Last night’s debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton capped a tumultuous week in the presidential race. The candidates did not shake hands before the debate began, a sign of hostilities to come. The town hall meeting focused on issues ranging from Obamacare to Syria, but the negativity of the evening mirrored the divisiveness of the larger campaign.
Trump is facing widespread criticism for scandalous sexual statements he made eleven years ago. Even Mike Pence, his running mate, stated that he was “offended” by Trump’s words and actions and “cannot defend them.”
Clinton is under fire after WikiLeaks published transcripts of lucrative paid speeches she delivered to elite financial firms prior to the presidential campaign. Bernie Sanders and his supporters are reportedly furious over statements they believe prove her collusion with “big banks” and other entrenched institutions.
Prior to the media firestorm that began last Friday, Gallup’s polling showed that Trump is viewed unfavorably by 63 percent of the public, Clinton by 55 percent. These ratings are by far the worst since Gallup began such polling in the 1956 election. The previous worst rating was Barry Goldwater in October 1964 at 47 percent. After the weekend’s events, it is plausible that the candidates’ ratings will go even lower.
Americans are clearly frustrated with their presidential nominees. But Joseph de Maistre’s maxim may be relevant today: “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
What kind of nation did the Founders envision? George Washington declared that “religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.” Benjamin Franklin agreed: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Are we a “virtuous people” today?
• One in three girls in America becomes pregnant before the age of eighteen; 81 percent are unmarried. This is the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the industrialized world.
• 28,000 Americans access pornography every second.
• Nine out of ten American youth ages eight to sixteen have viewed pornography—most while doing their homework.
• Every year, more babies are aborted than the combined total of America’s war deaths across our entire history.
• Only 35 percent of Americans believe in absolute truth; 93 percent say they are their personal determiner of moral truth.
• The courts have redefined marriage while more states than ever have legalized euthanasia.
It’s not surprising that only 30 percent of Americans believe our country is going in the right direction. But the hope we need is not found in our candidates or in ourselves. John Adams was right: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.” Our hope is in God’s promise: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).
Last night’s debate ended with the question, “What do you respect about the other candidate?” Here’s what I would respect: a leader who trusts in the Lord with all his or her heart. Then God could make straight our nation’s paths.
However, if it’s true that a nation gets the leaders we deserve, character must start with us.
Note: For more on today’s theme, please see my recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Presidential candidates a reflection of the nation.”