This afternoon we learned that Mark Sanford, Republican governor of South Carolina and married father of four, took off over Fathers Day weekend to spend some time with his paramour in Argentina. It's unfortunate, because he was one of the more interesting up-and-coming conservatives who might run for President (though honestly, I always doubted his connection with the cultural side of conservatism -- the most important). But it is also an interesting case in point on the relationship between persons and leadership.
Over at National Review Online, ever more libertarian and neo-con than conservative, the conversation is ranging between two poles. Some are saying, gosh, who cares. We shouldn't worry about the personal lives of politicians. (Interestingly, this is often followed by, "and they shouldn't worry about ours": pure libertarianism, the very negation of conservatism.) Of course, even these people admit that Sanford's disappearing for five days with no contact information while he's supposed to be governing a state is probably disqualifying for higher office. But the initial argument stands: why do we care about a politician's personal life?
To which others at National Review respond (predictably echoing their editorial preference during last year's presidential primary), if we want squeaky-clean politicians, then go Mitt!
Both arguments show how far National Review has fallen from true conservatism. More on that another time: this post is about the importance of the personal, not National Review.
Personal things matter in our politicians for two reasons. First, as a measure of the man we are putting in charge of office. This event reveals a lot about Mark Sanford. Above all, that he is a creep: and we can expect that to inform his judgment on various issues. We can't determine everything about a leader based on his answers on an issues questionaire, both because politicians aren't always entirely forthcoming, and because we never know what issues will come up.
When George Bush was first elected, we had no idea there would be a terrorist attack; no idea when Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist would die and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor would step down, or who was available to replace them, or who would not step down, or what issues would be on the table; no idea what developments there would be in biotech, or in the development of the gay marriage debate; no idea that he would have majorities in both Houses of Congress, then lose them both in 2006 -- etc.
We use every datum we have to judge what kind of person we are considering for election, and whether we can trust their judgment. Will they be true to their promises? (Most politicians aren't: but in what ways?) What will be their priorities, and how hard and effectively will they work to advance them? And how does what we know extrapolate to all the issues that we haven't even considered yet? We do learn a lot about a guy when we find out he's flying to Argentina to ditch his wife and four school-aged children. We learn about his values and his character. Why should we ignore that information?
The other significant aspect of such lessons is not about how a leader will behave, but what he says about our nation. A president fooling around with interns in the Oval Office is not just unprofessional, it's gross. Symbols matter. It's not surprising that some of the people who say we shouldn't care about a politician's personal life also say we shouldn't care about our own. The kind of men we elect is a profound statement about how we think of ourselves as a nation. To elect someone who is personally corrupt is a very strong statement of moral relativism. It's not surprising that libertarians are okay with that -- but conservatives are not, cannot be.
And this figure-head aspect effects not only our own culture, but the culture of other countries as well. To send a philanderer to speak to the Muslim world, for example, does send a message about what kind of values back up our foreign policy. Muslims are rightly suspect of a country that so often presents itself as anti-moral. And people in socially liberal countries in Europe take the measure of our country based on the people we choose to represent us. Do we want to be a nation of perverts, or a nation of high moral values? What do we want to promote in the world? Those are of course matters of political debate. But there should be no question where conservatives stand in such debates.
So the morals of our leaders matters both with regard to their personal competence and their symbolic value. But unfortunately, this cuts against "squeaky-clean Mitt Romney," too. On a symbolic level, Christians are uncomfortable with electing a Mormon president. Why? Because it suggests a moral equivalence between Christianity and this made-up, anti-Trinitarian (honestly, anti-theistic), anti-Biblical religion. We would rather have a bad Christian than someone who is not a Christian at all -- because we believe this is a Christian nation, and we believe that matters.
It matters, not as a matter of intolerance -- such that we would drive Mormons, Muslims, and other non-Christians out of the country -- but, among other things, precisely as the reason for our tolerance. We believe we are tolerant because we are Christians. It's clear that many in the "conservative" press don't understand that argument. But for many Christians and conservatives, Christianity does actually matter, also on a social and political level.
Romney's Mormonism also cuts against him as a suggestion of his character. Mormonism is a perfectly respectable way to live one's life: clean, family-oriented, neighborly. Those are good things. But on a theological and philosophical level, Mormonism is loony. Is that judgmental? Of course it is. (Again: to say that people should not be judgmental about philosophical positions is a profound statement of philosophical and theological relativism. That relativism is central to American liberalism -- but it is antithetical to conservatism.) To live by a nonsensical religion says something about a person's philosophical coherence.
As neighbors, even as friends, fine. I know some perfectly lovely Mormons. But at the helm of my country, I want someone who is a clear thinker, especially in matters of philosophy. There are a lot of issues in politics that require much more sophisticated thinking than does running a bank. I'd love to have Mitt Romney as my banker -- or, perhaps, my Treasury Secretary. But thinking through matters of Constitutional Law, or foreign policy, or even tax policy? It makes me nervous.
Ultimately, all the issues questionaires are just one more contribution to the fundamental question for a democracy: what kind of man are we thinking about electing? The personal is not irrelevant. It is the most important of all.