Reclaiming Hope - A Review

Michael Wear’s recent book Reclaiming Hope is a call for Christians to remain hopeful about the future, despite the misuse and abuse of religion in politics in recent years. Although similar messages have been promoted and led to failure, Wear’s message is a worthwhile one: authentic Christian hope should lead to Christians continuing to participate in politics as Christians. This means that we need to seek the good of the city in which God has placed us and remain critical of both political parties.

Wear is one of the many in the millennial generation who believe that greater government participation in redistribution of wealth is a good thing. The front half of the book recounts his alignment with the Obama White House on the good of passing the Affordable Care Act, which has made purchasing medical insurance legally required with financial penalties for those who choose not to participate in the market. Wear recounts Obama’s use of religious language in supporting things as way that faith can influence policy. For those that oppose the seemingly ever increasing growth of the government through programs like the Affordable Care Act, the front end of the book seems like a bit of tedious hero worship of President Obama. Those who find themselves so frustrated should continue on through the volume. Wear is recording the events as he saw them at the time, though he appears to more critically examine those events later in the volume.

Aside from Wear’s bias toward the government as a means for achieving economic justice, a portrait of the President Obama’s faith begins to emerge. Wear, a socially conservative evangelical Christian, participated in both of Obama’s campaigns and in the first term White House Staff as part of the faith outreach. Part of Wear’s job was to counter the attacks on Obama’s faith, which came from more conservative Christians based on Obama’s apparent support of the continued legalization of abortion and other causes supported by the platform of the Democratic National Convention.

The portrait of Obama’s faith that emerges is of an authentically faithful, liberal Christianity. In this sense, I am not using liberal as a dismissive insult, but to qualify the form of Christianity that Obama appears to hold and to have held. That is, a Christianity that truly holds to certain tenets of the orthodox faith, but sees fit to accept other elements that do not accord with biblical Christianity when historical orthodoxy appears to conflict with modern understandings of the world. This is the sort of Christianity that sees the gospel as primarily a call to social justice rather than personal conversion that leads people to pursue true justice in society in response to God’s justice. Wear, whose doctrine appears to be more consistently orthodox than Obama’s, paints a portrait of a President who sees the impetus toward apparent goods from within Christianity and finds motivation from that, but who may not have accepted the authority of Scripture over all areas of life and practice.

The first half of the book recounts the Obama political machine’s pursuit of doctrinally conservative Christians and efforts to enact a unifying vision for politics. The second half of the volume, however, outlines the ways that the Obama White House subverted those processes, discarded efforts to meaningfully work for a common vision of the good. This failure to seek common cause is highlighted by the Obama Administration's refusal to drop the contraceptive mandate despite the large number of Roman Catholic Bishops who would have otherwise have supported the measure. Wear documents his frustration that the White House staffers were unable or unwilling to understand that prohibition of contraception is a longstanding, significant tenet of Roman Catholic doctrine and to unnecessarily impose a violation of conscience on Roman Catholics in the marketplace would result in alienation of a large base. Additionally, Wear recounts the instant amnesia sexual revolutionaries developed in their efforts to excoriate and persecute those who held a vision of marriage that even Obama held until 2011. Wear reveals a political machine that, at least in part, did not (and likely still does not) understand the place and power of faith in the lives of the faithful of many religions.

Later chapters document the anti-religious influences in the White House overcoming the efforts of Wear and other faithful staffers. This was punctuated by the DNC’s overt pushing of social advocate, shock-value entertainer Lena Dunham’s video comparing voting for Obama in 2008 with her first sexual encounter. Also, the Obama campaign in 2012 used profanity laced e-mails to rally support. The shift into a post-religious White House (which is not to say a post-religious Obama) could be seen in the demonization of Louie Giglio prior to the 2013 inauguration, whose 20-year-old sermon expounding traditional sexual morality was sufficient to result in many public attacks and his ouster from praying at the inauguration. As Wear notes, “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel all dissent.” (pg 190) This is the reality that many have experienced, which has alienated many of the faithful from the Democratic National Convention, and has helped to push some to vote against Hillary Clinton in the most recent election.

