Dilemma: When Our Great Leaders Aren’t Good

Written by Wes Walker on November 29, 2013

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Which is more important to you — that your heroes are good, or that they are great?  Is this a question anyone is even asking anymore?

While some might actually be considered both good and great, there are many “good” people who never achieve greatness, and also many “great” people who would never be considered good people.  In those either/or situations which ones rise to prominence?

We just finished commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, and understandably, JFK got a lot of press.  After all, it was a big moment in history.  But as pointed out in Peter Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell JFK was not the only well-known person to die that day.

There were, in particular, two other famous names to die that same day.  One was Aldous Huxley (best remembered for Brave New World, and the other was the famous Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis, but we have heard very little about the passing of the latter two men.

Not that such a reaction is unique to this example.  In my own lifetime, the passing of two other well-known figures was just as striking in its contrast.  Many of you will remember how astonishing the massive outpouring of emotion was when Lady Diana met her unfortunate and violent end.  Forests of trees and rivers of ink were consumed in telling and retelling every detail of her life and death in papers and magazines, not to mention all the other media outlets.  Everyone clamoured to be part of her story.

Then, six short days later, was another death, of a woman no less famous than Lady Diana.  She was a Peace Prize winner.  You know her name, but do you remember her passing?  Did she dislodge this week-old story from page one?  No.  The death of Mother Theresa barely made a ripple in the media circus that followed Diana’s death.

Diana was certainly admired by many, and took an interest in certain charitable causes.  She is remembered, for instance, as championing a landmine treaty.  Even so, her life is not principally remembered for her selfless devotion to the wellbeing of others.  Mother Theresa, on the other hand, is remembered for exactly that, even by some of her most jaded critics.  Mother Theresa willingly lived among the squalor of the poor and infirm she came to help.

Theological quibbling aside, in the common use of the word, Mother Theresa was a “good” person.  She was good in a sense or at least to a degree that Diana was not.  

Lady Di, on the other hand, was “great”.  She held the adoration of the masses.  She was influential.  She had dizzying wealth.  Her children are future heirs to the British throne, for pity’s sake.  She was great.

When they both died, it was clear which of these traits most impressed the crowds.

It was no different with JFK and C.S. Lewis.

Who was JFK?  He was Camelot personified.  He was the dashing young, powerful and wealthy man that men wanted to be, and women wanted to be with, as the saying goes.

What about C.S. Lewis?  Lewis is not remembered for his dashing looks and charm.  He is remembered for the influence he had on people in another way.

Lewis turned their eyes and hearts heavenward, made them long for a friend like Aslan, took them on the Pilgrim’s Regress, read them Screwtape[‘s] Letters, and showed them the Abolition of Man.  He declared to them the Four Loves until they were Surprised by Joy at the discovering of Mere Christianity.  

He who had once been just another academic rejecting his Christian upbringing went on to become one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest defenders of the Christian faith.  In short, he set forward such a wondrous and glorious picture of Christ that many of his readers were drawn in to follow him.  He, too, in the common use of the word, was “good”.  But like Theresa, he never became, in the eyes of the masses “great”.

JFK, for all his wealth, fame, fortune and power would not rate as a good man.  Even if you don’t take the damning account of Mimi Alford at face value, it is no secret that he was less than a faithful husband, among various other moral failings attributed to him.

JFK was loved, and mourned as a great man.  Lewis was admired as a good man, but the masses paid him scant attention, and no glory.

What can we learn from this?  When we elevate leaders who were most admired for their power, looks, smooth speech, or their connections, should we be surprised when they all plummet back to Earth in wave after wave of scandal?  Because for all these attributes of “greatness” the trait so often is missing from the list was “good”.

Why should we marvel that people like Eliot Spitzer, Jesse Jackson Jr. or Rob Ford can still command significant followings, despite their incapacity even to properly address their moral failings?  They are not the problem. They are the symptom.

Our own Pragmatism is the real problem, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Get Wes Walker’s new, controversial book, A Blueprint for Government That Doesn’t Suck. Available at amazon.com

Image: Courtesy of: http://www.magickriver.org/2009/11/two-great-men-died-46-years-ago-today.html