Tom Goldsmith: Cling to hope to defend against despair

We must stand forever vigilant, because the shadow persists throughout history.

American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

When the power of hope loses currency, despair quickly consumes the soul. This axiom holds true personally as well as for the nation.

In the last few elections, the stakes were dubbed as “a battle for the soul of the nation.” Hope figures prominently in liberal souls. They wage an uphill battle to apply equal opportunities to everyone someday. Conservatives, narrower in scope, aim to secure America’s riches for themselves.

The word “hope” in fact is conspicuously missing altogether from the political right’s vocabulary. Despite losing the last presidential election by seven million votes and Democrats flipping five states, they have tossed hope on the trash heap of loser emotions. Republicans characterize their position as “faith,” confident in their inevitable victories.

Democrats have relied on hope to carry elections by stressing our democracy’s endless possibilities for everyone. Barack Obama electrified the nation at the 2004 Democratic Convention by infusing hope into the political equation. He extended an all-embracing hope, making the emotion intrinsic to all human beings. His moving speech cited slaves who sang freedom songs and immigrants setting out, identifying the universal aspect of hope’s motivational power.

When the young poet, Amanda Gorman addressed the nation during Biden’s inaugural ceremony, hope resounded loud and clear. Using the Trump years as a teachable moment, she reminded her listeners that “while democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated.” She added: “Even as we hurt, we hoped.”

Using Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” as metaphor for the tasks ahead, Democrats cobbled the Build Back Better bill. Its goal is to redress our nation’s social inequities and regain a sustainable planet. Republicans, however, unconscionable in their obstruction to all measures that bring hope to the soul, have kept the floodgates of despair at full throttle.

Fortified by Donald Trumps’ remarks at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year, that “the future of the Republican party is Trumpism,” they move in concert to control the end game. In lieu of spreading hope for all Americans, Republicans support voter suppression, maneuver Republican-led state legislatures to act as final arbiters on how votes are counted and encourage violent vigilantism.

Democrats are running out of options in confronting these undemocratic tactics. They can register new voters while hoping those votes might be counted. They can write letters and make phone calls to congressmen, and pretend they are listening. They can protest in the streets and risk being run over by a zealous Proud Boy. The old avenues for retaining hope lead us now to dead ends. Towards what the arc of the universe truly bends feels questionable.

The contrast between hope and faith helps us understand the deeper nuances of our nation’s divide. As a religious and secular concept, hope targets an achievement yet to come. Hope taps into outcomes lodged sometime in the future. Though hope and faith may both be tied to unprovable assumptions, faith is an expression of a current situation. Faith represents a belief that already exists. Entwined in “hope,” though, swirls an unavoidable dream-like quality. Martin Luther King Jr. made the connection clear in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Hopes and dreams were interchangeable. Faith, on the other hand, expresses a fact about the present.

The philosopher David Hume rendered a prime example of faith some 300 years ago: “We cannot prove the sun will rise tomorrow,” he said, “but we can act as if it will.” Republicans express faith in winning the next election, and they act as though it were fact.

As hope slowly drains from the nation’s soul, and from my own, I try not to surrender to despair. I take seriously Amanda Gorman urging us to “find light in the never-ending shadow.” Hope and despair are in continuous conflict. We must stand forever vigilant, because the “shadow” persists throughout history. With Gorman charging us to “make love our legacy,” hope remains our only path towards winning America’s soul. Cleaving to hope as our lifeline, will mitigate our personal despair as well.

Tom Goldsmith Senior Minister First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City

Tom Goldsmith is minister emeritus of the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City