Looper Column: Hope, Presidents, and Inaugural Addresses – Way of life – Aurora Advertiser – Aurora, MO
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
I am writing this on the day Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States.
I found President Biden’s inaugural address to be well-written and dynamic at times. The subject he kept coming back to was the need for national unity.
A secondary issue, a requirement for the President’s inaugural speeches, was hope. The president brought these issues together when he urged all Americans to band together to tackle hopelessness. Later in the speech he took up the subject of hope and promised in the words of Psalm 30 that although “weeping can last a night … joy comes in the morning.” Towards the end of the address he said, “Together we will write an American story of hope …”
Every US president in my life spoke of hope when he was inaugurated. This may be because Inauguration Day is a day of hope in the United States, or it may be because Americans are naturally hopeful people. They expand hope like a line of credit and make it available to the future president.
What is the substance of that hope that presidents routinely refer to? Dwight Eisenhower spoke of it as a hope for the healing of a divided world. George W. Bush called freedom the hope of millions of people around the world. Ronald Reagan thought of our hope, in fact “the last, best hope of man on earth”, in the sense of an “opportunity society” in which we will all “move forward”.
Peace also plays a role in Inauguration Day hopes. Jimmy Carter hoped for a peaceful world based on international politics rather than weapons of war. John Kennedy promised to embark on a “peaceful revolution of hope” to help “free men and free governments” south of our border.
Peace, justice, prosperity, and freedom are the substance of hope in inaugural speeches, but how to obtain it is far from obvious. Certainly the concerted efforts of the American people play a necessary role. However, the presidents have assumed that another dynamic is at play, and that assumption is questionable.
This dynamic can be described in one word: progress. Politicians take it for granted, as they have for nearly two centuries. A world of peace, justice, prosperity and freedom is coming, and democracy, science, technology and, in some circles, capitalism are hastening its arrival.
Belief in progress has saturated modern Western thought and lies behind the promises so many politicians have made and believed. But the idea of inevitable progress is a myth that is fairly new to the world (from the time of the industrial revolution), made up for by argument and unverifiable by experience.
The idea of progress is based on the Christian vision of hope and is a distortion. In the Christian vision, God sovereignly moves all things towards a glorious end. In its utopian forgery, progress itself is sovereign. In the Christian vision, Christ is central. In its secular counterpart, well-intentioned people take center stage.
“The real problem with the myth of progress,” wrote NT Wright, “is … that it cannot handle evil.” The hopeful speeches on the day of inauguration have often encountered human evil. In 1957, Eisenhower called the United Nations authority the “best hope of our time,” an authority he promised to strengthen. Sixty years later, another Republican president called the same international organization “pointless”.
Richard Nixon, who promised to set “the decent order that enables progress and makes our lives safe, as our goal,” ordered the break-in of Watergate.
John Kennedy claimed that “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty”. Lee Harvey Oswald, who had a mail order rifle in his mortal hands, ended Kennedy’s life.
Eisenhower’s “hope for progress” has proven helpless against actual evil. Greed drowned Kennedy’s hope of ending poverty further than in 1961. Reagan’s “strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world” suffered from segregation and the longest war outside of it.
I am grateful for hopeful presidents and I am happy to join them. However, I will not rest my hopes on a vague idea of progress. I will place my hope in God instead.
Shayne Looper is a pastor at Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog “The Way Home” is on shaynelooper.com.