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The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent

What happened to our country? When did we lose our minds? Our souls? Our sense of compassion for all people and a desire to make the world better?

There was a time in America when people mattered, when life was sacred, when the old rules of appropriate behavior, of manners and politeness meant something. They kept dissent reasonable. They helped us hold our tongues. There was a time when people worked out their issues with one another in reasonable acts of mutual respect. There was a day when the president of the United States was honored, no matter his party, or his policies. There was a time when the public school was loved in the community, where teachers were well regarded and appreciated for their important work. There was a time when the local church was a place of worship not a political ballyhoo, where hymns were sung and prayers were offered and reverence was felt, a time when the sermons were about loving your neighbor and not about voting against people.

What happened?

I’m convinced it still exists in many places across this country. But it’s not given much value anymore. What matters now is something ugly and sinister and reeking with greed and selfishness. Far too many Americans live in fear of one another. We are suspicious of any race but our own. We no longer cherish children. Or the old. And we don’t have time to care about the sick or the hurting. We have decided it’s okay to hate people.

Work is meaningless if it’s not constantly rewarding us. We are obsessed with sports and cars and guns. We deny ourselves nothing. We wrap ourselves in some kind of cheap patriotism and celebrate soldiers who kill the most Arabs. We hold prisoners without trial, wipe out groups of foreigners with drones killing one terrorist and 15 civilians, and we still believe we are somehow better than any other country in the world. And what is that based on other than we simply tell ourselves that over and over again? We have settled for being a society that is shallow and cold and ignorant.

Marine biologists tell us the juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to where it can make its home for life. It has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn't need its brain anymore, so it eats it.

We are now a nation of juvenile sea squirts. We find our particular brand of politics, our very own religious beliefs, our unchangeable ideas about other races, and we anchor there. We make those things our home and we’re never leaving them no matter what. And since we’re not ever going to consider changing, we basically eat our brains, too. We just stop thinking. Thinking is not necessary if you’re convinced that what you believe can never be questioned or challenged or changed in any way.

We have in this country totally disregarded what educator John Erskine once called “the moral obligation to be intelligent.”

Our politics have gotten dangerously mixed up with religious conservatism. Politicians and voters go on and on about morality in the country. But it’s a very limited kind of morality based not in disciplined ethics and seriously thought out choices but rather in hyped self-righteousness and sanctimonious declarations that are biased, warped, mean spirited, and rude.

Moral intelligence requires thinking. It asks us to not immediately react to situations we don’t understand or to people we don’t like. It calls for awareness, introspection, and asking reasonable questions.

W.H. Auden’s words haunt me:

“We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”

We are not the greatest nation in the world; there are many. Christianity is not the only way to God; all religions can lead us there. We cannot be either a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a moderate, a fundamentalist or a liberal, black or brown or white. We are all of those things. The idea that we have to be only one thing is a vast illusion. We must let it go if we are to mature as a people, if we are to ever experience moral intelligence and be a nation that builds, loves, inspires, and leads.

All over America there is the silence of astounded souls, people looking at our behavior and lost in some deafening sadness, a grief that is exhausting and aimless. It comes from realizing we would rather be ruined than let our illusions die.

It is time for moral intelligence. It is time to start thinking of a better way to live with ourselves and with one another. It is time to embrace our world and stop fighting it.

© 2015 Timothy Moody

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