A Hope Primer 1:
In 2008 Barak Obama’s campaign for president energized a new generation of voters with the slogan “hope and change.” Given the partisan nature of politics in America, his opponents were happy to mock Obama’s slogan in 2010 and again in 2014. In various ways they asked voters, “Is this what you hoped for? Is this the change you wanted?”
Obama’s campaign wasn’t the first time hope played an explicit role in American politics. An older generation of voters can remember 1992, when Bill Clinton’s campaign presented him as “the man from Hope,” playing on Clinton’s home town in Arkansas.
Politicians don’t have to use the word “hope” to incorporate this theme. In 1984 Ronald Reagan’s campaign famously trumpeted, “It’s morning in America,” and asked voters why they would want to go back to the bad, dark times before Reagan’s first election. The message was not just that economic indicators had improved under Reagan; the “morning in America” slogan emphasized a change in collective feeling, from the pessimism of the Carter years to the ebullient optimism of Reagan.
Going back further, historians and economists debate whether Franklin Roosevelt’s programs to lift the country out of the Great Depression really worked. But they almost all agree that Roosevelt’s confidence and sunny disposition, which he masterfully communicated in radio talks, helped Americans believe in a better future.
Some political commentators claim that this appeal to hope resonates deeply and uniquely with the American spirit. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Roosevelt said. Americans loved that, perhaps more than other peoples. I have no proof that the United States is any different from other countries in this regard; it seems almost axiomatic that candidates for office will claim that things will get better if they are elected and their policies enacted. In America at least, and maybe universally, hopefulness would seem to be an asset to politicians.
There are other appeals, besides hope, to win elections. Politically speaking, fear may be as potent as hope when appealing for votes. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign in 1964 evoked deep fears of nuclear war with its famous “daisy” commercial; the ad implied that electing Barry Goldwater could lead to disaster. At various times in American history, politicians have sought votes by appealing to hate of immigrants or racial minorities; for example, in 1968 George Wallace won the electoral votes of several states in a campaign based on racism.
I point to these political examples not to begin a study of politics, nor even to compare a politics of hope to a politics of fear or hate. My goal is to invite the reader to consider this concept of hope. Outside of politics, many people are familiar with hope as an important word in religion, psychology, and philosophy. Consider just a few particulars.
Religion. The New Testament often mentions hope along with other traits that should mark the Christian character. In 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul wrote “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Thomas Aquinas wrote that faith, hope, and love were “theological” virtues, distinguished from the natural virtues, such as courage and temperance, because faith, hope and love had God as their object and were “infused” in the believer by God. In our time, theologians like N. T. Wright and Jurgen Moltmann argue that hope should be seen as a central feature in Christian theology. Wright is pointedly critical of the poor job many churches and church leaders have done in explicating Christian hope.
Psychology. In recent decades the broad movement called positive psychology has included an emphasis on hope; C.R. Snyder and his colleagues have introduced “hope theory” and “hope therapy,” and they have conducted an enormous amount of empirical research showing that hopefulness correlates well with positive life outcomes. Therapeutic interventions that increase hopefulness, as measured by simple “hope scales,” fairly reliably improve life for patients. Michael Bishop’s “network theory” of human happiness mentions hope only in passing, but I will argue his theory (combined with Adrienne Martin’s notion of hope as a “syndrome”) neatly expands and corrects Snyder’s “hope theory.”
Philosophy. Immanuel Kant famously included hope among the three foundational questions of philosophy: What can I know? What ought I to do? For what may I hope? The 20th century Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel saw hope as central to his response to the crisis of modern life. Philosophers writing in the Thomist tradition, such as Josef Pieper, have extended Aquinas’s analysis of hope. More recently (2006), Jonathan Lear invited readers to consider “radical hope,” which he found exemplified in the life of Chief Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow nation. More recently still (2014), Adrienne Martin explored hope as a paradigm virtue in How We Hope: A Moral Psychology.
In what follows I will draw on these and other sources to present a primer on hope. My sources come at hope from different disciplines. What they say is sometimes contradictory, but on most points I think they can be read as complementing each other. I think we can learn something useful about hope from all of them.