If you applied only strict religious standards of piety and personal morality to the current presidential candidates, very few would measure up. In fact, none of the candidates could be considered eligible for sainthood. But we're not looking for saints … or at least we shouldn't be.
When Rudy Giuliani was put on the hot seat at Wednesday's Republican presidential debate over his two failed marriages and estranged relationships with his children, it brought up the question again of whether politicians' personal lives should have any bearing on whether they're fit for office. Or, should their religious beliefs and adherence to them be a litmus test of whether they're able to be the leader of the free world?
Giuliani said "I am not running as the perfect candidate for the president of the United States. I am running as a human being."
Certainly we like to believe that the candidates we choose reflect, to a certain extent, on the values we hold sacred: family, belief in God, honor and character — qualities we hold in the highest regard as an outward sign of an inner strength.
However, past presidents who've been nearly beatified by history have not been the most angelic in real life. One very good example is President John F. Kennedy. Despite his Catholic upbringing and lofty ideals that gave his administration the title "Camelot," he also was known as a womanizer. His affairs with various women were one of the worst kept secrets in the White House. But, it was also a different era in media, when most reporters were men. They were part of the good ol' boys club, where they just looked the other way; JFK's personal life had nothing to do with how he ran the country.
Fast forward to the Bill Clinton years, and we have a much different situation. Clinton's dalliances with Monica Lewinski not only were reported by the media, but the news and the fallout nearly toppled the administration. His lying about the affair, some felt, was a clear indication that he was unfit, and undeserved, to hold the office of president.
Looking down the barrel at 2008, we now have the new batch of presidential contenders, basking, somewhat uncomfortably, in the full range of "values" voting. Not only are their personal lives up for display but also their religious beliefs. Never before has it seemed so important for candidates to cater to religious ideals. But, ironically, it may not be a "clear cut positive."
A new Pew Forum poll shows that the candidates viewed as the least religious are actually the current front-runners. In the Democratic camp, people viewed John Edwards and Barack Obama as very religious — Edwards with 28 percent to Obama's 24 percent. Yet Hillary Clinton is at 16 percent and she's the front-runner democratic candidate.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney is viewed as the most religious by 46 percent of those polled. Rudy Giuliani is viewed as the least religious of the Republicans at 14 percent — yet according to the latest polls, he is the Republican front-runner. Fred Thompson, who just entered the race, is seen as slightly more religious than Giuliani and is second in the polls.
If religion is a reflection of character, then what's with this sort of upside down results of faith and politics? Well, it could be that the average voter sees himself as imperfect and doesn't trust anyone who parades himself without blemish. And let's face it; many religious or conservative people can be very unforgiving of others who fall short of a certain standard of morality … and sometimes those sitting high on their towers, just fall harder.
But to get a better understanding of this idea of morality and politics, I talked with Pastor Tommy Nelson from Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas. The evangelical minister has a very good take on the highest standards of ethics and morality, but is also well aware of his own moral failures as man. That means he knows he'll always fall short of an absolute standard of morality ... not that he tries to, it's just part of the human experience. It's built into the gene pool. He says "there needs to be a degree of mercy in that we're all deficient” and, "We’re all moral failures.”
But, Pastor Nelson does feel that a candidate's personal life and ethics should have a tremendous effect on whether they're fit to govern a nation. He says an administration is not just what a person does for a living, that it "comes out of what he is." His or her standards of work are a direct result of their character, something that does not change over time. You cannot predict the future, but through a person's character, you can predict how they may react to it.
How do you tell if a person is of good character? Well, the facts are not enough. Let's just take the area of divorce. There's probably not a person alive that doesn't know someone who's had a divorce. You may be divorced yourself. Nearly half of all first marriages end in divorce. Pastor Nelson says it's not divorce that's the issue, but rather its reasons and conditions.
Ronald Reagan was divorced, yet he was a very nice man. Even his ex-wife thought so — and he ran a pretty solid administration for two terms.
But there are also mean and vindictive men who are divorced. They don't belong in the White House, because of their character, not the divorce. The result of divorce does not draw a conclusion. You can apply that to other areas as well: affairs, abortion, alcohol abuse.
Now the real core of the issue has to do with an absolute standard a person strives to live up to, but is honest with himself or herself about the ability to do so. The real indication of character is how a person handles the situation when they fail to live up to a standard.
If you have an immovable standard for your life, it sheds light on your behavior. But, when you fall short of that standard, how do you react? To justify it? Do you cover it up? Or, do you admit it, take responsibility and make whatever reparations for it that is necessary? This is the mark of character.
I once heard a saying that was a great description of what it means to be a gentleman or a lady. It's not that you don't know how to curse, but that you know how but choose not to.
Ethics and morality are matters of choice. But sometimes the right choice is not always before you. Dr. Timothy Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, says, "Wisdom is knowing what to do when the moral rules simply don't apply." I also believe that wisdom is knowing when the moral rules do apply.
So, the question is whether that person has an absolute standard of behavior, or if he merely change the standard to suit the moment?
Our 22nd and 24th president, Grover Cleveland, was accused of having an illegitimate child (the child was born 10 years before his campaign for president). This was in the days when it was scandalous to have a child out of wedlock. Times of course have changed, but back then, it almost derailed his campaign. Yet Cleveland, instead of denying it, admitted that the child could very well be his. He had no way of knowing one way or the other, (this was a full century before the hint of DNA tests). He admitted to the affair with the child's mother — so Cleveland did the honorable thing and made provisions for both child and mother. The accusation surfaced in 1884 — Cleveland was sworn into office March 4, 1885.
In judging candidates personal lives and morality, we all need to be aware that there's so much more present than meets the eye.• E-mail Lauren Green
Lauren Green serves as a religion correspondent for the FOX News Channel. Prior to this, Green served as a news anchor for “Fox and Friends,” where she provided daily news updates and covered arts for the network. You can read her complete bio here.
Lauren Green currently serves as Fox News Channel's (FNC) chief religion correspondent based in the New York bureau. She joined FNC in 1996. Her new book is "Lighthouse Faith: God as a Living Reality in a World Immersed in Fog."