My Ethics: In politics, ethics matter more than issues
The author says that perceptions of Mitt Romney's and Barack Obama's characters matter more to voters than the issues.
July 7th, 2012
08:00 PM ET

My Ethics: In politics, ethics matter more than issues

Editor's Note: Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D., is director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

By Paul Root Wolpe, Special to CNN

Every four years, we go through a long and tortuous process of winnowing down a field of candidates to the two that are presumably best suited to lead us. We make our decision by focusing on two things: the candidates’ position on issues and their character.

We seem to spend the bulk of our time on the issues, debating endlessly the details of a candidate’s policies on immigration, health care, foreign affairs or the economy.

Yet the deciding factor, the one that tips the undecided voter, is perception of a leader’s character. We talk about character far less but it weighs upon us far more.

Every age believes it has a deficit of great leaders, and ours is no exception. We are convinced that we lack the caliber of leaders from our past, and it does not help to see the dispiriting parade of sex scandals and financial misbehavior that confronts us in the media almost every day.

At the same time, there has never been more attention focused on teaching about leadership.

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Amazon lists almost 2,000 books on leadership that have been released just in the last 90 days. Leadership programs abound in colleges and universities, and even elementary school children are taught leadership skills.

True leadership takes many qualities, which the leadership books are happy to list for you: mastery of skills, vision, knowing people, being a good listener, transparency, accountability and so on.

But what has emerged more and more in the literature on leadership is a focus on values. What makes a great leader is a strong sense of connection to their deep-set values, and a commitment to use those values as a touchstone in decision-making.

“Principled leadership,” “values-based leadership,” “ethical leadership” - the new buzzwords of leadership are about self-knowledge, the need to understand and clarify one’s beliefs, to demonstrate genuine humility, to lead with an open mind and heart.

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I teach ethics, and my first task with new students is to challenge the common view that ethics is primarily about deciding what is “right” and “wrong.”

Ethics is the expression of our deepest values, how we manifest what we believe in through our actions. Almost every action we take, except for the most trivial, reveals something about our ethical preferences.

One of the key goals of Emory University’s Center for Ethics is training students in “servant leadership.” It requires challenging them to consider and articulate their values: What do they really care about? What are they dedicated to? And how do they plan to realize the things they care about through action in the world?

All the other skills of leadership are important, too. But leadership at any level has to begin with an authentic commitment to who we are as individuals, self-knowledge of what we care about, a sense of the nature of our connection to the people and environments around us, and a decision to realize our values through action.

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Using that standard, we can begin to look at those who want to claim leadership roles – political candidates, for example – in a new light.

When we care about a candidate’s character, we are really asking, Is this person authentic? Are their positions a true reflection of their inner values, or are they politically expedient? Is a change of opinion on an issue a result of the candidate listening to others, learning and making a principled decision, or is it a response to pressure, polls and popularity?

As we look over our choices in this election year, we need to ask ourselves about who the candidates really are.

What does Mitt Romney’s flip-flop on universal health care, his management of Bain Capital and even sticking his dog on his car roof say about who Romney is as a person, as a leader?

What does President Obama’s delays on "don’t ask, don’t tell" and same-sex marriage, his alleged policy of targeted assassinations and his failure of campaign promises like closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay say about his fundamental character?

Sometimes, our European friends think we are politically naïve. They care less about a leader’s character, and more about what they call “realpolitick,” politics based on power and on practical considerations, not ideology or ethical premises.

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It is why the Italians seemed little concerned with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s sexual proclivities, or the French for former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s three marriages.

Looking over European politics in the last century or so, perhaps it is naïve to think that results are all that matter in politics.

Much of the history of 20th century Europe was written by leaders whose values were suspect, to say the least.

The policies of Chamberlain, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and others whose decisions devastated Europe were not totally surprising, given what was already known about their character when they assumed office. A leader’s policies may change, but the set of core values that generate them remains constant.

It is in the American character to care about our leader’s values. We should be proud of that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Root Wolpe.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (621 Responses)
  1. JM-7

    "to the two that are presumably best suited to lead us"

    Unfortunately, often, individuals who are best suited to lead us don't enter politices and don't run for president.

    Unfortunately, we elect people entirely unqualified for the job simply based on the fact that their daddy held the job and was qualified: Dubya.

    Love Obama but, unfortunately, this country has a crazy element that are blind.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Madrep1

      You had me until you said you love Obama. Just kidding! I suppose that I am part of the "crazy" element! I felt as though he was unqualified in 08 and now it has been proven, at least in the minds of many voters. Some of which, myself not included, voted for him and his rhetoric in 08. But, I agree we need someone to step up and run for POTUS that IS a Leader. Unfortunately, we are again choosing the best of the worst.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  2. Katie

    Ethics trumps issues unless you are advertising, promoting, or campaigning for a candidate (or against one.)

