Reclaiming Hope: Lessons learned in the Obama White House about the future of faith in America
Thomas Nelson £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
I SIGH inwardly whenever I pick up a book, especially a Christian book, with “hope” in the title. This, I am told, says more about me than about books. I dissent. “Hope” is such a glow-word, so lustrous with positive energy, and so obviously A Good Thing that books extolling it often inhabit the clouds, elevated into the ether on wings of bromide.
Michael Wear’s book is mercifully different; its feet are stuck on terra firma. Wear worked on both Barack Obama’s presidential-election campaigns, and led Evangelical outreach for the White House’s faith engagement team during the first administration. Thus the scene is set for a familiar equation: faith + politics + hope = lives changed + society better, or something like that.
Reclaiming Hope does indeed include a fair bit of this, but it is elevated or, rather, grounded by the fact that it is really a story of hope that faded. The 2008 presidential campaign was epochal for many reasons, high among them being Mr Obama’s efforts to heal the culture wars by challenging the Republican’s sole ownership of God and the Democrat’s sniffy indifference to God. It worked, to an extent, and the early years of Obama’s first administration were successful in depoliticising the divine.
Mistakes were made, not least in how the Democrats dealt with contraception during the Affordable Care Act, but, motivated by President Obama’s own sincere faith, it felt that a more constructive theo-political future lay ahead for the US.
It did not. For various reasons — Wear is judicious in his explanations, and not interested in playing the blame game — the parties retreated into their comfort zones. Republicans never stopped doubting President Obama’s faith, birth, or motivations, and Democrats wrapped themselves back in their comfort blanket of secular self-righteousness.
The 2012 campaign was a dispiriting affair, which didn’t end with Election Day. Tasked with finding someone to pray at the 2013 Inauguration, Wear is told by an LBGT activist, “if it is a Christian, we will find something on him, and we will make him famous.”
Worse, President Obama not only announced his support for gay marriage just before he announced his campaign for re-election — making Wear’s job much tougher — but appeared to have been lying all along about his views on the topic, having invoked God in his original stance. The politics of gay marriage aside, this was a hard blow, not least for Wear, who admired and admires Mr Obama. He stepped down after the bruising second Inauguration, and the remainder of the book explores what his years of political work taught him.
Writing about hope in the abstract is easy and tends to spiritual vanilla. Writing about it in the (politically) concrete, not least when it has been betrayed, is tougher but far more meaningful. Maintaining a tone of admirable graciousness through, Wear’s book may not inspire you to join a political party, but nor will it leave you sighing inwardly.
Nick Spencer is the acting director of Theos.