In Reclaiming Hope Michael Wear has written an engaging, clarifying work that nevertheless fails because it does not properly distinguish between a person’s testimony and their political theology. As such, the book often begins well before veering off into needless ambiguity due to a fundamental failure to approach politics in a way that is distinctly Christian from top to bottom. We’ll begin this review by considering what the book does well before explaining how these good starts routinely veer into ambiguity due to the functionally secularist political theology which animates the book.
Putting Politics in Its Rightful Place
One strength of Michael’s book is that he properly circumscribes the work and scope of the politician and the political class. It’s not a place in which to invest ultimate hope. It is, rather, a place where limited but significant good work can be done in service to one’s neighbor.
To the extent that political work can be an act of love to neighbor, then to that extent Christians can (and should!) involve themselves in the work of politics. It might be obvious given his background, but Wear is refreshingly free of any sort of lazy Christ-against-the-empire Anabaptist thinking. Indeed, when he talks about the work of the politician he actually sounds very mainstream and even like a lot of conservative Christians. This is not necessarily a surprise because conservative Christians in America have often made the same sorts of mistakes that Wear does; they just have a different set of preferred policies.
A book arguing for hope is much needed.
While Jamie Smith badly overplayed his hand when he lamented “the new alarmism” earlier this year, it is reasonable to note that a lot of Christian cultural studies right now are taking a decidedly bleak approach to things. Wear’s book counsels a more hopeful approach that recognizes where real good work can be done and delights in that. Wear’s consistent counsel is to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good and for a certain sort of Christian, myself probably included in that group, this is wise and good counsel.
Wear himself is extremely likable.
On one final positive note, I should add that Wear himself is enormously likable. He’s self-aware in a good way, careful in how he argues, and does his best to be fair and honorable in how he presents an issue. The obvious compassion he has for other people is also a refreshing and beautiful trait, especially as that compassion is not unmoored from defining theological principles which inform what it ought to look like.
The problem isn’t “Does Obama have faith?” It’s “what is the nature of Obama’s faith?”
Throughout the book, Wear concerns himself mostly with proving that Obama’s faith is genuine. But that question is largely beside the point. When we are talking about Obama qua President the reality of his faith is important, but the way his faith shapes his work as a politician is in many ways far more important. To put it bluntly, when I am evaluating Obama the president, I am less interested in his testimony and more interested in his political theology.
While the former President does seem to believe in distinctly Christian pieces of dogma, such as the resurrection of Christ, he also does not seem to believe that there is any distinctly Christian piece of dogma that actually engages public life. Rather, the “Christianity” that Obama brought with him into the public square was a sort of lowest-common denominator religiosity not at all dissimilar from the generic universalism of late-20th century mainline Protestantism. His is a faith that is personally engaging, but only publicly relevant to the extent that it agrees with a kind of generic public wisdom about the nature of the good.
Obama and Same-Sex Marriage
This brings me to one of the most distressing chapters in the book. The narrative arc of the book isn’t surprising to anyone who followed Obama’s presidency: There is an initial high, brought about by an aspirational 2008 campaign as well as the early excitement of something new to replace the widely disliked George W. Bush administration. As Obama’s term continued, that excitement and enthusiasm gave way to cynicism and realpolitik as the president dropped any pretense of wishing to work across the aisle.
The sad part comes when Wear realizes that this cynicism was not simply a new development, something brought on in response to Republican intransigence. It had been there since the beginning. The problem first surfaced when former campaign staffer David Axelrod claimed in his book that Obama had supported same-sex marriage since 2007 despite public opposition to the idea until May of 2012—a move conveniently timed to capitalize on emerging support for the idea nationally ahead of that November’s election.
The problem here is not simply that Obama lied to the electorate. That is a problem, but, sadly, a generic politician problem. He did the same thing with Obamacare when he said that people could keep their current plans even though he knew those plans would, for the most part, no longer exist after the law had been passed. What’s more disturbing is the way in which Obama lied: He said at one point in an interview with Warren that marriage is between a man and a woman and that religious faith informs what that means—”God is in the mix” is how he put it. In hindsight, it was obviously pandering to white evangelicals and non-white social conservatives. Pandering isn’t new, of course. But invoking God while pandering suggests a remarkable degree of cynicism as well as a certain disregard for religious teachings and those who hold to them.
This is how Michael deals with this problem:
Here is a tough question: To what extent did my service in the Obama administration give people a false impression of the president’s goals and convictions? This is actually a common question. … When I was at the White House, my role was to serve the president, and that was evident to those inside and outside the White House. It’s in the job description. And I did my best to fulfill my responsibilities with integrity. I served the president with loyalty, and I was honest and forthright in my outreach with religious leaders. … My work led to concrete benefits for the American people. And most of all, I sought to be faithful to God.
Here’s my question: If Obama would cynically use the teachings of his professed religion in order to advance a political agenda, why would he not do that with people too? If God can be no more than a political tool, does it not follow that God’s creatures would be demoted to a similar status?
The Problem of Political Theology
This, then is the problem. Obama may actually believe in the Resurrection of Christ. He may hold, in a personal way, to aspects of Christian theology. But the agenda of his government, particularly in his second term, was much more in keeping with a predictably progressive Democratic agenda that owes far more to the Enlightenment than it does Christian dogma. Moreover, he was regularly willing to subject the ethical teachings of Christian theology to the agenda and goals of contemporary American progressivism.
If that is the case, then the faith-based work that the administration does will not tend toward Christian goals, but to more progressive, Enlightenment-based goals. The only way in which this can reasonably be called, Christian, then is if we reduce the content of the faith down to a kind of individualistic bare-bones moralism backed up by a belief in the Resurrection, which may or may not be actual belief in the physical resurrection of Christ.
To be fair to Michael, maybe you want to argue that working for such an institution can still be good because of the immediate good you can do as a result of your role in the institution. Certainly I find myself hoping right now that our elected officials will work within a corrupt institution to protect millions of Americans from losing their healthcare. So perhaps even with the above critique in place you can still argue for the goodness of working for someone like President Obama. That is, after all, the same sort of argument you could make in defending the choice to work for President Trump.
Even so, two things are needed here: First, we need to be frank about the fact that that is what we’re doing. The work Michael did ultimately propped up a technocratic regime whose goal, sometimes stated in quite explicit terms, was to maximize individual freedom by marginalizing or eliminating all the intermediate social structures that exist between individual and government. As such, even those subsidiary goods Wear really did work to advance were themselves shaped and conditioned by the ultimate good aimed at by the Obama administration, a good which is antithetical to a Christian view of society. While it may still be admissible to work for such an administration in limited ways to promote limited goods, we should be clear that that is what we are doing.
Second, we need some kind of controlling mechanism to tell us when we can’t work in such a regime. When is a politician’s ultimate good so bad that we cannot justify working for him, even if our own work advances lesser goods that are less pernicious and perhaps even genuinely beneficial to society?
Not to Godwin’s Law this review, but if the main test of whether or not you should work for someone is whether that work allows you to do “concrete good” for people, then that is a rather limited test that I suspect one could pass while working for politicians far more vicious and brutal than our former president.
Reclaiming Hope has some real strengths. We need books with a more hopeful tone right now and books that treat the work of politics carefully are always welcome, especially within evangelicalism. But my fear here is that Wear has not fully wrestled with the sort of regime we currently have in Washington and is, thus, counseling us in ways that are both naive and unrealistic. Hope is good, but naïveté is not. The problem with Reclaiming Hope is that it’s hard to tell where the one ends and the other begins.