01/21/2008 04:50 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Political Optimism and Spiritual Optimism Are the Same

There was a collective moment of euphoria for many people when Barack Obama gave his victory speech in Iowa, followed by two weeks of steady deflation. New Hampshire and Nevada didn't ride the wave of hope and optimism being generated that night. It's easy to become disillusioned by this, because experience teaches us that euphoria is temporary. The same pundits who wanted to anoint Obama on the spot now prudently observe that he has to fight if he wants to win the nomination of his party. America, we are told, wants and needs the spectacle of such a fight.

One could take a different view, however. What Obama awakened was a sense of political optimism for the first time in a generation. We are reminded of the power of optimism today on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In many ways political optimism is the same as spiritual optimism. Both depend on a belief in the supremacy of good over evil. They assume that human nature is improvable. They see links of empathy between people rather than walls of division. There are times when optimism of both sorts prevails, and yet it would be naive to claim that the opposite philosophy ever admits defeat. The essential premise of conservative politics (at least the kind fostered in the post-Reagan era) is spiritually pessimistic. It holds that human nature is depraved by sin and needs rescuing by divine intervention. Without such intervention, human nature is violent and must be hemmed in by laws and the rigid dictates of authority.

Even where conservatism isn't so blatantly Calvinist and evangelical, conservatives are suspicious of outsiders, protective of law and order over freedom and progress, and conceive the world as full of enemies. The worst aspect of political pessimism has showed itself since 9/11 when the authorities have used fear-mongering as their chief tactic and blithely stripped ordinary citizens of basic rights -- such actions expose an underlying premise of spiritual pessimism, that the average person is too weak, stupid, and lost to look out for himself but must be guided by the spiritual/political elite.

Dark as this may sound, the cloud of spiritual pessimism may be parting. Reagan learned how to co-opt bright-sounding soundbites ("It's morning in America") to make his anti-progressive views more palatable, and afterwards the most unlikely, even absurd slogans (compassionate conservatism, "a thousand points of light," "A kinder, gentler America") were still effective. Obama cut through this fog of falseness to offer real spiritual optimism, and the result was immediate. People's hearts were touched because in fact each of us does possess a better nature. The assumption that good prevails over bad once again has a chance.

For that reason, I'm not depressed by the inability of this new vision to succeed instantly. An entire population is reacting to it, and that's how collective change occurs. It may not happen that Obama will win the nomination, but that's not the point. The point is that what he stands for is genuine. In a country so long sunk in spiritual pessimism, that in itself feels almost miraculous.