PRO-CHOICE OR PRO-OPTIONS by Carl Trueman
Recently, a friend quoted John Kennedy to me: `To lead is to choose.’ It is not a quotation that I have been able to verify, but whether Kennedy said it or not, it is surely a piece of brilliant insight into the nature of leadership. One of the luxuries of having no power or influence is surely the fact that one never has to make any significant choices. Sure, one can choose to support this leader or that leader, to argue for this side or that side of an issue; but because such support and such arguments are hypothetical and insignificant, because the responsibility for the decision or the policy lies in the hands of somebody else, then if it all goes horribly wrong, one always has the option of walking away while telling onlookers. `It was nothing to do with me.’ The leader has no such luxury: ultimate he not only has to support one side of an argument but he has to act consistent with that; and once he does so, his ability to walk away unscathed if it all goes down the pan is reduced to zero.
The Kennedy quotation reminded me of another comment from Washington, not this time for a politician but from Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptsist Church. Several times over the years I have heard Mark fulminate against what he sees as the `cult of options’ which is so important for young people today. In essence, the cult of options is the desire to keep all life options open, of not making commitments that close down possibilities in the future. Arguably, this is a function of a consumer society where choice is exalted as a virtue; and it is perhaps particularly ingrained in America where even the education system allows for options to be kept open even to university level. In Britain, at least in my day, you limited your academic subjects to three at the age of sixteen, and thus the fundamental choice – arts or sciences – was made very early on. Against this cult of options, Mark argues strongly for committing oneself early to particular things and thus cutting off the temptation to choose and to drift and to drift and to choose throughout life.
Combining the thought of Kennedy and that of Mark, however, raises a key question: if it is true that this generation is addicted to the cult of choice and of keeping all options open, is it not the case that this generation is ill-equipped to hold any position of leadership? If part of the essence of leadership is to choose, to decide, to commit to a course of action or a policy and thereby close off other possibilities, then surely those who are incapable or unwilling to do so are likely to prove disastrous in positions of leadership?
Certainly, much of the culture surrounding Christianity at the moment militates against the kind of commitment that making a choice, rather than merely having a choice, demands. The language of conversation, so popular in certain quarters, has a certain open-ended quality to it. Once upon a time, arguments and debates were designed for the express purpose of reaching a conclusion, of deciding which, if any, of two or more positions was the best or the strongest or the most true. Conversation has more of a `I’ll hear what you say; you hear what I say and we can all agree to differ while remaining friends’ feel.
This perhaps connects to what is now generally recognized as the extended adolescence of many young people today. In the UK, a journalist recently lamented the increasingly common habit of middle aged men walking round with their jeans half way down their backside, showing off their designer underwear in imitation of their teenage sons. In my day, the only middle aged men who did so were workers on building sites, and they generally were not sporting Calvin Klein boxers but rather revealing too much pallid flesh and cleavage. Nowadays, any emotionally stunted thirty-something apparently feels free so to do and thinks it makes him cool, though what his teenage kids might think about the significance of dad’s sartorial style is another matter. My own kids cringe when I sport my tee shirt from a recent `Who’ concert; if I walked round showing off my tidy widies, they would die of embarrassment.
Of course, there are many other aspects of our culture which point to this reality of emotional retardation. The compulsive need of some to be liked, to the extent that any criticism of them generates visceral and personal responses speaks of a deeply insecure and immature section in our culture. Then I scarcely need to mention the amount of buck-passing and refusal to take responsibility that goes on, where every stupid action someone performs can always be laid at the feet of somebody else. Scald yourself with hot coffee? Sue the guy who made the kettle. Can’t seem to get that promotion at work? Must have been because your daddy didn’t tell you he loved you often enough. Cheat on your wife? Well the missus should have been more understanding and then you wouldn’t have gone looking elsewhere.
All of this is sad in a tragicomical way; and it is perhaps not surprising that as adolescence creeps into middle age, so does the fear of making choices and closing down options; but I wonder if most lethal of all will prove to be not the lack of commitment and stability that characterises Marks’ `cult of options’. Rather the worst of it may well be that a generation is growing up that is happy to sneer and snipe at the decisions of others, but for whom making decisions that bind is something they themselves are incapable of doing, an alien concept no less; and that means not only, as I suspect Mark Dever fears, that a generation will grow up with no real commitments other than to themselves as individuals but also with no real leadership potential.
One of the striking things about great leaders in history is the strong passions they have aroused. Churchill is surely a great hero to many on both sides of the Atlantic, but, interestingly enough, my grandfather hated him with a passion because in the 1920s he had set the troops on striking miners. Lloyd George was the other great war leader Britain produced in the twentieth century, a brilliant orator and political strategist, but he was hated and reviled as much as he was praised and adored. The same is true in America: think of a significant leader in any sphere and you find someone who polarizes opinion, whether it is Franklin D. Roosevelt, General MacArthur, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Why? Because great leaders make tough choices and, in so doing, commit themselves to courses of action that can bring praise but also excoriation. They do not sit on the fence; they do not nor do they sit on the sidelines, throwing potshots at those who have to make the decisions; they do not enjoy the luxury of always knowing what should be done but never actually having to take responsibility for doing it. And they understand that, sometimes, it is better to make a decision that proves to be wrong than to make no decision at all.
In short, it should be a matter of concern that we live in a world where the very values which seem increasingly to dominate our society – extended adolescence and the love of choice combined with the dislike of the responsibility of actually making choices – are those which will erode the very qualities that make good leaders: maturity and a willingness to make the hard decisions.
This leads to one other concern about future leadership. It is what I call the emergence of the professional statesman. The professional statesman is the person who thinks and acts as if they can rise above the fray and speak to issue in a way that transcends the typical struggles involved in any leadership situation. I have witnessed this so often over the last few years, both in observing the wider political scene and in the church which seems to me to be increasingly marked by such men: they are those who try to defuse theological conflict by playing the moral equivalence card whereby they argue that the struggle is really petty and personal, a moral conflict between lesser men above which they and they alone can stand and see the way forward. My suspicion is that too often this simply reflects the problematic patterns in wider society: a need to be liked; a need to avoid making divisive decisions; and a desire to have the perks of leadership with none of the responsibilities and pain involved.
The problem is that statesmen are made, not born. They earn the right to be statesmen by fighting the battles and leading from the front. Love him or hate him, only Nixon could go to China, because only Nixon had the track record of toughmindedness with regard to Communism that meant he could make the trip. Only Mandela could dismantle apartheid and promote reconciliation in South Africa because only he had taken the stand and paid the price which gave him the moral authority necessary. Too often I suspect that aspiring statesmen in the church are driven more by a need to be liked and to avoid conflict than by a real desire to provide strong leadership; but being a statesman is not a career path; it is something that is earned over many years of making hard decisions, taking unpopular stands, and proving one’s mettle under fire. Those who simply arrive on the scene as ready-made statesmen, so to speak, or who have statesman status thrust upon them by others before they have ever had to take a tough position on anything – well, such leaders want to have their cake and eat it: they want influence and respect, but they do not particularly want to earn it.
I often joke that my motto as Academic Dean at Westminster is this: The man who has no enemies has no honour. Certainly, I suspect that any Dean who is universally liked is probably not doing his job properly or enjoys a faculty that have somehow been spared the curse of original sin. But the motto could be broadened: the leader who has no enemies has no honour. For such a leader has surely never done that which is essential to leadership – made a choice.
Carl Trueman is a Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.