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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Gilbert Meilaender

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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It has become common to contrast the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, with the pessimism of our current president, Barack Obama. “Morning in America” versus disbelief in American exceptionalism. This is too simple a contrast, of course, and I do not, in fact, believe that pessimism about America is Obama’s problem. His problem is the condescension and arrogance with which he too often approaches his fellow citizens. In any case, I want to approach the optimism/pessimism contrast from three different angles.

First, and answering the question most directly, I am optimistic about America as a political community but rather pessimistic about America as a cultural community. Contrary to the constant calls that we hear for an end to partisanship, partisan politics serves us well. Disagreement and argument are essential to the health of a free people, and, unfortunately, many of those most given to regarding diversity as an undoubted good are the least willing to tolerate disagreement. But as long as we remain free to argue about our political aims and policies, I suspect we will not go too far wrong. Nevertheless, it does take a certain kind of citizen to engage in American politics, and too many of our children are growing up in a culture of failed marriages and broken homes. Such cultural disintegration does not produce the trust or trustworthiness that democratic politics requires. How the political and the cultural interact will in large measure shape our future.

Second, claiming a measure of agnosticism seems to me the right way to respond to this question. America’s future is finally in the providence of God, not in our hands. In the greatest political speech ever given in our country’s history, Lincoln—while fondly hoping and fervently praying that the bloody Civil War might cease—left the question of its duration up to the true and righteous judgments of the Lord. That seems right to me. What we need is not so much optimism or pessimism, but a willingness to carry out the public and private tasks set before us with care and devotion: “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” The results can be left in the hands of those more knowledgeable than us.

Finally, we can grant that there are plenty of political reasons for pessimism: an economy in which many people may be permanently unable to find work, the racial divide that has burdened our entire history and still does, the threat of Islamism around the world but especially in the Middle East, an aging population that is setting us up for a clash of generations. What we need in the face of such difficulties is not optimism but hope, and they are not the same. As G.K. Chesterton noted, external conditions can never—in good times or bad—give sufficient reason for hope. We need the virtue of hope precisely when circumstances seem to offer no grounds for optimism. “For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly when hope ceases to be reasonable, it begins to be useful.” Which means that the question that most needs our reflection is: How does one elicit, nourish, and sustain the virtue of hope?

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Gilbert Meilaender is the Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.



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