Does the President’s character really matter?

“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.”

That’s the fictitious and machiavellian Francis Underwood from South Carolina’s 5th congressional district. In the Netflix series House of Cards, the amoral Underwood makes it all the way to the Oval Office, thanks to some deft manipulation of his enemies, including the odd murder or two.

Sure, he’s evil. He’s probably a sociopath. But he knows how to govern. In fact, that’s Frank’s own justification for all the hypocrisy and casualties: he gets things done!

So does it really matter what the character of the President is like? Should voters elect a person based on their personal morals and private life? Isn’t the POTUS just meant to “get things done”? Why do we need her or him to be a paragon of virtue?


It’s not like Presidents in the past have been lily-white. American history is rife with examples of people who were lousy spouses or backroom dealers, but great stewards of the state.

Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were unfaithful to their wives. As were Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. Warren Harding, a man elected because it was said he “looks like a president,” even fathered a child with his mistress during his term of office. It didn’t affect their ability to govern, did it? Okay, well with Harding maybe it did.

The rest of the world isn’t so fussed about the character of their leaders. France’s Mitterrand and Hollande were open about their sexual liaisons. England’s David Cameron might like a drink a bit too much, and his predecessor Winston Churchill certainly did. Germany’s Gerhard Schröder was a bit too cosy with big oil. Canada’s Trudeau was a swinger (Pierre, not Justin). Australia’s Kevin Rudd was a bully.

Why are Americans subject to a seemingly endless parade of scandals and public floggings of their presidential candidates? Does the perception of some personal imperfection obliterate whatever else the candidate has accumulated in the public record?

Does it matter that Donald Trump boasts about sexually assaulting models and television personalities? Should we care that Hillary Clinton seems to have enabled her philandering husband’s predatory behavior?

So what if one of them is an “ignorant, amoral, dishonest and manipulative, misogynistic, philandering, hyper-litigious, blowhard” (as Michael K. Vlock described Trump). Or that the other is a sneaky, backroom dealmaker who regularly plays her allies and supporters off against each other? Does that really disqualify them from the presidency?

Maybe this campaign is forcing Americans to abandon their naïve assumptions about the character of the office. Perhaps 2016 will go down in history as the year Americans finally recognized that aside from all the philanderers they’ve elected in the past they’ve also voted for slaveholders (Jackson), egotists (T Roosevelt), racists (Wilson), and liars (Nixon), and to face the fact that all candidacies ever really come down to is platform and promises.

What do they stand for? What are their formal policies? In which direction will they lead the country? Of course, there’s never any guarantee a President will enact all their policies, but the electorate has only that to go on when they enter the polling booth. Weigh up their stated objectives and vote according to your conscience. Sure, if a candidate’s word can’t be trusted in the first place you probably shouldn’t be voting for them. But, assuming the best of them, vote on their record and their pledges. If the newly elected President breaks his or her promises, let that be on their head.

Sure, ideally Christians would prefer a candidate whose policies they agree with and whose character they admire. I get that. But you’re not the judge of anyone’s character. In a democracy it is incumbent upon you to judge the quality of their published policies and vote accordingly.

Francis Underwood also once said, “Democracy is so overrated.”

Well, you can prove him wrong, you know?

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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