Author and New York Times columnist David Brooks was the keynote speaker at Westmont College’s third annual Lead Where You Stand leadership conference. He suggested the way forward for modern leadership could be found in the ancient book of Exodus. (Julia Lee / Noozhawk photo)

Author and journalist David Brooks led a powerhouse cast of speakers who gathered at Westmont College last week for the third annual Lead Where You Stand leadership conference. His main topic was a timely one: the crisis of social solidarity that is gripping the nation today.

Organizers posed the question: How do we develop the capacity to respond in timely, principled ways to the multifaceted challenges and opportunities of effective leadership? Speakers and attendees proceeded to explore the answer at the three-day conference, May 31-June 2.

Joining Brooks was a leadership lineup that included Westmont President Gayle Beebe; Chris Call, the school’s vice president for administration; Spanish professor Mary Docter; Teresa Goines, a Westmont alumna and founder of Old Skool Café in San Francisco; Carol Houston, senior pastor at Bethel Unspeakable Joy Christian Fellowship Church in Watts; Dane Howard, chief experience officer at Trōv Inc.; political science professor Tom Knecht; Doug McKenna, CEO and executive director of the Center of Organizational Leadership at the Oceanside Institute; women’s basketball coach Kirsten Moore; computer science associate professor Don Patterson; assistant psychology professor Carmel Saad; assistant anthropology professor Serah Shani; sociology professor Felicia Song; author and Abraham Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White; and associate education professor Jane Wilson.

Brooks is a New York Times columnist; a prominent political and social commentator; author of the best-selling book, The Road to Character, along with several other books; and was the keynote speaker at both the 2016 Westmont President’s Breakfast and the 2015 commencement on the campus in the Montecito foothills.

He started off with some startling statistics: only 32 percent of Americans say that they trust people, a figure that drops to just 11 percent among millennials. 40 percent of people are born to single moms. There have been declines in marriage and friendships. Suicide is up 25 percent. People are falling out of the labor force.

All of these societal factors have caught up with politics, Brooks says. In fact, he adds, today’s debate is not big government versus small government, but open versus closed. There are people who want open borders and open trade, and there are those who want protection and security, he said.

According to Brooks, modern America’s loss of faith has replaced what once was the country’s unifying faith. He suggested that the solution could be found in the ancient book of Exodus, whose story shaped the civil rights movement and propelled pioneers to this promised land.

The biblical story of Exodus was written by Moses to record the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt as well as to enshrine God’s laws and revelations. The story was embraced by the Puritans and later by the Founding Fathers, who wanted to put Moses on the seal of the United States.

Subsequent immigrant groups recognized themselves in the story, as did those who were brought to this country as slaves. Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become a renowned abolitionist and statesman, said of his fellow African Americans: “We have been with you in adversity, and by the help of God we will be with you in prosperity.”

The worry, Brooks said, is that the now-secular United States no longer knows the Exodus story. People are uncomfortable with the idea of a chosen people and with the idea of providence — that there isn’t a divine mission for any country, he said.

Brooks highlighted a few problematic national narratives that are competing to define contemporary America. The first one, he said, is the Silicon Valley narrative that believes individuals and the world will be saved by technology.

On the left, he said, is the story that America’s past is one of oppression, and that the status of our particular identity groups depends on how much we were oppressed throughout history.

On the right is the story of President Donald Trump, Brooks continued. Under that scenario, he said, a good and simple people was betrayed by elites and foreigners, and is threatened from outside.

Trump, Brooks said, appealed to people who thought their lives were better 30 years ago, but he’s not sure the results will be what they’re expecting.

“Donald Trump is the wrong answer for the right questions,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Brooks called for a return of codes of character, and said he believes that Exodus — and its hope and promise — must be restored as America’s national narrative.

Noozhawk intern Julia Lee can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.