When a person wishes to be ordained in the United Methodist Church, they are asked a series of questions which date back to the 1700s. One is, “Are you in debt so as to embarrass the ministry?” There is a reason for that question. Integrity is integrity. When we are in severe debt, the temptation to abandon our integrity becomes intense. Further, the person who holds your debt has great leverage over you. If you are called to preach the God’s word in season and out, you can’t have divided loyalties. In the four decades since the bishop asked me about my personal finances, my fear of debt has grown. I’ve seen it make good people do bad things.
I have also noted that there are only a limited number of other professions where we ask, “Are you in debt so as to embarrass the faith we place in you?” We expect integrity from those who work in law enforcement, or act as judges, or serve public office. As Nixon said, “The people got to know whether or not their president is a crook.” Since Nixon (in 1974, it was discovered that he was cheating on his taxes), every presidential candidate has put their taxes on public display. It is their way of promising not to embarrass us. It is how they demonstrate integrity.
This week we learned that President Trump has 421 million dollars of debt that will be due before the end of a second term. Further, he has no visible way to pay it. “The Art of the Deal” seems to involve losing money year after year. Who is he in debt to? The mob? The Russians? These are not partisan questions. They are due process. The higher the office you aspire to hold, the more you need to be transparent about your financial dealings. It is true for a country preacher. It is true for the leader of the free world.