I’ve been thinking a lot about hope in the wake of the presidential election. In part because as the executive power of the presidency will be transferred in January from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, there is some question about to what extent the election of Trump is a repudiation of the legacy of Barack Obama’s White House. And eight years ago, when Obama was first elected, you will recall that his campaign pitch was for hope and change. His campaign also declared that he and his supporters were themselves “the ones we have been waiting for.”
Of course, now, you might counter, we have a president-elect whose last gig was not a first term in the United States Senate, as was the case with Obama, but the host of a reality TV series — an entertainer. All of this is worth not just punditry, which abounds throughout media, the World Wide Web, water coolers, taverns and the cable news stations of America. It is all cause for an examination of conscience, collectively and individually. And most especially for Christians called to integrate our faith into our lives, which most definitely includes politics.
And the prompt may especially be urgent on the part of Catholics, who were a deciding factor in the election of Trump, as they were with Obama, and twice (even after he sent the Little Sisters of the Poor, among others, to court — a religious-freedom fight that continues to this day).
A friend of mine, a Catholic priest, gave a talk a year or so ago titled “Rediscovering virtue.” He had me at the title. It took hold of me in that way that epiphanies do. Maybe everyone else had this already figured out and I was the last to catch on, but the state of our culture seems to suggest otherwise. Rediscovering virtue! This could make all the difference couldn’t it? This could be a key to renewal — even a renaissance, when you think about it. It’s not just in politics that we find mediocrity and miserable measures and rhetoric that often pour salt into wounds and bombard the weary. Think of our entertainment. Think of all the noise and images we subject ourselves to.
In perhaps one of the odder footnotes of insignificant history trivia, a few years ago I co-hosted a short-lived radio show — on The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM no less — with Steve Bannon, whose name you might know as one of the turnaround artists who helped get the Trump campaign to the point of victory. (We are all multifaceted people despite the ways we caricature when we categorize.) It was titled “Silent Radio.” Its short life probably had something to do with the self-defeating title I insisted on, inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s Communications Day message that year. In it he said:
“Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves.”
Silence is, as you know all too well, hard. Especially if you live in a city. Especially if you have a house full of people — many of them, perhaps, little, and especially needy, leaving mom with no time for a shower never mind contemplation. Now imagine you’re president-elect or Speaker of the House, with a world of people who want time with you. For selfies. For agendas. Rarely a quiet moment.
In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops of the United States call for both fasting and prayer for the nation and its leaders and our civic engagement. If politics if going to ever be the “noble art” the Second Vatican Council described it as, we’re all going to have to a more consistent work on this front. And to compensate, too, for the contemplation time that presidents (in general, never mind someone who came from reality TV and celebrity culture) and other public servants are ever likely to find (or even seek in current circumstances).
In post-election shock in the media and resistance in the streets, you see a lot more to fast and pray for. (Listen to some of the millennials in need of comfort. Have you ever seen such a clear unacknowledged aching for encounter with Christ?) And it all circles us back to hope.
If hope was the tidal wave Barack Obama rode into the White House on, accompanied by “change,” that “change,” it would seem, didn’t sit all that well with a significant number of voters.
I won’t begin to pretend that Donald Trump was a clear articulator — in rhetoric or person — of some of the most alarming products of the Obama administration, chief among them the health-care regulation that was so coercively restrictive of conscience rights. But it, along with the Clinton campaign’s refusal to extend an olive branch of any sort to Americans who consider abortion an evil — arguably making voting for her a moral impossibility — was a reality of this election and did make a difference, loosening some of Catholic loyalties from the Democratic party.
And not because the Republican party is all that, but because this election did manage to shake some of us out of our ideological colonies, to borrow a Pope Francis phrase. Even if you yourself voted for Hillary Clinton, consider what could be a good about the seismic shake-up to business as usual. (And I write that as someone who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.)
Some years ago, the Philadelphia archbishop — then in Denver — Charles J. Chaput reflected in an interview that he would have never thought, some decades ago, that the Democratic party would ever become the party of legal abortion because there were too many Catholics in the party. We, of course, know what happened. But in recent years, the Democrats have overplayed their hand on this, looking at times like leaders of a culture that prefers abortion, as Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and current head of the bishops’ pro-life office, has put it.
And not just on life and death, but marriage and family and basic facts of human biology, never mind our identities as created beings, too. Things have gotten out of control. Despite his own history on some of these matters, voters looked to Trump because he represented a hitting of the brake, a collective shout of “Enough!” Or, to borrow a phrase from the mission statement of the magazine I work for, National Review: A “standing athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!’”
The Clinton campaign’s refusal to budge on abortion, instead doubling down on extremism — refusing to continue a longstanding prohibition of taxpayer funding of abortion — was not just poisonous, it was bad politics. Polling indicates — and some of the clearest indicators here are the Marist polls commissioned by the Knights of Columbus over the course of more than a decade now — we’re a country that is not wedded to abortion. The choice in pro-choice resonates not with people who have some kind of blood lust, but who have the best of intentions: Not wanting a law to force a woman in need into a situation she is not equipped for.
Of course, most of America doesn’t know about the love that overflows from the Sisters of Life, a community of women religious with a network of co-workers around the country and in Canada, ready to help any woman who finds herself pregnant and scared or helpless or desperate. The Church will really be her support, but it’s a well-kept secret in many ways. And the sisters are only the beginning of that beautiful story of true hope, profiles of people living the Beatitudes in love of God.
“It would never occur to a philosopher, unless he were also a Christian, to describe hope as a virtue,” Josef Pieper, writes in “On Hope.” “For hope is either a theological virtue or not a virtue at all. It becomes a virtue by becoming a theological virtue.”
Father Richard John Neuhaus, the former Lutheran who became Catholic, cited that Pieper quote in his book “American Babylon,” published after his death in 2009. He added: “To be sure, hopefulness is often no more than a psychological disposition commonly called ‘optimism.’ Optimism is not a virtue. Optimism is simply a matter of optics, of seeing what we want to see and not seeing what we don’t want to see.” Hope is not spin. Hope is not mere rhetoric. Hope is not a party platform. “Hope is only hope when it is hope with eyes wide open to all that challenges hope. Thus hope is sometimes ‘hope against hope.’”
Hope is obviously the opposite of despair, which is something we see a lot of in news headlines, and in our commutes in our conversations with our brothers and sisters. In a book on the Beatitudes, Msgr. Brian Bransfield, current secretary at the U.S. bishops’ conference, writes, “The resilience of hope comes from knowing Jesus.”
He adds: “Hope provides the ultimate basis for following Jesus. Hope strengthens the believer in a way that nothing else can. Through hope, the Christian becomes united with God in the very act of waiting for God. Just as it did for Job and Jeremiah, the waiting associated with hope becomes itself a substantial bond and sign of fidelity with God. Waiting wears away our self-will and opens us to discover again the fruitfulness of God. Waiting is the training ground of trust.”
Jesus, I trust in you. We just wrapped up a presidential election in the jubilee year of mercy. It seemed, at times, merciless. And yet, see how it points to Divine Mercy? “Our hope is in the name of the Lord who made Heaven and earth.” That has been true with Barack Obama as president and it will be true when Donald Trump is.
Will we increasingly live and vote and speak as if we actually had confidence in God? Will they know we are Christians by our love, even when it comes to politics? Will they see the source of our hope, Jesus Christ, in the way we respond and lead and look on them with the gaze of love we long for from our heavenly Father?
Consider this election yet another call to conversion. Refuse indifference. Don’t make politics an idol and don’t let your faith be manipulated or believers used as fools for an ideology. We can be a people of virtue. We can begin again.