Reflections on Historical Leadders
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Reflections on Historical Leaders

October 15, 2015

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

Too often these days it can seem as though moral and ethical leadership have little place within the public square, the corporate boardroom, the academic classroom, or even the church sanctuary. Voices for doing the right thing or efforts to stand up for some just principle get overwhelmed by forces seemingly beyond anyone’s control. It is easy to get discouraged about the fortunes of moral character in contemporary society.

But two events in late September gave me hope that perhaps things are not as bad as they sometimes seem. The first was the American visit of Pope Francis. Whatever one thinks of his take on any particular issue or crisis, it is hard not to be impressed and moved by the moral vision he conveys and the moral power he is exercising. When Pope Francis speaks, people listen, and to an extent not experienced for a long time by any representative of worldwide Christianity. In a short time, he has crafted a space for himself and the church to be heard, often sympathetically, on essential questions of our day. Surely that is a mark of effective moral and ethical leadership.

The recent scandal at Volkswagen, my second event, would seem to point in the opposite direction. However high up the intentional deception went in its corporate decision-making, the whole company will bear the stain, and the financial burden, of this legal and moral transgression for a good long while. That is cause for lament. Yet might there be cause for encouragement in the almost universal outcry against VW’s actions? It is of course easy to point the finger at others’ failures. But it is noteworthy that most of the condemnations of VW have gone beyond criticisms of bad business practices and spoken in explicitly ethical terms. Perhaps society’s moral compass is not so broken or absent after all.

Within the American political realm, our history is replete with examples of moral leadership taking a backseat – or being dumped out of the car altogether – to quests for power. The Nixon administration comes readily to mind with its paranoid fear of political opposition and toxic willingness to do most anything to keep the reins of government. Its moral failures did not preclude policy achievements during the Nixon years, but they also left us with long legacies of government distrust and citizen cynicism.

One wonders whether the course of that administration might have been altered had Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon been chosen as Nixon’s running mate rather than Spiro Agnew. Hatfield was a serious candidate for the position but was passed over in part because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. His thirty-year career in the U.S. Senate and prior service as a two-term governor were marked by a willingness to think for himself and to demonstrate the courage of his convictions, both political and moral. Toeing the party line was less important for him than working out policies he considered just and fair, whether the issue was military spending, logging on federal lands, or capital punishment. Such an approach won him many critics; it also won him eleven major elections. Though a Baptist, I suspect Hatfield, who passed away in 2011, would have found much to admire in Pope Francis’ moral leadership.