Moral Authority and Political Governance

Corruption in public office continues unabated.  Every week offers us a fresh revelation of abuse of power and privileges by those we have entrusted with the right to govern. Sadly, those who are vested with so much power seem to have become immune to accountability. They believe they can get away with anything. And apparently they do.

This sad state of affairs gives rise to the question:  What is the purpose of leadership? By definition, good leaders are selfless visionaries who are able to bring the best out of those they govern. By contrast, those who vie for leadership positions have other motives. For them, it appears, leadership is an opportunity for self-enrichment through unrestrained fiscal spending. As the British journalist Michela Wrong writes in her account of a Kenyan “Whistleblower”, “…leadership is seen by some as an opportunity for those in power to eat.”

If this is the case with leadership in our country and elsewhere, then what role does morality play in political governance? Most economists agree that corruption is the number one enemy of economic development. It is a cancer that stifles and destroys our potential to become the best we are destined to be. As good citizens, we have the right not only to ask for but demand leaders with moral authority.

Morality and authority are often taken to be opposites. With morality grounded in selflessness and a commitment to the common good, authority is located in one’s skills and abilities. This means that a person who is powerful without morality can be irresponsible, selfish and unaccountable.  Therefore morality is a necessary ingredient if one is to be an effective leader.  Though seemingly a contradiction, the virtues of morality and authority can coexist within an individual.

Moral authority therefore, is the degree to which a person, by virtue of his or her perceived moral stature, is able to take responsibility for what they do. A leader with moral authority is aware of the fact that their power emanates from the people because without people one cannot be a leader.  And it is to these people that one is accountable.

Despite not being given the value it deserves, moral authority is an important factor in political life. Those with moral authority are faithful to their election promises and as a result are able to influence those they govern. Apart from taking credit for their successes, they are also able to accept responsibility for their failures. As the American president Harry Truman, in accepting overall responsibility for his government’s faults once famously put it: “The buck stops here…” I wonder how many leaders today are able to accept responsibility for corruption even to the point of offering their resignation.

In the gospels we often notice that Jesus spoke with authority. This does not mean that Jesus could do anything he liked because he was powerful. It is an acknowledgement that Jesus did not speak out of his own accord, but was empowered by his Father.  Jesus shows us that leadership is a responsibility ultimately conferred on us by a higher power. Hence our aim is not to seek our own interests, but the interests of those who have been entrusted us.  Moral authority is what gives political legitimacy.

Fr Gilbert Banda SJ

Fr Gilbert Banda SJ is interested in Ignatian Spirituality.

g.banda@jesuitinstitute.org.za @gilbertbanda
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