The Moral Nature of Political Leadership

The Moral Nature of Political Leadership

I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics at Ambrose Seminary. Next week we will discuss ethical issues of political leadership. In preparation for the class, the students are reading an assigned excerpt of Vaclav Havel’s book Summer Meditations ((1992).

Havel was a playwright, essayist, and dissident under the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. He spent several years in prison. His movement, the Civic Forum, played an important role in the Velvet Revolution that brought communist rule to an end in his country. Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until 1992 (when the Slovak region separated to form its own country). He was president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. This summary simply shows that Havel was not a detached theorist or a critic from the sidelines.

The book Summer Meditations was written during a ten day holiday in 1992. It represents the unique reflections of a president during his term in office.

I asked my students to identify the virtues of character displayed by Havel and then compare them with current leaders, local and global. I will report on our discussions in my blog next week. Today I would like to share some of his thinking about his role as president at a critical time in its history.

Havel emphasized the moral nature of genuine political leadership. He believed, that as president, he should stress the significance of moral values in all spheres of life including the economy. He engaged in a deep reading of his context. Liberation from communism had unleashed “… an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice.” The new breed of politicians was hungry for power. “Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds.” Havel was particularly pained by the imminent separation of the Slovak population to form their own country.

Havel remained convinced that politics itself was not a disreputable business “… and to the extent that it is, it is only because disreputable people make it so.” “Those who enter politics “… bear a heightened responsibility for the moral state of society, and it is their responsibility to seek out the best in that society, and to develop and strengthen it.”

Havel wrote of three personal convictions that guided his work.:

  1. He felt that his public speeches should repeatedly and regularly draw attention to the moral dimensions of social life. He sought to stir the dormant goodwill in people and emphasize the importance of placing the shared good above personal interests. “… people want to hear that decency and courage make sense ….”
  2. He felt that the office of the president should act as a positive influence on the government and the country creating “… a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust.”
  3. He felt that his ideals and values should be injected into the decisions that he was required to make as president: “… my longing for justice, decency, and civility, my notion of what, for present purposes, I will call the moral state.”


As far as I know, Havel never fully identified with the Christian faith. In an interview he once stated that he tried to live in the spirit of Christian morality. The excerpt my students will read displays his belief that a higher power stood over his life: “… we are observed from above … everything is visible, nothing is forgotten …”

I hope the students benefit from reading Havel. I feel that his reflections provide a helpful place from which to evaluate the moral qualities of political leadership in our own time and context. It means little to call oneself a Christian. It means a great deal to act as a follower of Jesus. Havel helps point the way forward.

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