both can stand before cameras and tell blatant lies without blushing:

Honest

Some commentators, listening carefully to Hillary’s statements at her near-disastrous press conference last week, picked up on wording that was eerily familiar:

Is

Sadly, this lack of character may not derail her from getting the Democrat nomination, despite the growing fears from some in her party:

On Cliff

Even those on her side of the political aisle are beginning to say she doesn’t have any better qualification for running for president other than being a woman. We recently chose another “first” as president. How is that working out? A candidate has to have more going for him/her than just identity politics. Might I suggest we take a long hard look at character? For some voters, that would be a “first.”

Finney: What It Means to Be a Witness

Charles Finney QuoteCharles Finney always spoke out of his vast experience dealing with those who needed to hear the Gospel. In his Revival Lectures, he pinpointed just what Christians are supposed to be doing to help the world understand truth.  Here’s his perspective:

One grand design of God in leaving Christians in the world after their conversions is that they may be witnesses for God. It is that they may call the attention of the thoughtless multitude to the subject, and make them see the difference in the character and destiny of those who believe the Gospel and those who reject it.

Finney speaks of the thoughtless multitude. I believe that’s even more of a problem today. At least in Finney’s time, the American society generally maintained a basic Biblical worldview. In our time, much of that has dissipated. He then becomes specific:

More particularly, Christians are to testify to:

  1. The immortality of the soul. This is clearly revealed in the Bible.
  2. The vanity and unsatisfying nature of all earthly good.
  3. The satisfying nature and glorious sufficiency of religion [by which he means the Christian faith, not some general religious belief[.
  4. The guilt and danger of sinners. On this point they can speak from experience as well as from the Word of God. They have seen their own sins, and they understand more of the nature of sin, and the guilt and danger of sinners.
  5. The reality of hell, as a place of eternal punishment for the wicked.
  6. The love of Christ for sinners.
  7. The necessity of a holy life, if we think of ever getting to heaven.
  8. The necessity of self-denial, and of living above the world.
  9. The necessity of meekness, heavenly-mindedness, humility, and integrity.
  10. The necessity of an entire renovation of character and life, for all who would enter heaven.

A Christian’s witness takes two forms:

How are they to testify? By precept and example. On every proper occasion by their lips, but mainly by their lives. Christians have no right to be silent with their lips; they should “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” (2 Tim. 4:2) But their main influence as witnesses is by their example. . . .

All the arguments in the world will not convince mankind that you really believe this [Christianity], unless you live as if you believe it.

In other words, to resurrect an old cliché, your walk must match your talk.

Finney: The Intent of the Heart

Of what does true virtue consist? What determines a person’s moral character? Charles Finney deals with that in his Systematic Theology. His language is not modern, so some of this may be hard to follow for some people, but I would urge you to think this through carefully. Here’s what he says:

Finney's Systematic TheologyIt has been shown that moral character consists in the supreme ultimate intention of the mind, and that this supreme, disinterested benevolence, good willing or intention, is the whole of virtue.

Now this intention originates volitions [i.e., the power to make one’s own choices or decisions]. It directs the attention of the mind, and therefore, produces thoughts, emotions, or affections. It also, through volition, produces bodily action. But moral character does not lie in outward actions. . . . Moral character belongs solely to the intention that produced the volition that moved the muscles to the performance of the outward act. . . .

Moral character no more lies in emotion, than in outward action. It does not lie in thought, or attention. It does not lie in the specific volition that directed the attention; but in that intention, or design of the mind, that produced the volition, which directed the attention, which, again, produced the thought, which, again, produced the emotion.

So it all comes down to the intent of the heart, the motive for why we do the things we do. There are only two ultimate intentions: to serve God or to serve self. That’s why Jesus condemned the Pharisees who, although they were doing outwardly good things, were doing so with a wrong motive: for their own vanity.

Once we get the intention/motive right, then God is pleased with the outward action.

Thoughts on Presidents’ Day

So, it’s Presidents’ Day. It didn’t used to exist. In my younger years, we had instead separate days to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln specifically, on their respective February birthdays. I’m not even all that sure what the current Presidents’ Day is supposed to focus on. People from my generation probably still consider it a commemoration of Washington and Lincoln, but what about the new generation? Is the intent to honor anyone and everyone who ever served as president? Frankly, I would have a hard time getting excited about praising the achievements of James Buchanan, as just one example.

I would prefer to go back to what we did previously. Most Americans have a sense that there is a world of difference in quality between Washington and Lincoln on one side and Buchanan and Franklin Pierce on the other. As a historian, my extensive reading in American history has provided me with a firmer basis than most on the merits of the various presidents. My esteem for Washington and Lincoln has only grown after reading and studying them more closely.

