Loyalty v. Integrity: Public Figures, Endorsements, and Balaam the Seer

Public figures in the sphere of politics have special obligations during election campaigns. While the rest of us have the option to take a stand or refrain, public figures do not have this choice. Sure, they can speak out or stay silent, but even their silence is a statement. Anyway, leaders gotta lead.

This burden of leadership takes different forms in different elections. For many public figures, the challenge of the current presidential election is this:

You have come to believe that the other party's candidate would be a far better choice for president than your own party's candidate. What should you do?

Should Trump-fearing Republicans endorse Clinton? Should Clinton-hating Democrats endorse Trump? Should either endorse neither?

This quandary can be understood as a clash of virtues.

Loyalty urges public figures to conceal their qualms. If you don't stand with your own party's nominee, you are a traitor.
Integrity urges public figures to act on their qualms. If you don't endorse the other party's candidate, you are hypocrite.
• Silence is a compromise. You are not supporting your own party's candidate, so you are disloyal, but at least you are not opposing him/her. You are making the misleading statement that you are equally unhappy with both candidates, so you lack integrity. But at least you are not supporting someone you think is a terrible candidate.
• I have argued elsewhere that voting for a third party candidate is a bad choice. The same arguments apply to endorsing a third party candidate.

Emerging from such situations with clean hands is difficult because, as I've said, taking no stand is not an option for public figures.

A Biblical Parallel

In the book of Numbers, a public figure named Balaam faces a similar choice. Balak, king of Moab, sends messengers to Balaam (a famous seer, a public figure) asking him to curse the Israelites who pose a threat to Moab. Balak hopes that Balaam's curse will reduce or eliminate the threat (Num 22:4-6).

Balak consults God who replies, "Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed" (Num 22:12). God thus makes it clear to Balaam that the Israelites are the good guys. Balaam stays home, trying to avoid taking a public stand. The compromise position.

But public figures are pressured to take stands. Balak sends other dignitaries. They make explicit offers and implicit threats (Num 22:15-17). Feeling the heat, Balaam consults God again. God replies, "You may go with them, but whatever I command you, that you shall do" (Num 22:20). God is not waffling on his support for the Israelites, of course. He is recognizing that Balaam needs to take a stand, and reminding him that whatever happens, he should remain true to God and do the right thing.

But what is the right thing? Balaam is conflicted. On the one hand, he is now officially employed by Balak to curse the Israelites. Loyalty urges him to carry out this task. On the other hand, he knows that the Israelites are beloved by God. They are "the better candidate." So integrity urges him to "endorse" them. Balaam begins his journey to Moab.

The Bible expresses Balaam's ambivalence metaphorically. He externalizes his reluctance. He imagines an angel trying to stop him from going forward, and an ass who helps him dodge the angel (Num 22:22-35). Eventually, Balaam proceeds onward.

When he arrives, Balak "hands Balaam the microphone," expecting him to curse the Israelites. In a similar situation, Ted Cruz punk'd the GOP convention by telling the delegates to "vote their conscience" rather than "vote for Trump." Balaam goes even further. He blesses the Israelites rather than cursing them (Num 23:7-10).

Balak demands that Balaam walk back his "endorsement" (Num 23:13). Balaam strengthens it, instead, adding a second blessing to the first (Num 23:18-24).

Balak begs him to at least remain neutral (Num 23:25). Instead, Balaam blesses the Israelites in the strongest terms yet (Num 24:3-9).

Finally, Balaam curses his employers, the Moabites (Num 24:15-24). This is the ancient world's equivalent of a Republican endorsing Clinton, or a Democrat endorsing Trump.

The Moral of the Story?

I don't think Numbers is telling the reader that integrity always trumps loyalty. There is no general answer to the general question of what public figures should do when they respect the other party's candidate more than their own party's candidate. Different situations pose different challenges, and call for different responses.

But perhaps we can agree that integrity trumps loyalty in clear, extreme cases. If you are a public figure, and your party's nominee is obviously overwhelmingly worse than the nominee of the other party, you should endorse the other party's candidate.