Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Barack Obama's main rivals for president, asked Americans to vote for them because of their greater experience. When Obama began his campaign, he was only forty-five years old and had held national office for only two years. This is what Rudy Giuliani had to say about him at the Republican National Convention:
"His rise is remarkable in its own right. It's the kind of thing that can happen only in America. But he's never run a city. He's never run a state. He's never run a business. He's never run a military unit. He's never had to lead people in crisis. He is the least experienced candidate for president of the United States in at least the last 100 years. Not a personal attack, a statement of fact. Barack Obama has never led anything, nothing, nada."
Most people thought that Obama's lack of experience would be his greatest weakness as a candidate. And in any other country it probably would have been. In my country, the General Elections are only a few months away and the two front runners are 75 and 77 years old!
But the American people chose Obama over a host of more experienced Democrats in the primary, and over the distinguished veteran senator John McCain in the general election, because Obama turned his inexperience from a weakness into strength by framing the election as a contest of "The Past Versus the Future."
"It is time for a new generation of leadership, because the old politics just won't do. I am running for President-right now-because I have met Americans all across this country who cannot afford to wait another day for change. That is why the real choice in this campaign is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white. It is about the past versus the future. ... Because there is a moment in the life of every generation, if it is to make its mark on history, when its spirit has to come through, when it must choose the future over the past, when it must make its own change from the bottom up."
"Change" is a theme that resonates deeply with the American people. But only because Americans share several key assumptions: that change is possible, that the future can be different than the past; that change is good, and the future can be better than the past; that our stars do not shape our destiny, and people are free to shape their own destiny by their actions in the present. This optimism, this faith in progress, is what Obama-following the Bible-calls "hope." Although Americans take it for granted, the philosoph of optimism and the virtue of hope are nowhere as strong as in America. They traveled from the West to the rest of the world as a part of "modernity," which is now disintegrating into cynical "postmodernity."
Day after day, ancient people saw the sun rise and set. Year after year, they saw spring followed by summer, autumn, winter, and spring again. From these and many other observable cycles in nature, they concluded that time itself and the cosmos itself were endless cycles. Human beings, societies, and the world itself are born, grow, decline, die, and are reborn. The metaphor of Great Wheel is found in nearly every ancient culture. Things must always return to the way they were, so no real and permanent progress is possible. Fate has already determined the direction of history, and there's nothing anyone can do to change it. So there is no metaphysical ground for hope: striving to improve the human condition is pointless. The author of Ecclesiastes summed up the wisdom born of human experience in the famous phrase, "There is nothing new under the sun."
The Greek and Roman religion of Stoicism taught that each of us is like a dog tied behind a moving wagon. You have no say in where fate is taking you; to be wise is to resign yourself to it, rather than struggle in vain against it. Human existence is essentially one of suffering. The only thing you can do about it is to detach yourself from the things of this world and occupy yourself with the world beyond.
Indian thought is very similar. The Buddha's First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. There is no point in trying to fight suffering. The best that you can do is to meditate and seek a psychological nirvana - the bliss within, in an altered state of consciousness. All of this thinking leads to resignation, for we are locked into a cosmic cycle. Societies with such outlooks do not produce leaders with vision.
The Jews, however, had a very different experience of God that shattered the traditional ancient worldview. They were slaves in Egypt, and they cried out to God because of their misery. He sent Moses to deliver them. They were unarmed, but God rescued them from Pharaohs mighty army. They saw God part the Red Sea, bring water out of a solid rock, feed them in the wilderness for forty years. God, they realized, was not bound by nature. "I will be who I will be," God said to Moses. He was not bound by time. God was free and wanted his children to be like him - free. The covenant, the law, the promised land-these were new and permanent. The Wheel of Time would not carry the Israelites back to bondage.
Thus the Jewish Scriptures - the Bible - became the first source of the idea that time is not cyclical but linear. It had a definite beginning, it will have a definite end, and every time in between is unique. This makes possible the idea of history. God created a world that is good, and although it has been corrupted, it will be redeemed. Suffering is not an essential part of existence. We were created to live in Eden - which means bliss - not in slums. "If any man be in Christ he is a new creation." "God is making all things new." One day we will live in a "new heavens and a new earth." Christian Humanists such as Petrarch, Salutati, Valla and della Mirandola first articulated these biblical ideas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Their writings planted the philosophical seeds of "modern" Western optimism.
The Jews believed that God had promised, one day, to deliver them from their enemies and from the sinfulness of their own hearts. They believed that this deliverance would come through a leader anointed by God, a Messiah. The prophet Isaiah says, "In faithfulness he [the Messiah] will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the nations will put their hope." This belief, that the future will be better than the past or the present, is the source of the idea of "hope"-the idea that Obama made the centerpiece of his message. And the belief that an inspired leader will bring justice to the earth may be what lies behind the secularized Messianism of some of Obama's followers. Obama jokingly remarked, "Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger." Obviously, he meant, "I am not the Messiah."
Jesus, who really was born in a manger and did call himself the Messiah, claimed that he was ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth. "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." This kingdom was something radically new, a radical change from the kingdoms of the world, a kingdom of justice and peace. The kingdom of God begins when people submit themselves to the Word of God. As such, it has begun, and it will not be fully realized until Jesus comes again to reclaim God's authority over his creation.
This worldview made the United States the most optimistic nation on earth. It was settled by people who believed that their special mandate was to live as citizens of God's kingdom in the New World. The hope for a better tomorrow was written into the cultural DNA of America. This is why Obama could say,
"There's a story I want to share that takes place before Moses passed the mantle of leadership on to Joshua. It comes from Deuteronomy 30 when Moses talks to his followers about the challenges they'll find when they reach the Promised Land without him. ... Moses says: What I am commanding you is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven. Nor is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near. It is on your lips and in your heart. It's an idea that's often forgotten or dismissed in cynical times. It's that we all have it within our power to make this a better world. Because we all have the capacity to do justice and show mercy; to treat others with dignity and respect; and to rise above what divides us and come together to meet those challenges we can't meet alone."
Ironically, "hope" is in America's past. Obama acknowledged in the preceding quotation that America is now living through "cynical times." Pessimism is replacing optimism, because America is following tragic footsteps of Europe. In the 19th century, Europe secularized its Christian humanism and began the age of ideologies. Secular humanists believed that man was capable of creating utopia without God. This false confidence led to ideologies such as Fascism, Nazism, Communism and the two World Wars. The Humanist hope went up in "mushroom clouds" over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Humanists finally realized that man was not as good as they had thought.
At an intellectual level, pessimism replaced optimism until the 1980s when the emergence of the "New Age" - the first optimistic movement to be born in the West since the Second World War. The "New Age" did not put its hope in man. Its hope rested in UFOs, extraterrestrials, spirit-guides, meditation, Tantric or Gnostic sex, altered states of consciousness, or the constellation of Aquarius. It didn't take long for the New Age to become old, producing the cynicism and despair that Obama referred to.
Although secular despair has overtaken the West's biblical optimism, the fact is that hope is still written into the cultural DNA of the West. Obama won because he was able to tap into it. Listen to the opening words of the speech in which he announced his candidacy:
"In my heart I know you didn't come here just for me, you came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that's shut you out, that's told you to settle, that's divided us for too long, you believe we can be one people, reaching for what's possible, building that more perfect union."
Many Americans are seeing Obama as their savior. But the twentieth century has taught us that when man tries to become the Messiah, he becomes as a monster--as did Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin. Obama can resurrect hope only if he turns America back to the cultural source of its hope: the Bible.