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Where are All the "Best Men?"

By Robert D. Stacey, Ph.D.

CBN.comIn his 1888 classic, The American Commonwealth, historian James Bryce included a chapter entitled “Why the Best Men Do Not Go Into Politics.” Bryce observed that between the end of the founding generation and his writing, only one American president, General U.S. Grant, would have been remembered by history had he never attained the White House, and only one other, Abraham Lincoln, is remembered because he “displayed rare or striking qualities in the chair.” In effect, Bryce lamented a dearth of true statesmen in his day. Indeed, American presidents of the 19th century represent a veritable cavalcade of utterly forgettable characters. Who among us can recall Millard Filmore or Franklin Pierce, let alone describe the accomplishments of their respective administrations?

Today, however, we seem to experience an even greater dearth of statesmen. We may be able to recall the names of our more recent presidents, but we are as likely to remember them for their failures as for their successes. Some of us might grant the title of statesman to a John Kennedy or a Ronald Reagan, but we also remember the wartime debacle of Lyndon Johnson and the self-inflicted malaise of Jimmy Carter.

Attracting real statesmen to the highest offices — not just the presidency — seems to be an increasingly difficult challenge in America. Bryce offered several reasons for the lack of statesmen in public life, perhaps chief among them being that politics tends to tear down even the best men. But I would add a new complicating factor to the challenge of American statesmanship. Unlike Americans of the 19th century, today we have collectively lost sight of what it means to be a good statesman.

In seeking to recover a sense of true statesmanship, we can and certainly should look to sound historical examples — figures such as George Washington and William Wilberforce come to mind — but an even better source is the Bible itself. Here we find a treasure trove of both positive and negative examples to instruct us. The judges, the kings of Judah and Israel, and even the wicked rulers of the New Testament illustrate the qualities of true statesmanship.

While an exhaustive account of biblical statesmanship is too much for one article, certain vital components immediately leap to our attention. Biblical statesmanship stresses sound moral leadership for example, as well as selflessness, wisdom and consistency. God prudently separated the offices of king and priest, and what God has put asunder, we would do well not to unite. Nor should we look to our president as our Theologian-in-Chief. Nevertheless, time and again we see in Scripture that as the ruler goes, so the subjects go. A true statesman recognizes that he or she has both political and moral responsibilities to constituents.

An old debate among historians asks, “Do great men make history, or does history make great men?” Both propositions are defensible. But in the context of statesmanship, great events and crises certainly happen from time to time, and when they do, great statesmen respond appropriately. But how would it be if the leader could not see past the next election cycle or the latest partisan struggle? Such is the difference between the politician and the statesman.

As with so many other problems, we cannot fill the need until we understand what’s missing. We can blame our leaders and lament shocking improprieties, but it is foolish of us to expect good statesmanship when we as a people so frequently reward petty politics. Statesmanship begins with us.

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