As someone who teaches and writes about international politics, I can confidently say that last week was one of the strangest in memory, from the G-20 circus in my backyard (Pittsburgh) to the political zoo at the United Nations. President Obama, of course, was front and center, including with a major speech at the United Nations.
What struck me wasn’t so much what Obama said as what others said about him. I cannot recall any time, in the entire history of the United Nations, where nearly every single one of the world’s worst rogue dictators came out of the woodwork to shower heaping praise on the president of the United States—Clinton or Bush, JFK or Reagan, Truman or Eisenhower, Democrat or Republican.
Iran’s theocratic madman, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who once despised our president—when the president was George W. Bush—had a different tone this time around. Sure, as usual, he customarily paused to deny the Holocaust, and to deplore “the ugly behavior of the U.S. governments.”
Well, not all U.S. governments: he exempted the current one. Actually, more than that, Iran’s leader commended President Obama for agreeing with him on this “ugly” American behavior. As Iranian television reported, “Ahmadinejad noted that even the U.S. President Barack Obama in his remarks has accepted [this] fact and has called for a change in the way Washington treats other nations.”
It wasn’t only Ahmadinejad. Another Middle East madman, longtime terrorism sponsor, and enemy of America, Moammar Kaddafi, not only hailed his “Brother Obama” but wished that Obama could be president for life. “We are content and happy if Obama can stay forever as the president of the United States,” said the architect of the Achille Lauro and Pan Am 103 murders.
And the greatest menace in the Western Hemisphere for 50 years, Fidel Castro, who once favored launching nuclear missiles at the United States, has finally found a president he not only likes but agrees with on policy. The aging apparatchik, who an earlier Democratic president, JFK, tried to remove with military force, rose from his sickbed to thank Obama for his lead on “climate change.”
You can’t make this up. The Republican National Committee, in its worst burst of cheap propaganda, wouldn’t dare conjure up something like this. Besides, no one would believe it.
Yet, perhaps most troubling was what Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, an admirer of Obama, said in an extraordinary statement at the United Nations.
“It doesn’t smell of sulfur here anymore,” sniffed Chavez, in a swipe at former President Bush, whom he denounced as “the devil” in U.N. remarks in 2006. There was freshness in the air. Waxing almost spiritual, Chavez mused: “It smells of something else. It smells of hope.”
Here, of course, the Venezuelan communist was referring to President Obama, invoking Obama’s popular slogan. And it was this particular compliment that really hit a nerve with me; it was Chavez’s words about “hope.”
Hugo Chavez is far from alone in seeing Barack Obama as synonymous with hope. Each time I travel to Washington, I see a pro-Obama bumper sticker carrying simply two words, “Got Hope?”
Some will dismiss this as benign, a clever play on the phrase “Got milk?” The slogan, however, is way too glib. Whether the maker or bearer of the bumper sticker realizes it or not, there’s something disturbing about this incessant identification with Obama as “hope.”
The fact is that hope is a theological virtue; it is one of the three theological virtues, along with faith and charity. In my faith, we define hope as explicitly connected to God alone. Hope is the virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our ultimate happiness—i.e., not in anything temporal or man-centered here on Earth. It is the virtue by which we place our trust in Christ’s promises through the help and grace of the Holy Spirit. The virtue of hope is a response to “the aspiration to happiness” which God alone has placed in the heart of every human being.
For quite a while now, there has been an excessive embrace of Obama, sometimes bordering on reverence, from Europeans literally hailing him as their Messiah to schoolchildren singing songs of praise to their dear leader. Have you seen the Obama “prayer candles?” How about the crucified Obama?
I’ve written extensively on the faith of presidents and political figures, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton to Nancy Pelosi to Joe Biden, from the American founders to dozens of presidents; none were elevated the way the secular left is lifting up Obama.
It isn’t healthy. To observe Americans putting their “hope” in Obama, and even making Obama hope, is troubling.
Sadly, though, this is a logical, inevitable conclusion of an increasingly secular left that seeks salvation in politics rather than conventional forms of religion. As Rousseau said, all people need some sort of religion. Even the irreligious seek some semblance of belief. We are “hard-wired” that way.
Yet, as Augustine warned: this is a God-shaped vacuum that only God can fill.
We have hope, yes. It is a hope that springs eternal. It is there for all of us. And it should never be placed in any man, politician, or president.