Do you hear a protracted public sigh after this U.S. presidential election? When I informally query colleagues, friends, neighbors and students this week, about how they feel in the post-election gloaming, each response is preceded by a noticeable exhale. Their responses to me reveal how cleaved we feel right now – “weary perseverance”, “anxious hopefulness”, “frayed determination”, and more. The sinews of our body politic are stretched and injured. Not to be put down, these are the forces that initiated a public blowout at the polls.
The last time the U.S. electorate voted at such a high percentage was for the reelection of William McKinley to a second term, in 1900. The Boer War was taking place, and the U.S. population reached 75 million, or nearly the full number of votes that each presidential candidate received in 2020. This week, 67% of the U.S. population voted in the election. By mail, ballot box, or in person, it was an astounding turn-out.
In the post-election – if 2020 trends resemble 2016 – then Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Atheists and African-American Protestants will have more in common in their majority support of a democrat, than White Evangelicals who voted over 77% in the United States for Donald Trump that same year.
Despite differences, we do know that – across religious adherents – key concerns to the voting public included the coronavirus pandemic, racial and ethnic equality, and fairness in the election. In addition, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reports that slim majorities of nearly every major religious group in the United States believe that our “best days are ahead of us,” with percentages of optimism ranging 53-62%. This nod to a hopeful future may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but the results are higher than comparable surveys in 2017 and 2016. Such hope appears to be aligned with possible vaccines to the Coronavirus currently under development, and to the impact a vaccine will have on the country in the coming year.
And yet, we have witnessed divisions in this country that are a cause to both weep at their historical antecedents and to display fortitude at prospects for future healing. This aligns to the election query I noted above, where we see both grief and a willingness to begin the work of clearing debris. In the United States, our best work must be in front of us. And that hard work – at social awareness, equitable policies and renewed possibilities for all – will be essential in order to earn the hope we seek.
What will it take to earn a national and tactile hope in this country? Any public response of hope requires both empathy and action in order to ligament the body to itself, arm-to-shoulder, shoulder-to-torso. Our mutual thriving will depend upon learning how to walk together again, with awareness and societal impact. From prophetic voices to public policy, we must rise from this chamber and trust our collective footfall in the body anew.
Religious traditions and spiritual pathways provide stories about how communities reclaim hope. One classic story is of the prodigal child who yearns to leave the community. The child begs for their birthright (typically from an authoritative parental figure) and upon winning their release, tromps out into the world. As you might forecast in this tale, the child squanders their birthright. Broke and disillusioned, the youth returns to seek forgiveness for losing everything. The Orthodox Christian interpretation of this story is more hopeful: In this retelling, the prodigal child returns because when everything was spent and gone, all they had left was their own loneliness. Too much separation from our kindred places our own humanity in peril. The lesson is that we are shaped as individuals in relationship to others all around us. Remove those influences, and our collective understanding of humanity goes with it. We require one another to make the future work.
Within community, wisdom reveals how collective moral agency, and our personal ethical self-determination must be integrated if we desire a shared future. This is as true in a family as in a Republic. Earning the hope we seek means that the work ahead will be laborious. And even if a slight majority of the public believes our best days are ahead of us, that provides enough lift to the possible, even the probable, for those who are weary but determined.
The Center desires to be a part of this essential work toward a shared future, and we are positioned in the university and within society, with a commitment to serving both. Please keep a lookout for how this Center Team is creating curriculum, programs, and hosting our upcoming Scholarly Project in the spring on the public features of Gratitude, Injury and Restoration. We will seek the probable with you at home in this progressive Jesuit university, and among the religious traditions and spiritual pathways that serve as the Center’s guiding stars. Thank you.