Humanist Worldview Could Provide Moral Leadership That Trump Lacks

By Audrey Kingstrom, President

I surely thought this summer’s political drama would end in early August with Congress in recess and the president on vacation. The White House had been in huge disarray most of the summer with its inability to deliver on President Trump’s many campaign promises or present a coherent message to friends and foes abroad. But Trump just kept the drama going well into the August recess. He made an already tragic situation worse with his injudicious response after a woman was killed at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virg. Trump’s presidency was brought to a new low with his most chilling failure to date—his inability to provide moral leadership to a nation in need.  

Most Americans, however, weren’t expecting much out of him in that regard. Unmistakably, Trump wasn’t elected for his upstanding moral character. But how about past presidents? If they all had had to endure the same no-holds-barred scrutiny that today’s leaders must, surely many more wouldn’t look so good either. To further skew any comparisons one might make, our history books present a pretty sanitized picture of past leaders —at least those typically found in our elementary and secondary schools—so few citizens have a very accurate perception of them. Nonetheless, Trump probably holds the dubious distinction of flaunting his colorful oversized ego and plying his many indiscretions in ways that are unmatched by previous leaders.

Let’s be clear about what we should expect from our political leaders and presidents. Certainly not moral perfection or perhaps not even to be a moral exemplar. Americans have only elected ever-such-mortal men with nary a saint among them. (Humanists would argue that no such creature exists anyway!)  Of course, character still matters, but even when the moral failings of our leaders are not evident at the time they serve the nation, usually their misdeeds both private and public are revealed later—much to our dismay. How, then, can we expect and demand moral leadership from these all-too-mortal beings?

How can we not? Leadership by definition includes a moral component. The ability to discern the right course—or at least the better course—in a given situation is essential to good leadership.  Like any leader, a president is entrusted to rise above his or her own frailties and partialities to draw on the best available knowledge in history, science, human relations, philosophy, and ethics to make good judgments in challenging times and circumstances.  Relying on natural instincts or popular sentiment are not good enough; that’s the know-how of one or rule of the mob. We know from experience that human beings are capable of much better —that is, of a well-reasoned approach to moral leadership.

That kind of moral leadership requires a good grasp of world history, a keen understanding of an unsettled present, and an apt vision for an emerging more just future. Many of our past presidents, despite their many flaws, have risen to the occasion to move us toward a more inclusive and egalitarian nation. Trump, however, is backward-looking and exhibits none of the attributes needed for moral leadership. He can’t distinguish between past accomplished visionaries who deserve our recognition and those infamous wannabe heroes who stood on the wrong side of history. He can’t differentiate between contemporary activists who champion the nation’s best values and the reactionary hooligans who glorify the failings of the past.  Absolutely defend everyone’s right to be heard, but leaders cannot remain morally neutral.  Good leadership employs the moral compass of history, reason, and inclusion and commends all who do likewise.   

Humanism as a worldview serves as that kind of moral compass. It doesn’t offer perfection through its method or in its results. As a life stance, it doesn’t turn its adherents into saints. But it functions as a very useful and time-tested guide—to lead us toward a better life for all.  Humanism by definition is inclusive and egalitarian. That’s not necessarily easy to practice given the many differences across our species, but it is an aspiration and guide. Each of us is a work in progress. We strive to transcend ourselves, to understand others, to recognize another’s need, and work toward shared goals. Such endeavors require mutual engagement and collective deliberation—not self-aggrandizement and insularity.   

Democratic ideals are intertwined with this humanist worldview. Our nation sorely needs leaders who can provide that kind of moral leadership. But when the leadership at the top fails, others can and must step up. The good news is that people around the country are doing just that.  Leaders in business and philanthropy. Everyday citizens, volunteer activists and professional organizers. None are perfect or pure. But that’s not a realistic standard. Each of us must step up and do what we can to make the world a better place for all—not just for oneself.  My future (and good fortune) is tied up with your future (and good fortune)—and everyone else’s.  Paul Wellstone, that icon of moral leadership, said it most simply: we all do better when we all do better.