One of my friends from my study abroad program in Europe listened to Barack Obama’s speech this weekend. “I was thinking ‘this is beautiful but sounds too religious a speech to be held in France,’” he told me. “Yes, well, we are religious folk,” I replied. Americans are some of the most religious of the developed world, and it is commonly held that their path from the pew to the ballot is a short one. Even the secularized American is inundated with religious ideas and imagery.
This is also true of our two major political parties. Republicans sometimes attack Democrats for not mentioning God and imply a special favor He has for their own party, despite His recent predilection for sending hurricanes to their conventions. Yet the Democrats certainly use religion in their rhetoric from time to time. This week’s convention was telling, as the Democrats ultimately didn’t stray too far from religion—at least in words. They initially voted the word “God” (as well as some references to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel) out of their platform at the convention but scurried to put it back in after the decision generated controversy (“Oops!”). As always, there was prayer and the usual asking God to bless the country. Obama quoted the scripture in his acceptance speech, and most of all he talked about one of his favorite one-word slogans, hope—“…not blind optimism or wishful thinking, but hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward, even when the odds are great, even when the road is long.” By the end of his speech he was cataloguing the things about America that gave him hope—homeless students excelling, factories making sacrifices for their workers, injured veterans on new artificial legs.
Hope is, of course, one of the three theological virtues held in many kinds of Christianity. Catholics describe it as “desire of something together with the expectation of obtaining it,” and this “something” is salvation and God Himself. But what can be read from the translation of this virtue into a pseudo-secularized public sphere?
Perhaps the most interesting point about such slogans is that the Christian hope they knowingly or unknowingly reference is really a very long-term virtue, one that must be exercised for one’s whole lifetime. In most interpretations, virtuous Christians are hopeful not about earthly things but divine ones. The virtue lies not in hoping that God will grant prosperity, health, or victory, but rather in that He is good, His teachings are sound, and through them—however imperceptibly and however long from now—salvation can be achieved.
Interestingly, Obama’s secularized hope is actually very similar to its religious predecessor because he emphasizes the value of the hoped-for policy rather than the result. Certainly he argued that his economic policies would be practically effective, especially those that regulated the economy: “when a CEO pays his autoworkers enough to buy the cars that they build, the whole company does better…when a family can no longer be tricked into signing a mortgage they can't afford, that family is protected, but so is the value of other people's homes, and so is the entire economy.” But ultimately, his message was that while the results might be a long time coming, his policies were the corollary of a greater series of moral choices worth making. “Yes, our path is harder,” he told Americans, “but it leads to a better place…[w]e keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us, and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on Earth.” Since the results take longer, hope is required to make the right moral choice. Change a few words, and he might be a preacher himself.
Mitt Romney naturally took a few jabs at this idea in his own convention speech. “Americans have supported this president in good faith,” he said (ignoring a few members of Congress). “But today, the time has come to turn the page.” He went on to reject this kind of hope. “Hope and change had a powerful appeal,” he reminded the voters, but surely what they were hoping for was a better economy than this. Perhaps a valid point, but of course he put aside the bigger picture that Obama has been constructing over and over again with the phrase. American voters will ultimately choose based largely on two things—whether they believe in Romney’s economic strategy or Obama’s, and whether they accept Obama’s claims about a broader definition of economic success and are willing to wait hopefully.
Sarah C. Stein Lubrano ’13 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.