The American political machine is a strange and frightening creature, at least from this Canadian’s perspective. Although I can’t participate in it (I’m not a citizen so no voting), I want to understand it. The real differences between parties, how the system functions (or arguably doesn’t)… And what I’ve noticed is that there is a serious divide, one that only seems to be growing deeper and wider.
This is where Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear has been helpful to me. Wear is the founder of Public Square Strategies LLC, and a former Obama Administration staffer notable for directing faith outreach for President Obama’s during 2012 reelection campaign. During his time at the White House, navigating the confusion of many of his peers and the controversies created by policy decisions, Wear gained a great deal of insight into why the divide exists, and how we can address it. This is what he shares with us in this engaging memoir.
Conflicted compassion for President Obama and the Democratic Party
President Obama’s eight years in office will be remembered for many things, and depending on your perspective those will be primarily positive or negative. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear conservative Christians question the validity of his profession of faith in Christ, in part based on his views on abortion and same-sex marriage. While those on the political left laud him for his “evolution” on the latter point, many the political right view him as a demagogue determined to tear apart the fabric of American culture.
Whether fair or not, these views and a thousand more besides are out there on blogs, in books and in the news. And reading this book, it’s evident that Wear feels the weight of those statements deeply. He respects President Obama, even when he disagrees with him. There’s almost an incredulity in the tone of his words as he considers his experiences and what happened in the White House during the latter half of Obama’s first term. When he publicly changed his views on marriage, some claimed that he’d held these beliefs all along, but was waiting until the right time to voice them. Others simply said, “It’s about time; he should have said it years ago.” But considering how often Obama spoke with an understanding of the Christian view of marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman, Wear struggled. And the question he was forced to consider is profound:
“Would he really have used religious language to convince voters of something he did not believe?” (150, ARC).
While he doesn’t directly answer the question with where he landed, he does clearly lay out the options and their implications:
If the president did believe in and support same-sex marriage in 2007 or even earlier, his repeated assertions that he did not were a direct rebuke of the type of politics he said was possible. If not, then to let the claim stand that he supported gay marriage all along is to choose political gain over the integrity of the president’s own words. (155-156)
You see this tension all through the book, and Wear handles it well. There are many points at which he applauds the Obama Administration’s actions and decisions and others where he expresses his disagreement (as in the Louie Giglio controversy prior to Obama’s second inauguration). And what it helps us realize is that this tension is inherent to the party itself. There are some Democrats (like Wear) who feel abandoned by the party. But there’s also a bewildered realization that for many in the party, even the most basic biblical concepts or references are completely foreign. They, like so many of us, are doing what is right in their own eyes, trying to create a brave new world in the name of human progress. (But more on that in a second.)
What do we mean by hope?
The fascinating aspects of Wear’s experience aside, the most meaningful aspect of the entire book actually comes in the final two chapters, where Wear sets out to fulfill the title’s promise: reclaiming hope. But he does this in a fascinating way, not simply by giving us practical actions (which he does) but by seeing to define what hope is and what it looks like in our time.
The meat of this comes in his discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates and hope. Coates is a powerful writer, but he is not known for being a hopeful one. By his own admission, he believes that to be wedded to “hope,” particularly for writers, is “ultimately [to be] divorced from ‘truth.'”1
And this is true, depending on how your understanding of the foundation for hope. If we primarily look to human accomplishment and behavioral patterns, yeah, we’ve every reason to be pessimistic. Although there are shining moments of progress and innovation, technological advancement and so forth, those same innovations have also been used for unprecedented evil.2 But true hope isn’t rooted in human progress, but Christ. In fact, so strongly does Wear make his case that, ultimately, one can only conclude that it is virtually impossible to adequately define hope apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ. Without him as the object of our hope, we’re left with nothing but human progress to look to… which then leads us back to pessimism. And that’s what we need to focus on as we engage in the public square because it changes how we engage, especially in the two great battlegrounds of the coming years.
The first is the issue of racism and racial reconciliation. “Our nation is held back by racism and inequality in both lost opportunity and the cost to government from our criminal justice, foster care, and welfare systems, just to name a few,” he writes (217). We need to move past slogans and platitudes and truly work for lasting change. With our hope rooted in human progress, it’s an impossible task. But, as he writes,
The gospel, the call of justice, and the demands of our times all call for a concentrated effort at addressing racial injustice and working toward reconciliation. This is a possibility burdened by our history, but enlivened by hope. (221)
The second is religious freedom, which he notes is under legitimate pressure because it’s been so polarized due to the ongoing debates around same-sex marriage and now gender identity. But where Wear differs from many contemporary writers on these points is that his question is, how do we make it clear that religious freedom is about more than this one point:
When one religious group’s freedom is abridged, it affects everyone’s religious freedom. Either religious freedom is for all or it is for none. And religious freedom will always be most important to minority religious groups. (225)
These last points are, without a doubt, the most important of Reclaiming Hope. What we build our hope on is what will sustain us. As we look at the battles we have to face, we cannot stand on the hope of human progress. That hope, particularly in the battle over religious freedom has seen our grasp of diversity move from respecting different beliefs and opinions to pushing out any dissenting voices. We need something better. And we have it. More than that, we who believe in Christ who is our hope can offer it as we engage in the public and private spheres. If you want to be encouraged in the task, and if you want to be challenged in how you view those you differ from politically, read this book.