Culture At Large

Reagan and the ranking of leaders

Andy Rau

The week surrounding Presidents Day is time for a minor American pastime: debating the best and worst U.S. presidents. The 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth and the resulting discussion of his legacy means that his presidency is at the top of the list, according to some polls.

These "Who is the greatest American president?" polls are ridiculously vague. What makes a good president? It's up to each of us to decide what presidential traits we value most. What should Christians expect from a leader? Should we rate our civil leaders against the same standard we use for church leaders? It occurs to me that Christians might actually have a reliable ruler against which to measure a leader's greatness.

As I read through the flood of Reagan retrospectives over the last week, I jotted down some of the phrases - positive and negative - used to characterize his leadership:

  • Cheerful
  • Strident
  • Pragmatic
  • Likable
  • Willing to cut deals
  • Polarizing
  • Ideologue
  • Shrewd
  • Controversial
  • Helped American prosper
  • Left America safe
  • Disenfranchised the poor
  • Divorced
  • Habitually optimistic
Which of those are characteristics of a great Christian leader? Are the bad things on that list outweighed by the good, or is that not an appropriate way for Christians to think?

The closest thing Christians have to a checklist for leadership qualities is the apostle Paul's list of qualifications for overseers and deacons within the church. To those we can add the traits praised in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the Bible, which paint the ideal church leader as someone who is humble, gentle, faithful to God and to their family, merciful and above reproach. The stress is on the character of the leader.

So how should we judge national leaders? I know some people who measure the success of civil leaders by the same spiritual standards set for church leaders, so that men like Jimmy Carter - widely considered a better man than he was a president - rate highly with despite never getting anywhere near the top of "greatest president" polls. I know other Christians who rate civil leaders purely by their effectiveness in office: if they get the job done, it doesn't matter how many compromises or moral failings took place along the way. These people might point to an array of Old Testament rulers whose careers were tainted by serious spiritual failings, but whose leadership was used by God to accomplish great things.

How do you approach this question? Who do you consider the great leaders of modern history, and why? Do you consider them great because of their spiritual character or their political skill? In a job as complex and compromising as that of U.S. President, is it ever possible for a person to have both?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, The Church, News & Politics, North America