George WashingtonGeorge Washington was the indispensable man for our young nation. He held an army together when the attempt at independence suffered from one defeat after another. He modeled servant leadership by resigning his commission at the end of the war to return to private life. At one point, when pressed by some to become America’s king, he resoundingly rejected the offer. That’s not what we’ve been fighting for, he replied.

His steadiness as president got us through a tumultuous first decade under our new Constitution. Captaining the ship of state past the shoals of influence from the French Revolution and the fracturing of the political leaders into two parties, he was the one man all could look to for assurance and guidance. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the titular heads of the emerging parties, both pleaded with him to run for a second term. They knew his stature was sorely needed to keep the nation on track and avoid a disastrous split.

Washington’s Farewell Address was wise, particularly the inclusion of the significance of religious faith as the cornerstone of our society and government. Without that, he said, we would have no firm basis for morality. Education, he counseled, was not the answer; only religious belief would suffice. And for Washington and his generation, he wasn’t talking about some vague concept of God, but Christianity.

Abraham LincolnI’ve changed my views on Abraham Lincoln over the years. Whereas I once was ambivalent about him, with a hint of concern that he might have been at least a mini-tyrant, I have now shifted over to an ardent admirer of his heart, his logic, and his quest for a meaningful Christian faith. His path to faith was filled with cynicism, agnosticism, and fatalism. Yet, from what I surmise in all my reading, the struggle in his own soul over the loss of two of his children, over the institution of slavery, and over the future of the Union, reshaped his original skepticism. The nearly overwhelming burden of the Civil War drove him back to the God of his childhood. His speeches and personal letters both reveal a deep and growing confidence in the truth of the Christian faith.

He came along at a pivotal moment, much as Washington did. I tend to think that no one of his generation could have led with the same degree of humility and ultimate wisdom as he did. As the war neared its end, his mind and heart were fixed on the issue of reconciliation. He sought to heal the nation of its self-inflicted wounds. His assassination was one of the most tragic events in American history, yet it left us with the legacy of a man we ought to admire for his character and leadership.

Legends have grown up around both men. No, Washington never chopped down that cherry tree. There are a multitude of sayings attributed to Lincoln that he never really said. Of course, he himself warned us about that:

Lincoln Quotes on Internet

Yes, his wisdom continues to reach out to us.

Incidentally, another president born in February was Ronald Reagan. Regular readers of this blog already know what I think of him. I have a proposal: instead of this amorphous Presidents’ Day that is too vague to be meaningful, how about we have three separate commemorations for arguably the three best presidents in American history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. All three days could be valuable for teaching the new generations what genuine character in government looks like.

Finney: The Motive for All of God’s Actions

Why does God do what He does? Is He aiming at something in all His actions? Is there a “good” at the end of His actions or is whatever He wills “good”? While this may sound rather picky, it does affect our view of God’s character. Charles Finney believes,

Lord Is GoodGod’s ultimate end, in all He does, or omits, is the highest well-being of Himself, and of the universe, and in all His acts and dispensations, His ultimate object is the promotion of this end. All moral agents should have the same end, and this comprises their whole duty. This intention or consecration to this intrinsically and infinitely valuable end is virtue, or holiness, in God and in all moral agents. God is infinitely and equally holy in all things because He does all things for the same ultimate reason, namely, to promote the highest good of being.

Theologians who promote the idea that the will of God is what is ultimate make a fatal error, according to Finney. Think carefully about his objection here:

If the will of God were the foundation of moral obligation, He could, by willing it, change the nature of virtue and vice, which is absurd.

If the will of God were the foundation of moral obligation, He not only can change the nature of virtue and vice, but has a right to do so; for if there is nothing back of His will that is as binding upon Him as upon His creatures, He has a right, at any time, to make malevolence a virtue and benevolence a vice. For if His will is the ground of obligation, then His will creates right, and whatever He wills, or might will, is right simply and only because He so wills.

If the will of God be the foundation of moral obligation, we have no standard by which to judge of the moral character of His actions, and cannot know whether He is worthy of praise or blame.

Upon the supposition in question, were God a malevolent being, and did He require all His creatures to be selfish, and not benevolent, He would be just as virtuous and worthy of praise as now; for the supposition is that His sovereign will creates right, and of course, will as He might, that would be right, simply because He willed it.

I hope you followed the logic because I think it is an accurate assessment. God is not an arbitrary being whose will can make good evil and evil good. Instead, He chooses to do that which is the best for everyone in His created world. We never need to worry about His character; His aim is always to promote the highest good for each of us.

