The Great Seal of the United States, reproduced on the dollar bill, has a mediocre design but an upbeat message. One side shows a bald eagle grasping in its talons arrows of war and an olive branch of peace. The reverse side pictures an unfinished pyramid surmounted by a great eye that represents divine providence. Above this Masonic symbol float the words Annuit Coeptis, which may be paraphrased, God has been favorable to our beginnings. The Congress that approved this device in 1782 was proud of the newborn nation and confident of its future. The founders did not notice that they had established an imperfect republic, in which, for example, suffrage was limited to white male property owners. It would take more than 70 years and the deadliest war in U.S. history to dislodge legal slavery, the country’s greatest social evil.
The earliest politicians and commentators preferred, however, to talk optimistically about their commonwealth and its prospects. In the year the Great Seal was approved, Jean de Crèvecoeur, in Letters From an American Farmer, described Americans as the Western pilgrims, a new race of men motivated by blameless self-interest and happily gathering their exuberant crops with the help of their fat and frolicksome wives and children.
This was not the tone adopted by U.S. editorialists and pundits as the year 2004 wound down. Most observers were complaining, and there was plenty to complain about. The rural nation of some four million has grown into the world’s only superpower. It has a population of nearly 300 million and maintains military establishments and business enterprises around the globe. But this colossus is unpopular with many abroad and confronted with intractable problems at home.
Although nowadays many Americans may be fatobesity is a much-discussed national health issuethe people as a whole cannot be described as frolicksome. Two months ago, George Bush won the presidency with 51 percent of the popular vote nationwide. That has meant, however, that 49 percent of the electorate, some 55.4 million, are still more or less bitterly disappointed. Meanwhile, the tragically misbegotten war in Iraq lies heavily upon the national consciousness and grows daily more burdensome.
All the same, a winter of discontent need not be a permanent season. There are deeply rooted energies in American society that are grounds for looking toward the future with hope. The United States today is a vast pluralistic democracy that has its faults but also its distinctive and abiding virtues. It is fair to say, for instance, that most Americans agree with the Declaration of Independence in holding certain truths to be self-evident. These shared truths include pre-eminently a belief in the equality of all men and women and in their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They also include by extension a commitment to the rule of lawa conviction that disputes should be settled in courts rather than by riots in the streetsalong with an openness to learning and an esteem for building a more humane society.
This sharing of truths is one reason for looking to the new year with measured hope. Another reason is that the people of the United States are mostly good, honest, decent and dependable citizens, who can accomplish a great deal if they cooperate with one another.
That point was made three years ago this month by Michael Kelly, a 46-year-old militant but large-hearted columnist for The Washington Post. He thought too many Americans had what he called a declinist view. They lived, he wrote, with the underlying notion that the great ills of our times (drugs and poverty, for two examples, and terrorism for another) simply could not be fixed. He thought the country was probably good enough and strong enough to overcome this pessimism, but he won’t see if the job can be done. On April 3, 2003, Michael Kelly became the first U.S. journalist to be killed while covering the war in Iraq.
Of course, even in the best cases, the realization of earthly hopes is temporal and therefore passing. But along with their secular hopes, Christians look toward 2005, as they look toward every new year, with a divine hopeHope with a capital H, so to speak. This hope, itself a gift of grace, is not small and self-centered. It is hope, as the Second Vatican Council put it, for the time when the whole world, which is intimately bound up with man and reaches its perfection through him, will along with the human race be perfectly restored in Christ (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 48). In the spirit of this faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke for all Christians when he said, Our lives are invincible because our hope is certain.