February 20, 2013
By William McKenzie
Let’s return to a theme we’ve talked about before, but one that is perennially challenging. And that is how people of faith are supposed to live out their lives publicly.
Specifically, I’m thinking about how our leaders are supposed to live out their religious convictions, if indeed they profess a set of beliefs. Most major religions adhere to the Golden Rule in one way or another. Many preach the value of forgiveness. And most focus on loving their Supreme Being with body, soul and mind.
But the world intervenes for leaders. They must make hard decisions for a larger group of people, many of whom may not share their religious beliefs. Potential conflict arises, for example, when a leader is called upon to protect his or her country, even when that could mean getting one’s hands dirty.
New York Times columnist David Brooks touches upon this theme in this essay. Here’s one excerpt:
“In the real world, a great leader is called upon to create a civilized order for the city he serves. To create that order, to defeat the forces of anarchy and savagery, the virtuous leader is compelled to do hard things, to take, as it were, the sins of the situation upon himself.
“The leader who does good things cannot always be good himself. Sometimes bad acts produce good outcomes. Sometimes a leader has to love his country more than his soul.”
That’s pretty disturbing. Should a leader really love his country more than his soul? If so, does that mean country should come before faith?
To me, this is one of the more challenging parts of the intersection of religion and politics. I would love to hear your thoughts about whether leaders must on occasion love their country more than their soul....
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
One of the most insightful writers about leadership was the late Edwin H. Friedman, a rabbi and a psychologist whose last book was published posthumously under the title A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Unlike columnist David Brooks, who seems to be convinced that leaders must become victims of the systems in which they function in order to lead effectively, Friedman taught that the greatest leaders differentiate themselves from the systems in which they serve. And Friedman insisted a leader’s most important responsibility is to have a sense of identity and a moral commitment to integrity.
Great leaders understand the moral ambiguities of their decisions. Lincoln wrestled with the obligations to emancipate slaves and empower newly freed slaves while preserving the Union through a war that is still the most destructive in American history. Truman faced the options of unleashing atomic bombs that incinerated hundreds of thousands of civilians or pursuing conventional warfare that could lead to similar numbers of civilian deaths plus untold numbers of American casualties.
These choices are not intellectually uncomplicated or ethically unchallenged. But great leaders do not surrender to the complexities, nor do they collapse their own integrity into a political agenda that sacrifices one’s soul.
Great leaders include people like Nelson Mandela, who would spend 27 years in jail rather than surrender his principles. Great leaders include people like Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to serving the poorest of the poor rather than yielding to her doubts.
Great leaders do not dissolve their integrity in some political intrigue. They differentiate their identity from the political machinations of the moment and rise above them....