When William Sloane Coffin— 1960s college chaplain, anti-war activist, and minister of Riverside Church-- died (2006), we were reminded in his many obituaries of how he would always differentiate between hope and optimism:
Obama launched himself into national political prominence with a speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The speech was titled, “The Audacity of Hope.” In it, he talked about “the politics of hope,” not “blind optimism,” but the “hope of slaves,” the “hope of immigrants,” the “hope of a lieutenant patrolling the Mekong Delta” [John Kerry], the “hope of a millworker’s son” [John Edwards], the “hope of a skinny kid with a funny name” [himself]. Then, “the audacity of hope.” (read the full text of the speech here)
The phrasing, and perhaps to some extent part of the substance, of Obama’s speech was derived from a sermon given in 1990 by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That sermon was titled, “The Audacity to Hope.” Wright’s sermon (which you can read here) was, itself, derived from a lecture he had heard, in the late 1950s, by the Rev. Frederick G. Sampson, on a painting titled “Hope” (see the painting here) and scripture (Samuel 1: 1-18).
The painting features a woman, Hannah, sitting on top of a world which is in sorry shape playing a harp. Even though the world appears to be on the “brink of destruction,” Hannah has “the audacity to make music and praise God.” That’s the audacity to hope: while she could easily despair when she looks “horizontally” at the world as it is, she is able to find hope when she looks “vertically,” which is to say, toward God. Wright concludes his own sermon on the audacity to hope by saying the real message is about “how to hope when the love of God is not plainly evident.” (to listen to Wright’s 1990 sermon, click here)
As an aside, we observe there is a strange paradox involved in hope. While we often think of the hopeful as optimists, they are actually the most pessimistic. If there were grounds for optimism, then hope would not have to be invoked.
Obama developed some of the themes from his 2004 speech and spliced in a number of anecdotes about his life and work as a U.S. Senator to author a bestselling book by the same title: The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006). The book explores his own views and what he sees, among Americans, as a “common set of values that bind us together despite our differences,” with its purpose to “begin the process of changing our politics and or civic life.”
There’s little, if any, discussion of hope in the book. Not even in the chapter on faith, another virtue. Here’s the problem with hope as the basis of politics and government. On the one hand, if it is meant in a religious sense, then, it calls on those voters so inclined to look vertically—as Hannah did—to a higher, transcendent deliverance from their troubles, i.e., to look beyond politics. On the other hand, if it is only a religious metaphor applied to secular democratic theory, it leaves unspecified the higher, secular authority.
So what might Obama and his hopeful followers mean by hope in a secular and political context? Perhaps Obama's invocation of hope is meant to signal a sense of common purpose. While he may mean that we look up, to the Lord, he might also mean that we simply ought to look up from our individual pursuits and recognize the community that exists all around us.
Today's television and radio are full of pundits imploring Obama to return to the 'language of hope' as he addresses Congress and the Nation tonight about the economic situation. And we think the 'hope-speak' would be meaningful in a way the pundits may not have intended. The civic sins that led us to the current situation--greed and envy, a desire for people to buy more than they could afford and others to make speculative investments in unregulated 'shadow markets'--are the very hallmarks of self-centered thinking. Continuing in that vein will surely lead us further and further down a path of economic, social, and political disaster.
But connecting with the American Dream, through the language of hope, reminds us that the values of this society are not simply wealth accumulation and personal gain, but the need to trade value for value, to take only what is earned and to labor for a collective improvement of our situations. This language, this shift from the personal to the political (in the best sense of that word) would truly be the transcendent idealism that gives us a hope for a better tomorrow.