With the passing of Billy Graham, there is no religious leader today who has the influence and access of the Southern Baptist preacher who counseled presidents of both parties without partisanship for many decades. Graham knew the importance of character. He once said, “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost. When health is lost, something is lost. When character is lost, all is lost.”
Good character is a value totally lacking in our current president. Michael Gerson, President George W. Bush’s key adviser and speechwriter, recently wrote. “Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership … This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage.”
Sadly, this comes at a time when we need a president of the United States whose moral character inspires our nation. Yet, our ministers, priests, rabbis and imams seem to have abandoned their role of moral leadership and are missing in action. Some highly partisan evangelicals who seek to succeed Graham, who died Feb. 21, look at President Trump’s character and see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council says that evangelical leaders are giving President Trump a “mulligan.” Mulligans are used to forgive golfing errors in a friendly game; there are no mulligans for issues of national security and the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.
The greatest moral leader I have ever known was the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame. We all called him Father Ted. He was a devoted Catholic priest and a courageous, visionary leader, yet at the same time he was realistic and pragmatic enough to become a great national spokesman. He vastly expanded the scope and ambition of a world-class university. He served on presidential and non-profit commissions overseeing important issues from civil rights to atomic energy. At the same time, over a long career, he was a tireless advocate for justice grounded in his belief that “every human person is a res sacra, a sacred reality, and as such is entitled to the opportunity of fulfilling those great human potentials with which God has endowed us all.”
He was always willing to compromise, but only so far, and never about fundamental principles. He resigned from one federal commission in protest of the Nixon’s administration’s failure to pursue racial equality.
More than 50 years ago, Father Ted invited me to become the first Jewish trustee of Notre Dame’s board of trustees, and at 92, I still serve as an emeritus trustee. This was just one example of his dedication to seeking common ground and his commitment to fearless, open, but always respectful debate as the best way to fulfill human potential. He gave me the honor of walking with the great theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when Notre Dame gave the rabbi an honorary degree after he walked arm in arm with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. It was King who used faith-based moral imperatives as the ultimate power of persuasion. His spiritual strength still buoys us today while many of the amoral “strong men” from that era are long forgotten.
We need that kind of spiritual guidance today to restore morality to our political leadership. President Trump lies shamelessly and breaks his promises. Where are the Father Teds and Kings today? Why are so many churches, cathedrals, synagogues and mosques silent?
Instead of using moral values grounded in faith as a bridge, most of today’s religious leaders look the other way, forgetting that we used to believe that the presidency is, above all, a place for moral leadership, essential for making the right decisions and essential for our credibility in the world. All religions recognize the essential values of honor, compassion and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. We need our religious leaders to do what they do best, to speak out to teach us, remind us and inspire us. As Father Ted told us, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”
Newton N. Minow was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1961 to 1963. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.