    July 8, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  3. ArthurP

    "In politics, ethics matter more than issues" and in education dogma matters more that facts. USA, USA, USA !!!

    July 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  4. shep

    I can not enter a Mormon temple, because i am not a Mormon. Jesus is not a Mormon, so he couldn't enter. Or are you saying Jesus is a Mormon?

    July 8, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Paulie

      To a Mormon isnt Jesus a mormon?

      July 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  5. shep

    What is the term for Mormons that are allowed in the temple? seriously.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Commenter

      They call it a "Temple Recommend".
      (now with a bar code! valid for 2 years)

      Here's a picture of one:

      July 8, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Commenter

      I think they call them "Worthy" when they have a "Recommend".

      July 8, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • lin


      July 8, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • Fearless Freep


      July 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  6. CarrotCakeMan

    Somebody here is certainly desperate to cover up Willard Romney's secret, illegal donation to the 2008 California anti-gay H8te Vote. But the word is out!

    July 8, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Paulie

      Most people with families and children dont want them around gays. Would you let a gay man babysit your children? Do you want him teaching your children? Do you want one as your pediatrician? They may not say it openly but they think it. I am sure Obama doesnt even like gays-he loves their votes and money though–especially slimeball hollywood gays.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Paulie

      Being gay is about the biggest breach of ethics there is.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Madrep1

      @ Paulie...interesting comment and I agree. In May of this year, my wife and I took a mini vacation down to Hilton Head Island. At the resort, there were multiple gay couples. It was kind of disgusting watching them play in the pool like a couple of married couples. I mean man and woman. They did this right out in the open and in front of families with children. Older men with younger boys. I guess I am just old fashion, but, it was kind of disgusting. Each their own I suppose. Times are changing!

      July 8, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Madrep1

      And so is Fast & Furious...but you don't read or hear about it anymore either! The American public conjuring their opinions by what the media publishes or broadcasts is playing right into their agenda and purpose.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  7. shep

    If Jesus Christ showed up today, he would not be allowed inside a Mormon temple. And that's all you need to know about the Mormon church.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Paulie

      Really is that why they are called "The Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints"? I am confused. How would he not be allowed in if his name is on the door?

      July 8, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  8. Paulie

    In 2010, influenced by the Tea Party and its focus on fiscal issues, 17 states elected Republican governors. And, according to an Examiner.com analysis, every one of those states saw a drop in their unemployment rates since January of 2011. Furthermore, the average drop in the unemployment rate in these states was 1.35%, compared to the national decline of .9%, which means, according to the analysis, that the job market in these Republican states is improving 50% faster than the national rate.

    Since January of 2011, here is how much the unemployment rate declined in each of the 17 states that elected Republican governors in 2010, according to the Examiner:

    Kansas – 6.9% to 6.1% = a decline of 0.8%

    Maine – 8.0% to 7.4% = a decline of 0.6%

    Michigan – 10.9% to 8.5% = a decline of 2.4%

    New Mexico – 7.7% to 6.7% = a decline of 1.0%

    Oklahoma – 6.2% to 4.8% = a decline of 1.4%

    Pennsylvania – 8.0% to 7.4% = a decline of 0.6%

    Tennessee – 9.5% to 7.9% = a decline of 1.6%

    Wisconsin – 7.7% to 6.8% = a decline of 0.9%

    Wyoming – 6.3% to 5.2% = a decline of 1.1%

    Alabama – 9.3% to 7.4% = a decline of 1.9%

    Georgia – 10.1% to 8.9% = a decline of 1.2%

    South Carolina – 10.6% to 9.1% = a decline of 1.5%

    South Dakota – 5.0% to 4.3% = a decline of 0.7%

    Florida – 10.9% to 8.6% = a decline of 2.3%

    Nevada – 13.8% to 11.6% = a decline of 2.2%

    Iowa – 6.1% to 5.1% = a decline of 1.0%

    Ohio – 9.0% to 7.3% = a decline of 1.7%

    On the other hand, the unemployment rate in states that elected Democrats in 2010 dropped, on average, as much as the national rate decline and, in some states such as New York, the unemployment rate has risen since January of 2011.

    This is yet another example of how the so-called “blue state” model is not working.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • CarrotCakeMan

      Don't worry, we'll be replacing foolish GOP politicians with Americans this fall.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • shep

      You don't get it. It would be a sin for a Christian to vote for a Mormon.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Paulie

      Carrot: Without the GOP we might still be a slave owning confederacy with no sufferage.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • shep

      Nice try, sunshine. The GOP is the party with the Southern strategy. And we all know what that means.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Funny how most of the states you posted are red states,
      so you ignore the blue states and then say "the blue state model is not working".
      You are retarded.
      You cherry pick your info just like christians do in the bible.

