The President-elect of the United States was really onto something when he hit upon “hope and change” as the slogan for his presidential campaign. As the months went by and the sub-prime mortgage meltdown ballooned into a national and international economic crisis, it became ever more relevant. As the star of the wealth merchants went into eclipse, Barack Obama’s rose. In exit polls on Tuesday, six out of 10 voters picked the economy as the most important issue — leaving energy, Iraq, terrorism and health care in the dust — and nearly 60 per cent of them backed Obama. Things needed to change and his leadership offered the best hope.
People cannot live without hope. They become unhappy, depressed and even suicidal if they cannot see how to solve their problems. Humans are hard-wired for optimism, according to some scientists. They think that good things will happen to them in the future even when there is no evidence to support such expectations — and that sounds about right when it is a question of the normal ups and downs of life. But when you see your life savings vanishing down some corporate black hole, when you are in danger of losing your job and even your home, when you pick up the paper in the morning to read headings such as, The Price of Optimism and The End of Prosperity, suggesting that the whole economic system you depend on is on the skids — it is not so easy to perk up. Not for nothing was the economic trauma of the 1930s called the Great Depression. And that was without a couple of wars to fight.
Obama has stirred optimism in just over half (52 per cent) the American electorate: “Yes we can,” he told the huge crowd at his acceptance speech, and “Yes we can!” they roared back. Whether others rally to his call for national unity to solve the country’s pressing problems remains to be seen. Divisions over issues such as abortion and gay marriage present motivational difficulties at the very least. Of course, with a Democrat majority in both houses of Congress the new president has the power to pursue his own programme of reform regardless, if he wants to.
But, somewhere down the line it will be derailed, as political programmes always are. Hopes will be dashed again and then lifted by some new figure. People who pin all their hopes on political programmes are deluded. Americans in that respect are better off than most Western nations today because the vast majority remain believers: In God We Trust. It may not mean very much from day to day, but when the stock market crashes the brokers head to church, and all sorts of people rethink the meaning of their lives.
The question which must be answered here is this: is the faith that God exists and gives me hope of something good beyond the charisma of Barack Obama and his promises of restored prosperity and peace — is this faith only useful to me as an individual, and only then as a bolthole in a crisis? In other words, is religious hope irrelevant to the we-can “creed” Obama was evoking the other night, or is something that could help him achieve his goal of a more unified, prosperous and peace-promoting nation?
Almost a year ago Pope Benedict XVI answered these questions in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope) and this document would be excellent reading for the president-elect of the United States. In it the Pope points out that Christian faith, at least, was always meant to be a daily, life-changing encounter with the living God. But it was never just something between “me and God”; it concerned my neighbour, society. Thus, in the Middle Ages, monasteries became centres of productive labour and models of the nobility of work; body and soul, the individual and society, developed in tandem.
It was the modern age that banished faith to the private realm, putting all its hope in science and reason to create a better world. Faith in God and his kingdom was replaced by faith in progress towards a human kingdom of perfect reason and freedom. When this was slow to arrive, however, freedom went out the window and the new order was forced along by revolutions involving appalling cruelty and destruction. Still it did not arrive, and when the Berlin Wall fell 19 years ago all pretence that it had existed in the communist world fell with it. The intellectual architect of that failed utopia, Karl Marx, made the mistake of materialism, says Benedict: “[M]an, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.”
Have we really learned this lesson? Doesn’t Marxist materialism survive in the myth of the “better world” that scientific discoveries and the right economic policies, quite without the help of God, are always about to deliver? And doesn’t it always fail because it arrives for some but not for “me”, or arrives for me, only to slip out of my grasp again as the — ultimately meaningless — cycles of economic boom and bust take their course? Meanwhile this “progress” without God exacts its cost in human lives destroyed — those of the unborn child, the handicapped and dependent, the poor in the third world — just as Soviet communism was built on human sacrifice.
Of course we must work for a better world, for everyone, but the assumption that religion is irrelevant to that goal is an historic prejudice long past its use-by date. In a key speech two years ago two years ago Obama himself chastised the Democrats for exactly that kind of thinking. “At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.”
He went on to say that the “discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. … Our fear of getting ‘preachy’ may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems. After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness — in the imperfections of man.”
Obama had a lot more to say in that “Call to Renewal” speech about the role of religion in American public life, about overlapping values between religious and secular people and about how the “call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of ‘thou’ and not just ‘I’, resonates in religious congregations all across the country.” Sceptics might say it was carefully crafted to attract the religious vote — something that has certainly been achieved.
But Obama has often identified himself as a believer and, taking him at his word, it should be easy for him to understand Benedict’s message. What the Pope says is that religious hope is not just an optional extra on the path of true progress, a matter of a convenient overlap between one part of society and another, but the thing which puts all earthly hopes in perspective and sorts out the true from the false.
It does this in two ways. First, by not demanding of this world what it cannot give: a perfect society. Perfection belongs to God and to those finally united with him. Second, by leading us to demand of ourselves everything that we can give our neighbour, out of love, as Christ commanded us, and according to the moral law that he confirmed.
It is common to accuse religion of diverting believers from urgent worldly tasks, from the alleviation of poverty to protection of the environment: all they care about, allegedly, is arriving safely in heaven. But this is patently false. As Benedict points out, it is those who expect to be judged in the next life (“I was hungry and you gave me to eat…”) who have the strongest motivation to pursue social justice in this one. One could add that while Christian hope adds to the population of the Earth, it also lightens the “footprint” of each individual who finds less need to consume material goods and more opportunities to learn and practice the unconditional love that is what every person hopes for.
In these and other ways the kind of hope that inspired the founders of America and led Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg to speak of “this nation, under God” having “a new birth of freedom” answers to Barack Obama’s hopes for “a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice … of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.”
Is it too much to hope that, having acknowledged the importance of faith and seeing it work to his advantage, he will now let it influence his leadership of the United States of America and of the free world?
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.