Snyderian Truism #7

Regular readers will know by now that I periodically present what I call Snyderian truisms. These are statements that I consider to be general principles that apply to all of life. We’re now up to #7:

The Lord is always more interested in developing character than providing a quick fix.

This is not a “fun” truism. Most of us wish it could be modified. We live in a society of quick fixes; we don’t like lingering problems. For those of us who have put our trust in Christ, we are still not immune to the quick-fix mentality. “Lord,” we pray, “please take away this disturbance in my life. Give me a smooth path.” When the trouble doesn’t go away immediately, we are faced with a choice: we can pout, feel sorry for ourselves, and blame God for not caring, or we can be mature. Sorry to be so blunt. But I know whereof I speak; I’m experienced on both sides of that equation. On those occasions when I respond maturely, I can testify this is truly God’s way.

When I was a young Christian, I embarked on a Scripture memorization exercise in which I pulled out passages from each chapter of the gospels and the letters of the New Testament. That discipline has proven valuable to me later in life, as those verses now come more readily to mind. One of my memorized passages was from Romans, chapter 5:

We also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Romans 5

A similar passage—another one I memorized—is found in the book of James, where we’re instructed,

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

JoyI admit I don’t automatically rejoice whenever a trouble comes along, but the Lord is continually teaching me to look beyond the outward problem and allow Him to work through that problem to create more of His character within me. Having one’s character shaped by God is not always a pleasant experience, at least at first. But if we endure the current unpleasantness, we eventually see the result, and we recognize God knows what He’s doing.

Nothing is more valuable than growing in the character of Christ. The sooner we submit to His shaping, the greater insight we’ll receive into His ways—and knowing Him is what life is really all about.

Our One-Sided Racial Conversation

Two men were killed last week in what have been described as senseless murders. First point to be made: all murders are committed without sense, in that they are violations of the moral code God has inscribed on our hearts. We call some of them senseless because we can’t connect the act to some rationale, however invalid. In both of these cases, the victims were unknown to their assailants and had done nothing to warrant any type of reprisal.

Christopher LaneChristopher Lane was a college student in Oklahoma, a native Australian who was in the United States on a baseball scholarship. He was jogging, bothering no one, when a car pulled up behind him and shots were fired. He died almost immediately, according to those who arrived on the scene to try to minister aid to him.

The three youths arrested for the act were all black—perhaps one was mixed-race—and reports are that they did this a) because they were bored; b) for the fun of it; or c) as part of a wannabe-gang ritual. According to the authorities, one of the youths, after being arrested, danced around and laughed about it, apparently enjoying his notoriety. This same young man, aged 15, had commented on Twitter that he hated whites.

Delbert BeltonThe other victim was 88-year-old Delbert Belton, of Washington state, who was simply sitting in his car when two youths came up to him and beat him to death with flashlights. Belton was a WWII veteran who had been injured in the Battle of Okinawa. Again, the culprits, as caught on surveillance cameras, were black.

Now, in neither of these murders did anyone say they were doing this as payback for Trayvon Martin. No, there’s probably no such connection. And when you compare the three separate incidents, you see a clear distinction. In the Martin-Zimmerman case, there were mitigating circumstances that had to be sorted out. In the latter two, there are none. Neither Lane nor Belton had done anything at all to warrant an attack.

So are these racial incidents? Are they fueled by racism? Well, at least one of the youths who killed Lane, as I’ve already noted, is on the public record as being racially motivated, even though the prosecutors in the case seem reluctant to press that issue. Is that where we’ve come to as a nation? Are we not allowed to apply racism equally across the board, wherever it may appear? And when is President Obama going to insert himself into this? He certainly wasn’t reluctant when Trayvon Martin was the one who died.

If I Had a Son

And of course there are his willing accomplices in the media who are prone to look the other way:

 Martin-Lane

Is this the new, improved version of separate-but-equal?

Both Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, have boldly declared that the nation needs to have a conversation on race. We’ve heard that repeatedly throughout this administration. It’s getting rather old by now:

National Conversation

I’m not opposed to that conversation. I believe all races stand equally before God, since He is the One who created this diversity in the first place. It’s just that a conversation has to go two ways, or it won’t be a conversation at all. I don’t think the president wants to invest himself in the current conversation because it’s not going the way he intended. The conversation he seeks is one-sided, whereas we need to cover all topics: racism no matter what the source; broken families; slanted and deficient education; a welfare state that creates a sense of entitlement. We need to talk about the American character and what has happened to it. We need to discuss the loss of Biblical absolutes in our society and the consequences.

Would he be open to that conversation?