      July 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • matt

      you must be oblivious to the real facts. Michigan and Ohio have the largest drops in unemployment and that has to do only with the government bailout of the auto industry. give credit were credit is due, the unemployment would be lower in those states if so many state and local workers hadn't lost there jobs. Nevada is almost all tourism, fueld by the economic up tic

      July 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  9. matdaniel

    No doubt that the leader, the right leader, must be a man with ethics, and president Obama lacks of it.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Madrep1

      If this were really true, I question whether Obama would have been elected in 08? I know the book "The Amateur" is biased, but it is written from multiple interviews from people that had very close ties with the Obama's. Therefore, it does add credibility and is or has been a NY Times #1 Best seller. Maybe people are becoming more inquisitive as to "what, how, and who" these people really are. I expect a similar book on Romney coming to your local store very soon!

      July 8, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Obama wants all Americans to be able to afford health care.
      Romney wants to scrap the whole thing and replace it with what ?

      Talk about ethics.

      July 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  10. CarrotCakeMan

    We know Willard Romney made a secret, illegal donation to the California 2008 anti-gay H8te Vote. If he would commit a crime to poison the political process there or anywhere in America, that tells us he has no ethics and simply wants to force his desires onto all other Americans.

    And how about all these other "charitable donations" he made to his "church," how much of those millions of dollars did his "church" use to poison our political process?

    July 8, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  11. Semper Cogitatus

    Perhaps the author means that ethics SHOULD trump issues? There is certainly no objective measure by which you can say they do.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  12. Ned Flanders

    stupid religious dingbats, keep your fairy tales out of my political landscape and in YOUR CHURCH.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Lilith

      Religion is a personal thing ..... and should remain that way!

      July 8, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Madrep1

      Agreed. If religion were such an issue, then "why" wasn't it pushed more in 08? I think people are losing the real issue of voting for a Leader not a preacher!

      July 8, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  13. shep

    Are we all going to have Mormon harems? And can we write them off as exemptions?? Are the old wives just for doing laundry, or do we have to nail them to? Information please.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  14. John P. Tarver

    I think if we are going to trash Romney on the dog issue, Obama deserves equal time on the issue.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Why ?
      Did Obama strap "Beau" to the roof of airforce one ?

      July 8, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  15. DJ Reality

    I beg to differ. In politics it is party over morality and ethics.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  16. Jon

    And party loyalty trumps common sense.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • CarrotCakeMan

      Well, yes, with the GOP apologists...

      July 8, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Madrep1

      Ha...you got that right Jon!

      July 8, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  17. Reality

    From p. 2;

    One should be voting based on rational thinking. Believing in angels, satans, bodily resurrections, atonement, and heavens of all kinds is irrational. Both candidates are guilty.

    Warren Buffett, agnostic/atheist for President!!!

    Bill Gates, agnostic/atheist for Vice-President!!!!

    July 8, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Madrep1

      Wow...that would be a loaded ticket right there! If it were only true!

      July 8, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  18. Lilith

    Ethics and politics in the belief blog .. one has nothing to do with religion and the other should be kept as far away as possible from religion!

    July 8, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  19. shep

    Mitt Romney's father was born in Mexico. Why?? Because the family had to flee Utah to go to Mexico because the United States was outlawing polygamy. Which they didn't want to give up. Do a wiki search on Parley P. Pratt, Mitt's great grandfather. See why he was killed by a jealous husband. Oh yeah. He also had 12 wives.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Reality

      John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

      The Situation Today
      Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed." J. Somerville

      It is very disturbing that such religious violence and hatred continues unabated due to radomness of birth. Maybe just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • shep

      But Romney could walk away from his cult right now if he wanted to, now that he knows the truth. Shows bad judgement to remain in a cult.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Madrep1

      So what?? 12 wives!!!!! God Bless the man! He surely had tremendous patience and stamina! LOL.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Fearless Freep

      Parley P. Pratt.

      Now there is a name that just makes you want to.....to........to......?

      Whats the middle "P" for ?
      Parsnikity ?
      Parley Parsnikity Pratt.
      Wheres Goober when you need him ?

      July 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  20. John Kaufman, Oceanside, CA

    Let me use the quote from John Kannedy, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
    Exactly both these current Presidential candidates as well as ALL OTHER candidates running should define that quote for themselves & platform and state it to the American public as to doing that. To me it means not putting your own interests first, it means securing this country healthly financial situation for our children's future not bankrupting it. It means treat the tax payer's money as your own and don't spend excessively, live within your means. It means set and example, a promise made is a debt incurred, say what you mean and mean what you say. Trust your instinct to the end, and call upon your higher power to give that to you often. Finally, for all we take in this life, we must pay back, what will you pay back as a leader?

    July 8, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Willard

      Ask not what you can do for yourself.
      Ask what you can do for the rich.

      Or how about this.........

      My magic underwear had a dream......

      July 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Parfin Woodell

      Whats a Kannedy ?
      Can i buy one in a camel lot ?

      July 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.