Among the desert fathers and mothers (Christian mystics and ascetics living around the third century), when a community needed to choose a leader, they chose the man or woman hiding farthest away, in the least accessible cave.
Why? They believed that anyone who said they wanted to lead lacked the humility and wisdom to be a good leader. By seeking out the person who had chosen a contemplative life, they hoped to find someone with experience and the skills of reflection and patience.
Our democratic system is laudable, and can be transformative for those of us who participate fully in it. We don't need to give up our system of allowing individuals to run for office and share their vision for the United States. However, we do need to look at this process critically and ask: What particular skills and attributes does this process highlight, and are these the skills and attributes we want our leaders to embody?
While the United States only ranks "moderate" for "religious diversity," according to recent Pew data, our culture and political practices place high value on diverse voices and participants in the civic square.
What does a leader of such teeming and thrilling possible diversity need to know? If we could poll those running for office, what "interfaith literacy" points would we measure? Is there such a thing as Interfaith IQ?
Our public schools, post offices, bus terminals, national parks, hospital waiting rooms, wedding dinner halls, and highway rest stops bring us into frequent close contact with one another. And, our participation in global affairs means that our national leaders and armed forces are often international leaders and participants in contexts with unexpected and ever-increasing diversity.
What might a commander-in-chief need to know, do, and embody as an interfaith exemplar?
First, attend to everything. Notice. Simply be present.
What's happening in this moment, and what led up to this encounter? Who is participating in a given context, and what are their hopes, needs, fears, and gifts? How does the room change when a particular person is talking or acting?
Before acting, notice. Before even thinking of acting, notice.
It takes discipline to suspend judgment. Many of us Americans, probably more so for people who run for public office, like to think of ourselves as agents of action, champions of change. But taking the time to notice and reflect can mean the difference between being reactive, and making fruitful, long-lasting shared action possible.
Second, the person with the most power speaks last.
This posture is partially about curiosity and hospitality, and partially a foundational step towards dialogue and collaboration. If we are not mindful of our power and privilege, and how others respond to it, we can't fully understand the impact of our actions. When we fail to make space for others to share their ideas, we lose the opportunity to benefit from diverse perspectives and places of possibility.
Third, recognize that learning and change depend on relationship.
We value ambition, decision-making skills, leadership, and charisma--and these can all be important skills for a leader and policy maker to hone.
However, deeply entrenched political challenges (like racism, lack of clean water, food scarcity, economic inequalities) take time and commitment to dismantle. Lasting solutions also require collaboration--leaders who work to dismantle deeply entrenched social ills support communities, empower grassroots endeavors, and listen to voices from the field.
We humans seem to find infinitely creative ways to harm one another, and to harm our environment. And yet, we humans--working together--have the capacity to learn from our mistakes, listen to one another, and change the way we move in the world.
Collaboration is a key part of interfaith literacy and a successful political leader must understand that collaboration is both a philosophical commitment and a daily practice.
Interfaith IQ is not about points of religious literacy, or knowing what people eat, can and can't do, or how to celebrate holidays. These things are pieces of knowledge, not postures that can be practiced. Anyone can read primary texts or rule books for various traditions and continue to build a knowledge base for the hundreds of religious, ethical, and cultural traditions that make up our nation.
Instead, Interfaith IQ includes attributes, postures, and ways of being in the world. How do we measure these attributes?
A political leader with a high Interfaith IQ will appreciate nuance, celebrate opportunities with more than one right answer, model pausing and seeking additional information or points of view before acting, seek out varied and even contrary perspectives, and share power with collaborators and bridge-builders when appropriate.
How will we know if these attributes are in practice? Leadership, debate, and the political news cycle might take longer to "read" and understand. Policy work might feel more unwieldy as additional participants are welcomed and heard. Places of challenge and uncertainty would be heralded as opportunities to lean on relationships.
Knowledge about cultures and religions would only be a starting place--leaders with high Interfaith IQ would ask questions as often as giving ultimatums. They would welcome as collaborators, teachers, and policy makers those with different understandings of humanity and reality. And they would see religious and cultural diversity as the leavening agent for a flourishing and dynamic civil society.
As we celebrate Presidents' Day and continue in this election season, let's take time to consider what qualities would really empower transformative, inclusive presidential leadership.
With these skills and attributes in mind, how do our candidates measure up?