I write this on the day that Joe Biden was sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States. I thought President Biden’s inauguration speech was well-written and, at times, dynamically delivered. The theme, to which he returned again and again, was the need for national unity.
A secondary theme, a prerequisite for presidential inauguration speeches, was hope. The president brought those themes together when he called all Americans to unite to fight hopelessness. Picking up the hope theme later in the speech, he promised, in the words of Psalm 30, that though “weeping may endure for a night … joy comes in the morning.” Near the conclusion of the address, he said: “Together we will write an American story of hope…”
Every U.S. president in my lifetime has spoken of hope at his inauguration. This may be because inauguration day is a day of hope in the U.S. or it may be that Americans are naturally a hopeful people. They extend hope like a line of credit, placing it at the incoming president’s disposal.
What is the substance of this hope to which presidents routinely refer? Dwight Eisenhower spoke of it as the hope for the healing of a divided world. George W. Bush called freedom the hope of millions worldwide. Ronald Reagan thought of our hope, indeed “the last, best hope of man on earth,” in terms of an “opportunity society” where all of us “will go forward.”
Peace also figures into inauguration day hopes. Jimmy Carter hoped for a peaceful world built on international policies rather than on weapons of war. John Kennedy pledged to engage in a “peaceful revolution of hope” to assist “free men and free governments” south of our border.
Peace, justice, prosperity, and freedom form the substance of hope in inaugural speeches, but how to obtain them is far from obvious. Certainly, the united efforts of the American people play a necessary role. But presidents have assumed another dynamic is in play and that assumption is questionable.
That dynamic can be described in a 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 speeding its arrival.
The belief in progress has saturated modern western thinking and lies behind the promises made and believed by so many politicians. But the idea of inevitable progress is a myth, fairly new to the world (dating from the time of the Industrial Revolution), indemonstrable by argument and unverifiable by experience.
The idea of progress draws on and is a distortion of the Christian vision of hope. In the Christian vision, God sovereignly moves all things toward a glorious end. In its utopian knockoff, it is progress itself that is sovereign. In the Christian vision, Christ is central. In its secular counterpart, good-intentioned humans are at the center.
“The real problem with the myth of progress,” wrote N.T. Wright, “is … that it cannot deal with evil.” The inauguration day speeches, so full of hope, have often run aground on human evil. In 1957, Eisenhower called the authority of the United Nations the “best hope of our age,” an authority he pledged to fortify. Sixty years later, another Republican president called the same international body “pointless.”
Richard Nixon, who promised to “set as our goal the decent order that makes progress possible and our lives secure,” ordered the Watergate break-in.
John Kennedy claimed that “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.” Lee Harvey Oswald, holding a mail-order rifle in his mortal hands, ended Kennedy’s life.
Eisenhower’s “hope of progress” has proved helpless against actual evil. Greed pushed Kennedy’s hope of ending poverty further away than it was in 1961. Reagan’s “strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world,” has suffered from racial division within and the longest war in its history without.
I’m grateful for hopeful presidents and gladly join them in their hopes. I will not, however, rest my hope on some vague idea of progress. I will instead place my hope in God.
(First published by Gannet.)