In his political memoir Reclaiming Hope, Michael Wear recounts his involvement in the Obama administration as a member of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In the process, he embodies an identity that is uncommon in mainstream media and politics: the evangelical Democrat. Wear’s unabashed evangelical devotion juxtaposed with his loyalty to the Obama administration (often despised by many evangelicals) creates an unsettling but necessary deconstruction of faith in American politics – if only for conservative evangelicals. However, this is appropriate, as Wear’s is a book written by and for the American Christian evangelical. With this audience in mind, Wear sets out to convince evangelical Christians on both sides of the partisan divide to seek political and social reconciliation by placing their hope in Christ instead of in their political party.
Wear begins the book by meticulously (sometimes tediously) tracing his journey into the left-wing political machine. Once he moves past his account of the political atmosphere, he levels a fairly devastating critique of the Obama administration that he sets about defending for the majority of the remaining text: that the president and his administration “unquestionably failed” in bringing “bipartisanship back to American politics.” His major complaint seems to be with the way the administration handled the legalization of gay marriage. Wear interprets the political maneuverings that surrounded this event as deceptive, and thus dangerously unethical for any politician, left or right. That Obama would change his personal position on the issue seems implausible for Wear. Still, it is worth noting that Wear’s criticisms are totally sincere, never fringing on hostile or embittered. Rather, throughout the book he makes a point of noting the ways he admires Barack Obama as a man, a Christian, and a leader.
In the final chapters of the book, Wear theologically pursues bipartisanship by arguing for a redemptive understanding of Christian hope. Yet, Wear’s bipartisan objective is at risk of being undercut by his insistence that the two-party system must remain intact – that citizens must stay loyal to the dominating parties. Wear argues, “In a two-party system of government …to become an independent is to check out of the system.” For Wear, to choose a third party or to remain independent is to be fundamentally withdrawn. This perspective presumes that politics can only take place in the diplomatic houses of government, that protest and petitioning are, implicitly by Wear’s assessment, not engaged forms of political discourse.
Wear clearly defines what he believes to be acceptable and helpful forms of political engagement. “How can someone act for justice in our politics?” Wear queries. His answer is simple: “First, vote. Vote up and down the ballot.” Wear’s other suggestions for involvement include: write a letter to your elected officials, host political small-groups at your church to encourage additional letter writing, and invest time and money in advocacy organizations and nonprofits. Here, Wear demonstrates that he is an unabashed proponent of the political structure as it stands, but wholeheartedly against the, for lack of a better term, meanness of partisan politics. His answer to this meanness is hope – not hope in political parties, but hope in God.
Ironically, the assessment Wear makes of Christianity in relation to worldly labels and ideologies stands in stark contrast to his exhortations to remain loyal to the two party system: “Christianity is an abolishment of tribes, it is radical in its openness and therefore, in its application.” If Christianity is open and mutable in its practice, ideologies, and application, then how is it unfaithful to engage politically outside of the existing constraints of the two-party, tribal system? This lack of nuance weakens Wear’s arguments.
Wear’s personal accounts are most intriguing when they grow self-reflective, and self-conscious rather than self-promoting. For example, toward the end of the book, Wear grows troubled over the questionable authenticity of the President’s speeches and interview responses, given his own involvement in drafting them. This leads him to question, “[T]o what extent did my service in the Obama administration give people a false impression of the president’s goals and convictions?” Unfortunately, he moves past this reflection rather quickly. Had Wear spent more time considering and challenging the artificiality implicit in American faith-politics, his insider perspective might have offered more.
With that being said, the real beneficial work that Wear accomplishes in this highly approachable book is to challenge the idea that an evangelical must be a Republican. Here, I return to those for whom this book was written: evangelicals. Is Wear’s a profoundly nuanced perspective? No. Is it the right perspective (and voice) for the intended audience of this book? Yes, and in that sense, perhaps the most redeeming value of Wear’s initiative is that he will be reaching an audience that might otherwise shy away from reading a book from an Obama administration insider. Wear is just the right balance of safe and challenging. He is operating with imperatives and assumptions (mostly) that are common to conservative evangelicalism, but he is willing to challenge the notion that these issues have to divide us.
Austin Sill is an academic records counselor at Azusa Pacific University and a recent graduate of Azusa’s M.A. in English program.
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