By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Wisdom has been defined as “the quality of having experience, knowledge and good judgment.” Wisdom is a timeless virtue that transcends knowledge and religious beliefs, requiring years of experience and mature spiritual inspiration. Jesus was a wisdom teacher, and his altruistic moral teachings provide timeless and universal standards of truth and legitimacy.
The Enlightenment transformed politics and religion in the Western World with advances in knowledge and reason. Americans became masters of their destiny with libertarian democracy; but America’s politics and religion seem to have run their course. American democracy has come to an inflection point, and political wisdom is needed to light the way ahead--but it’s in short supply.
From the birth of American democracy, Christian morality has been the primary source of its standards of political legitimacy. Jesus emphasized the wisdom of reconciliation, but most white Christians rejected that wisdom when they elected Donald Trump in 2016. The election reflected a church that has lost its moral compass and polarized partisan politics that defy reconciliation.
The moral teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races, religions and politics, as we love ourselves. It’s taken from the Hebrew Bible, was taught by Jesus and has been accepted by Muslims as a common word of faith; and in politics it requires providing for reconciliation and the common good.
God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer; and Satan does a convincing imitation of God in religion and politics. In the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, Satan is winning the popularity contest in America’s polarized politics. That’s bad news for democracy; but wisdom and God’s will are not determined by majority rule.
David Brooks sees wisdom as a process of interacting rather than promoting common standards of political legitimacy; but it should be both. While the tolerance of political differences is important; tolerance has its limits in seeking a politics of reconciliation. There must be a consensus on the moral standards of political legitimacy to sustain a democracy.
Obaid Omer is a Canadian Muslim who returned to Canada after being away for a number of years and found that its tolerant cultural norms had changed. It was no longer acceptable to criticize religion or the politics of “woke” liberals. Omer had the wisdom to seek a better understanding of opposing views before criticizing them, but he found little tolerance for his informed criticism.
The American experiment in democracy has reached its inflection point. A polarized partisan duopoly has limited political choices to either radical right Republican populist nationalism or leftist Democratic socialism. A libertarian democracy requires that individual rights and partisan objectives are balanced with providing for the common good. It will take political wisdom and a politics of reconciliation to provide such a balance in America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture.
Democracy is based on majority rule, and wisdom questions whether it can survive human depravity.
Jesus taught that few will follow God’s truth. “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13,14.
Mark Twain once said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Mark 3:25
Abraham Lincoln affirmed the relevance of that wisdom to American democracy in the Civil War.
David Brooks has said that “when wisdom has shown up in my life, it’s been less a body of knowledge and more a way of interacting, less the dropping of secret information, more a way of relating that helped me stumble to my own realization. An emphasis on pervasive racism grew exponentially. To even question the extent to which racism was everywhere resulted in accusations of being a racist. Like with religious blasphemy codes, you can only talk about certain topics in specific ways. I couldn't help but notice there was an almost fundamentalist, faith-like aspect to these claims. It was as if in the years since I'd been gone, our society had decided to adopt the blasphemy codes of my youth. Wisdom is different from knowledge. Montaigne pointed out you can be knowledgeable with another person’s knowledge, but you can’t be wise with another person’s wisdom. Wisdom has an embodied moral element; out of your own moments of suffering comes a compassionate regard for the frailty of others.”
Brooks concludes, “We live in an ideological age, which reduces people to public categories — red/blue, Black/white — and pulverizes the personal knowledge I’m talking about here. But we all have the choice to see people as persons, not types. As the educator Parker J. Palmer put it, “the shape of our knowledge becomes the shape of our living.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/15/opinion/wisdom-attention-listening.html?.
Obaid Omer is a libertarian Muslim from Canada who promotes the freedom of speech. After being overseas in Kosovo, Sudan, Bosnia Haiti and Afghanistan as a secular man for a decade, Omer says, “When I came back to Canada in 2014, I returned to a different country than the one I had left.
I had left a country that was proud of being the opposite of what bothered me about Islam, that was proud of a tradition of free inquiry and free speech, open debate and civil discourse. The Canada I returned to resembled the religion of my youth more than it did its opposite. ...An emphasis on pervasive racism grew exponentially. To even question the extent to which racism was everywhere resulted in accusations of being a racist. Like with religious blasphemy codes, you can only talk about certain topics in specific ways. I couldn't help but notice there was an almost fundamentalist, faith-like aspect to these claims. It was as if in the years since I'd been gone, our society had decided to adopt the blasphemy codes of my youth. ...How did the religious tenets I had abandoned come to take over the liberal culture I had abandoned them for? To answer this question, I did what I had once done with the texts of Islam: I educated myself. I started reading about critical race theory and Intersectionality. I spent eighteen months reading critical social justice scholarship, and gender and queer theories. It was here I found the rejection of the Enlightenment values that made these theories closer to religion than to its opposite.” Omer ’s classic libertarian wisdom challenges the “woke” wisdom of leftist politics that discourages criticism, illustrating the competing perspectives of wisdom in politics. See
On balancing rights with the common good, see Musings on Rights and Responsibilities at