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The Seduction of Public Leadership: Principles of Morality for Christian Leaders, by Stephen M. King

Editor’s note: Much has happened since Professor King wrote this article in March 2000. The principles he outlines, however, are as applicable today as when it was first published on the Pneuma Foundation website.

Public leadership has greatly diminished in societal value, primarily because it is based less upon moral and religious foundations of civil society, and more upon political expediency of policy issues. Institutionalized civil leadership has suffered because many public leaders, even within the highest elected offices of the nation, have all but abdicated social responsibility and moral rectitude in favor of political advantage and personal gain. When this occurs—and it has happened many times over the course of human events—political crises inevitably result, and the consequences generally rock the foundations of civil society. Today more than ever moral leadership is captured within the tantalizing grip of political seduction.

Political crises are not new. Starting at the infancy of the United States there was the XYZ Affair of 1798 (which eventually led to an undeclared naval war between France and the United States), Ben Franklin’s bastard children, whom he sired while serving as ambassador to France, the alleged sex scandal involving Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson’s slaves, who gave birth to a son, Easton Hemings, the Whiskey Ring, a national internal revenue scandal revealed in 1875, the infamous Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, the graft and corruption of New York’s Tammany Hall, John F. Kennedy’s many sexual affairs, Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Reagan’s Irangate, and the various and diverse escapades of Bill Clinton—all should serve notice that political life is full of the sordid and dastardly deeds of historical politicos. Indeed, it seems a perpetual truism that persons of political power and influence have always engaged in actions speaking less of moral character and more of political expediency, even leaders as diverse as Louis XIV, Henry VIII, or Julius Caesar. Bearing all this in mind, let us examine what the Bible has to say about political scandal or crisis, public or private revelation of the scandal, the eventual political fallout, and the hard lessons to be learned.

One hallmark of the Bible is that it paints its heroes with brutally honest strokes. Nothing is held back. In a style that is most often painfully abrupt, it neither minces words nor waxes eloquent about its protagonists, but presents them with all the faults and foibles inherent in the human condition. Take, for example, the Biblical character David, the archetypal king and Messianic prototype. Scripture makes no apology for depicting not only his triumphs but also his dark side. Yet the Bible goes on to call him “a man after God’s own heart.” To be sure, the Biblical David was a fundamentally flawed, occasionally pathetic individual who vacillated between lust, megalomania, mental instability, and eventually personal misery. David is a case study in the socio-religious and political consequences of serious weakness of character and faulty judgment, as well as an example of a truly repentant leader, who suffered through the severe personal, social, and political problems resulting from his commission of sin.

King David—as do most, if not all, political leaders—exhibited a roller coaster range of emotions, particularly during difficult times of political decision making including, sharp and zealous anger at the Philistines for laughing at the sacredness of God in the form of the Ark, and at his fellow Israelites for wallowing in fear at the sight of Goliath; humility while being anointed by Samuel as king; and lust in his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. He later shed tears over the death of Absalom, a deceitful son who nearly succeeded in seizing the kingship from him, but did nothing to avenge the rape of his daughter, Tamar. Too often, historians portray a one-sided David: either exceptionally spiritual, God-fearing, and humble—which he was—or a power hungry Machiavellian antagonist who used any measure, draconian or otherwise, to achieve his military and political successes, and was a man given to deceit, lying, and fulfilling his sexual passion—which he did as well. Neither extreme is entirely accurate, but both describe the human aspects of David, and of many other modern public officials. And both aid us in extracting from David’s character those traits that best depict the genuine composite of his person.

This essay will illustrate a leader who was both a man and a king; the honor and prestige of the latter was susceptible to the avarices of the former, including the events leading up to and going beyond the adulterous affair with Bathsheba (henceforth known as ‘Bathshebagate’). Bathshebagate represents a direct and telling crisis both in his “personal” as well as his “public” life, in which the inability or unwillingness to control his actions in the “personal” realm ultimately unleashed a torrent of problems upon David in the “public” environment. The same story—that of the pompous elected “king” abusing and misusing his political authority—has been retold many times, in various and sometimes differing degrees, such as with Richard Nixon and Watergate and more recently with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Only because of David’s humility, ultimately his willingness to listen to his trusted confidant and courageous prophet, Nathan, and his personal love for God did David survive the onslaught of negative repercussions, including decreased public support and internal political conspiracies by trusted advisors to strip him of his kingship. How have our modern leaders fared? Do the lessons of King David and Bathshebagate tell us anything about the political seduction of power, and how to avoid its tentacles of deception? If so, have we heeded the warning? If we have not, are we prepared for the consequences?

David’s early successes as king may first be attributable to the contention that he served not only as king or ruler, but also as judge. According to Jewish standards, a judge is one who dispenses justice based upon absolute principles of right and wrong, principles indelibly marked in the heart of man and codified in the Mosaic law. In I Samuel 8, the people demanded a king, one who rightly performs the principal function of the king: to judge righteously. With Saul, the people endured a ruthless despot, one who consistently and malevolently used the army for military retribution. David, however, was both a “victorious redeemer,” aided by God, and a dispenser of justice and righteousness to all the people, including such actions as the restoration of Mephibosheth, Saul’s crippled grandson, to the king’s house, and the use of capital punishment against two siblings for wrongly taking the life of Ish-Bosheth. So, David’s propensity for distributing justice included performing ethical and moral-based deeds for particular individuals, to meting out international justice through his military successes, and generally dispensing judicial, social, and even economic righteousness.

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About the Author: Stephen M. King, Ph.D. (University of Missouri-Columbia), is Associate Dean of Academics, Chair of Department of Government, History, and Criminal Justice, and Professor of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author of God and Caesar: The Biblical Keys to Good Government and Community Action (Xulon Press, 2002) and co-author with Bradley S. Chilton of Administration in the Public Interest: Principles, Policies, and Practices (Carolina Academic Press, 2009), as well as writing and being a contributor to numerous books and articles about Christian faith and politics, administrative ethics, public management, and public policy. In addition to his extensive background as an educator, he has experience in pastoral ministry and overseas mission work. Regent University Faculty Page.

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