Wear closes the volume with a constructive appeal to a biblical concept of hope, which Christians alone can bring to politics. Whatever policy disagreements I have with Wear, these chapters are helpful. The loss of real hope is detrimental to politics, it leads to fragmentation, hatefulness, and eventually a politics that must win at all cost for fear or retribution. If nothing else, this last section is worth the price of the book, since it reveals the reality of socially conservative, faithfully living evangelicals who have participated in politics with the Democratic National Convention and don’t hate orthodox Christianity. Wear’s willingness to communicate his basis of support for some of the DNC’s policies while seeking to effect change from within. He should be honored for such efforts.

This is a helpful book in many respects. It undermines the notion that being a faithful, socially conservative Christian prevents engaging in politics with the DNC. It provides a glimpse to some of the machinations of the political machine, which should cause both the right and left to question exactly who wrote and how sincerely are meant statements that seem faithful from politicians. It may be that people like Wear are, in good faith, helping politicians craft statements that allow them to seem rather than be truly faithful. Finally, and perhaps the most important lesson in this bleary eyed post-election season, Wear’s volume reminds the reader that we cannot cease participating in politics even when both parties hold positions repugnant to faithful Christians. We must, necessarily, seek to gracefully engage in politics for the common good as we best understand it. We must also seek to be gracious with those with whom we disagree and seek to critique their policy, not their faith.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume as part of the launch team for this book. There was no expectation of a positive review.

Public Faith in Action - A Review

If this election cycle has revealed anything, it is that there is a drastic need for improvements in the way public dialog occurs. It has also revealed the need for Christians to engage in political discourse in a distinctly Christian manner: informed by Scripture, reasonably argued, and carefully expressed.

Miroslav Volf often exhibits the gracious demeanor in public discourse that is exemplary for Christians. His recent volume, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity, offers an example and encourages such political engagement. The book was co-written with an associate research scholar at Yale, Ryan McAnnally-Linz, based on a series of Facebook posts Volf published.

The book claims to be non-partisan. That claim is fair, though it is clear that the political leanings of the authors are center-left. In most cases the positions presented are well-reasoned and have the reasoning explained. Each topic is put forth with some foundational discussion, followed by some proposals for non-negotiable points for Christians, and then examples of points that are open for debate. Notably the authors provide no non-negotiables for the topic of marriage and family, since their position reflects a revisionist concept of those institutions. For the most part, however, there is a pattern of consultation with Scripture, tradition, and reason.

One major concern that this volume creates is that the authors call for greater government intervention for nearly every social issue. There are times when more laws and additional spending are necessary. However, one of the solutions for most of the problems they discuss is more government funding. At the same time they call for a wise stewardship of both personal and national finances. The necessary conclusion is that increasing taxes is necessary for justice. This is an opinion that many contemporary Christians on the left and center-left share, but the continual growth of the government is not necessarily the only Christian response to these difficult issues.

It is possible that this volume will find readers who already lean left and convince them that Volf and McAnnally-Linz present a case that is truly reasonable to all Christians. This risks continued ostracization of right-leaning Christians who are unwilling to accept some of the authors’ supposed non-negotiables, though they may resonate with the need to deal with the issues. This perception is aided because nearly all of the recommended resources of the volume are from sources that range from center-left to radically left in their politics and theology. There are only a handful of conservative sources offered, only increasing the false perception that right-leaning Christians are not discussing some of these issues.

These concerns aside, the volume is valuable. The tone of the volume is reasonable and non-accusatory. The authors have succeeded in presenting their case in a way that is inoffensive and engages the big ideas in culture without demeaning people that do not hold the same positions. The style of communication is exemplary for real public discourse.

One of the keys that makes this volume helpful in creating legitimate dialog is that for each chapter Volf and McAnnally-Linz explain the question they are seeking to answer. Public discourse often falls into shouting matches exactly because participants do not define their terms or engage the same question. This book is to be commended for seeking to diagnose and respond central questions related to significant public concerns. In the case of marriage and family, the integrity to identify the questions they are addressing and the vision of the common good they are pursuing make clear why they arrive at a revisionist answer.

Another strength of the volume is that it works from the understanding that the Christian worldview touches every aspect of life. Much of the discourse in the public square seems to be divorced from the notion that Christianity has anything to say about the common good. Although their solutions are often based on philosophical and political predispositions that are not distinctly Christian, their identification of the problems and the need to respond reflect the influence to a holistic Christian worldview.

This book is worth reading and sharing. Although some of their conclusions are debatable, the general approach to each topic is exemplary. This volume will not end the discussions, nor be the foundation for a definitive Christian approach, however it is a worthwhile example of faithful engagement of important issues in a non-contentious manner.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.