Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Good Character Is An Archaic and Unappreciated Virtue

If you are a business owner or manager, chances are, you have had to recruit new employees. When you do, you hope to find good ones. So it is frustrating that labor laws actually make the process very difficult if not impossible. The legal system would have us believe that experience and education are the only relevant qualifiers and standards by which we may evaluate an applicant. I think that’s insane. Most employers prefer to hire people of good character. For Christian ministies, it is more than just a preference; it is a crucial necessity. But it is nearly impossible, if not illegal to attempt to obtain insightful information regarding the backgrounds, private lives, or morals of potential employees.

It wasn’t always like that. In the past our examination and evaluation of a person’s character for the work place was expected because good character was a valued virtue. How did we get to the place, in this nation, where character no longer matters? We have amoral (and sometimes even downright immoral) lawmakers and political leaders that we have elected and learned to tolerate. So it is no wonder we now have laws to protect people’s personal lives from public scrutiny.

When our founding fathers set about to create constitutions for the colonies, two conflicting fundamental approaches to civil government emerged for public debate. One approach assumed that by passing good laws, we would fix civil problems. The other approach suggested that if we elected the right kinds of people, they would do the right things.  

John Locke was a proponent of the first approach. He proposed that good, sound laws must be written. He believed that if laws are good, it really doesn’t matter who is elected to office. They will be bound by the good laws.

In contrast, William Penn believed that good men should be elected. He said that good laws may lack good men but good men will never lack good laws and will never allow bad laws. If the elected men are good, the government cannot be bad. If the men are bad, their government will never be good. So it really doesn’t matter how good the laws are, it matters how good the leaders are.

William Penn’s approach was founded in the biblical Proverb, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.”

One of the most popular textbooks in America’s history was written in 1812. It was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln and was used in public education for many years. This is what it taught about character; “Public character is no evidence of true greatness, for a public character is often an artificial character. If you want to know what a man is really like, you should watch him when he thinks no one is looking.”

Throughout the years, others have expressed that in similar ways. You may have heard some of these:
  • “The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.” - Lord Macaulay
  • “Character is what a man is in the dark.” - D.L. Moody

  • “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” - John Wooden former UCLA basketball coach

  • And here’s an amusing old English one-liner: "A gentleman is one who uses the butter knife when he is alone." In other words, it's what someone does when no one's watching that indicates the true person. - J. I. Packer
The textbook goes on to illustrate the point by using a real life example. The man was a Brigadier General in the Continental Army and a patriot leader in the American Revolution. He was a war hero of the battle of Saratoga, the battle that turned the war. Those were his public credentials and they were quite impressive.

But he also had a private life. He was the General who was responsible for dispatching food and supplies to General Washington’s troops at Valley Forge. He sold wagonloads of supplies on the black market while Washington’s men were freezing, starving and dying. Later, he sold out West Point to the British for money.

His name was Benedict Arnold and he was tried and convicted for treason. His private life was a better indicator of his true character that his public life. The textbook closed with this statement: “…it is in the private life that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life; that’s where a man is always sure to act himself.”

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that our nation started entertaining the notion that a man’s private life is irrelevant in the political or public arena. Robert Ingersol espoused that, when selecting leaders, they should be elected on their public competence alone and their private lives should be disregarded. And we have bought it. We accept immoral behavior from our leaders and we have allowed our lawmakers to hinder our ability to discover good people of moral character for the workplace. If Benedict Arnold lived in contemporary America, he would not only be employable, he might be a very electable candidate for public office.
(some of this historic information was derived from David Barton)

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