It’s a familiar story: A public figure faces charges of doing something inappropriate years or even decades ago. It could be a serious moral failure, a youthful indiscretion, or a public-policy decision that seems out of step with the times today.
Accusations like these can provide a glimpse of a previously unknown character flaw. Or, even if true, they could be a relic from a different time in the person’s life, before admitting a mistake or learning an important lesson.
“We have a real tension in our culture between wanting to hold people accountable for past actions and the belief that people can change their behavior over time,” University of Texas psychology professor Dr. Arthur Markman said. “We often encourage people to adopt a growth mindset and to engage in constant learning and development. But people are often cynical about public figures (like actors and politicians) and often believe that their private behavior is a better view of their character than their public statements.”
The “gotcha” culture of politics
This summer, rival candidates peppered Joe Biden with questions about his record in the Democratic presidential debates. Biden has a long history of public service, having joined the Senate in 1973 and served there until 2009, when he became vice president under Barack Obama. One question in the debates centered on an op-ed Biden wrote for a small-town Maryland newspaper in 1981. “That was a long time ago,” Biden responded.
Dr. Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary, said that there is a “gotcha” culture in politics, where leaders make sport of catching their partisan rivals in mistakes. “It leaves little inclination to be gracious or give another any benefit of the doubt,” he said. “Another factor is that sometimes changes in view are not motivated by conviction but by political expediency.”
Last fall, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing turned into a media circus after he was accused of sexual misconduct when he was in high school and college.
A leader’s actions are an important indicator of future behavior, but they may not reveal personal growth or new ideas, particularly if decades have passed. Yet experts say that even though public figures can be forgiven for their mistakes, regaining public trust is another matter.
Bock said “that forgiveness does not mean forgetting nor does it mean there are not some level of consequences for public mistakes made, if we wish to hold leaders to a high standard. Our relaxing of such standards is part of our problem today. We act as if ethics, truth-telling, and integrity are optional.”
What should disqualify a leader?
David C. Iglesias, Director of the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics & Economics, said that some mistakes are so serious they should disqualify leaders from public life.
“I believe actions that involve fraudulent conduct, violence, and moral turpitude should disqualify a public leader from future service,” said Iglesias, a former state, federal, and military prosecutor.“They should, however, be forgiven for their mistakes if they confess and repent of their sins.”
Actor Kevin Spacey and producer Harvey Weinstein, who each face multiple allegations of sexual assault, could be examples of public figures who deserve being punished and banished from public life.
“On the other hand, an individual whose transgression wasn’t as significant and who has worked to change his/her behavior deserves an opportunity to ask for and receive forgiveness from others for their behavior,” Markman said.
The impossibility of “an error-free life”
As a Christian, your past does not need to define you.
The Bible is full of examples of giants of the faith who violated God’s unchanging principles. Moses murdered a man, David slept with another man’s wife and had her husband killed, and Paul persecuted Christians.
Iglesias cited the case of former slave trader John Newton, who repented of his sin and wrote “Amazing Grace.”
Or consider the late Chuck Colson. An aide to Richard Nixon, Colson pled guilty to a Watergate-related charge of obstruction of justice and went to prison. While incarcerated, Colson discovered his true calling.
“I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea that God had put me in prison for a purpose and that I should do something for those I had left behind,” he wrote in his memoir, Born Again. After his release, he founded Prison Fellowship and became a leader in the evangelical world.
“The problem with today’s zero-defect mentality is that it unrealistically posits some people can live an error-free life,” Iglesias said. “I have yet to meet that person. In today’s Instagram culture, we present a perfected version of ourselves and unwisely believe actual perfection is achievable. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The emergence of social media, particularly Twitter, has increased the scrutiny on public figures. Comedian Kevin Hart stepped down in December 2018 as host of the Oscars after his homophobic tweets from 2009–2011 became public. Major League Baseball players Sean Newcomb, Trea Turner, and Josh Hader were forced to apologize last summer after their racist and homophobic tweets as teenagers came to light.
“This young Washington is ambitious, temperamental, vain, thin-skinned, petulant, awkward, demanding, stubborn, annoying, hasty, passionate,” Stark writes. “This is the Washington of emotional neediness, personal ambition, and mistakes—many mistakes.”
In his first experience as a leader in combat, Washington lost control of his men in a skirmish with the French. His Indian allies scalped wounded Frenchmen, and the Indian leader mutilated the body of a dead French officer. Stark writes that the incident helped touch off a global conflict between the English and French, including the French and Indian War: “The eighteenth-century British commentator Horace Walpole would famously remark: ‘The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.’”
Washington glossed over the gory details of the massacre in his report to the governor of Virginia. Under today’s media scrutiny, his military career would have been over practically before it began.
Although God’s standards are unchanging, cultural standards do change.
Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, said things that would label him a white supremacist today. During one of his debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”
Yet he showed a great capacity for growth, and Obama had a portrait of him in his office at the White House. When he was a US Senator from Illinois, Obama wrote an article called “What I See in Lincoln’s Eyes” that explained his appeal: “As I look at his picture, it is the man and not the icon that speaks to me. I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. As a law professor and civil rights lawyer and as an African American, I am fully aware of his limited views on race.”
But it was Lincoln’s imperfections, Obama went on to say, that made him so compelling. “For when the time came to confront the greatest moral challenge this nation has ever faced, this all too human man did not pass the challenge on to future generations,” Obama wrote.
So history tells us we should not expect perfection from public figures, even the most famous ones.
In this fallen world, a willingness to learn and grow may be more important.