"When this election is over," I heard the young woman say, "we're going to have one president and one hero. "Which one," she asked me pointedly, "would you want to be?" It's decision-making time. We all get a chance to answer this one. And the answer is that there can't be just one hero. Heroism--and the hope that makes heroes--is required of all of us.

The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down its ruling in the Florida electoral recount case. That ruling, ambiguous as it may be, for all intents and purposes determines who has really won the presidency of this country. Or to be more precise, in the absence of full electoral information, the Supreme Court's ruling at least determines, a full 35 days after the election, who will be officially inaugurated as president on January 20, 2001.

So, case closed? Not exactly. Legal doors may have slammed shut as a result of this month of maneuvering and the finality of the Supreme Court's ruling, but some spiritual doors may have opened for all of us for the first time in decades.

During the past month, we have learned with stark clarity, on widescreen television in the intimacy of our own living rooms, that law and justice are not always the same, that the legal and the moral, the obvious and the acceptable, are not always bedfellows. We have also learned that hope and confidence are not the same thing. Confidence we've always had as a nation; hope we may just now as Christians be beginning to understand.

When we were racing to the moon during the 1960s, we knew that once we put our national mind to it, our United States would plant the first flag there. No problem. In the face of an oil crisis during the 1970s, we had the confidence as a nation that if the oil ran out, all we had to do was go into a laboratory somewhere and we could invent a substitute. No problem. In the middle of a global recession and communist insurgencies during the 1980s, we never lost confidence in the American economic system. Confidence has, in fact, been the hallmark of American history.

But confidence and hope are different things. Confidence is the inner conviction that we are equal to whatever task is before us. It is the certainty that we are bright enough, strong enough, powerful enough to meet a challenge and best it.

Hope, on the other hand, is what sustains us when we have little or no confidence left. At the end of a bad stretch, hope--hope that the will of God will finally prevail--is all that is left to sustain us. When it becomes clear that the things on which we have depended aren't really dependable, hope must replace confidence, or nothing can replace confidence at all.

With this presidential election, we watched our traditional American certainties fade in front of our eyes. During the past several months, in a country we thought was founded on impregnable civil structures, the political system has chosen partisanship over statesmanship, the electoral system has fallen into disarray, and the judicial system has fractured. Confidence in each of them has wilted--among a generation that has already seen the United States fight dirty wars under ringing moral slogans and the presidency itself tainted by lying, skullduggery, and sleaze. Now, democracy itself is in question. Now, confidence in the civil religion is shrinking. Now, it is hope in things beyond the political that we need.

The disintegration of the conventional is a hard way to learn a spiritual lesson. On the other hand, maybe it's the only thing that really brings a person, a people, a nation, to choose between the commonplace and the heroic, the shallows of confidence and the depths of hope.

But hope may be the missing virtue in a country that has long believed its own press about "equal protection under the law" and "democracy" and "blind justice." Because we never doubt ourselves, we seldom examine the gap between what we say we do and what we're doing until the gap becomes obscenely exposed for all to see.

Then, in the midst of the embarrassment and the disillusionment that comes with the unmasking of any great charade, it is only hope, not confidence, that gets people through bad times.

Well, it's bad times when only half the people in a democracy vote. It's bad times when the people who do vote don't really know if or when their votes have been or ever will be counted. It's bad times when partisanship passes for law. Then the only thing that can save a people is not the party, not politics, not power. Then it is the time for hope. Hope knows that whatever happens, God lives. Hope expects that however bad it looks, this moment will ultimately yield something good. Hope says begin again.

Winners may have confidence, but real heroes--those who have seen bad times and lived to rise above them--live in hope. It's a sad day for our country to find itself with a president who not only has no mandate to lead but not enough certainty in the popular vote even to justify his mounting the viewing stand in the first place. But it is not a sad time when a country rises above partisan confidence to realize its responsibility to build a future based on the vision and values that magnetized it in the past rather than on the party politics to which it has descended in the present.

Al Gore needs hope right now. America needs hope right now. And George W. Bush needs hope right now, too. We finally have a president, but we have no winners. What we need are heroes.

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