A confession: I get a lot of books from people, and most of them, I never read. (I also give a lot of books to people. If you’re run of them, let this absolve you of any guilt you feel for not reading them.) I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind the gift of a book, and if I had infinite time, I’d like to reward the kindness of the gift by reading each book and starting a conversation about it, but life gets in the way. The fact is, I really don’t read many books at all, no matter the source. When I do, they have to be relevant to a passion of mine, or fill me with curiosity, or challenge me in some way. Otherwise, they sit on my desk, until they move to my bookshelf, which is a parking lot from which the cars never exit.
So when I was given an advance copy of Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope, I really wasn’t sure I’d read it. I am passionate about the intersection of faith and civic life – it was the topic of my graduate study, and with the election of Pope Francis I rediscovered this passion and started this incredibly sporadic blog as an outlet – and I was happy to see someone writing on the topic. I was struck by the title, in particular. Last year, when what the idea that is becoming Love Not Fear started rolling around in my heart, the phrase that first popped into my mind was “Hope Not Fear,” which I rejected, because the word “Hope” has, for the last eight years, been tied so closely with President Barack Obama that I felt that using it would immediately evoke a political response that wasn’t at all what I was going for. But hope itself is still a theological virtue; the title “Reclaiming Hope” spoke to the need to recover the value of the term and the ideal.
I ended up reading it, mostly, because I was added to a Facebook group of fellow sneak-peekers, and was encouraged and fascinated by the mix of mostly millennial, mostly evangelical members who were really excited about the prospect of reading this book. So I dove in.
I am pretty firmly non-partisan, and while earlier in my life I had partisan rooting interests, with each passing year I find myself more and more rejecting the binary system our society seems more and more committed to. My primary reason from eschewing partisan loyalties is rooted in the First Commandment about having no other gods; too often, I encounter people who conflate their political agenda with their faith such that it’s hard to tell whether they can conceive of a God who is big enough not to be put into a partisan political box. My encounters with God tend above all else to challenge me to stretch beyond my comfort zone. I see in others, and can reflect on my own past, that too much commitment to a political ideology risks tuning out the message God has for us, and I think the current environment tends to lead partisan-committed people to resist seeing their opponents as fellow children of God worthy of respect.
All of which is to say, I really appreciate how Reclaiming Hope presents as a whole a picture that will likely make everyone a little uncomfortable. My hope is that people interested in faith and politics will read the book in its entirety and resist putting it down when it makes you feel uneasy. For conservatives, the first section of the book is a possible barrier, as Wear tells his story as teenage volunteer on the Obama ’08 presidential campaign and mid-level staffer in the Administration, and, perhaps more challenging to readers who may have doubts about the President’s own faith, as Wear pulls out and focuses on several clear statements and entire speeches President Obama gave in which he spoke to his faith directly. Even if you were never tempted to buy the theory that the President is Muslim, if you weren’t a fan of his, you may be challenged to read through this first section, which comes across as pretty glowing. (One quibble – as someone who didn’t closely follow this element of the presidency, I hope the e-version of his book includes links to the primary source speeches he references.)
The second section, on the other hand, will challenge liberals. Wear spells out in some detail five different issues in which President Obama failed to live up to the hopes Wear had for the President to be a “uniter, not a divider,” to quote a predecessor, on issues important to faith communities. This could have been a very different book – a much more stark tale of Wear’s innocence lost and a sweeping disillusionment with the president he went to work for – but it doesn’t read that way. Even when Wear is disappointed with the decisions of the Administration, he refuses to name names of those who undermined his work (while heaping praise on the people he worked with who treated him with respect). Even so, committed Obama supporters will fill uneasy with the way Wear depicts the five issues he lays out.
The third section of the book, and the shortest, is where I hope Wear will speak more in the future. His last two chapters address “reclaiming hope” by remembering that the Christian’s hope is not in a political platform, party or candidate but in the God she professes. He then begins to explore some ways he thinks that faithful citizens and faith communities can and should make a difference in today’s society. It’s a taste of what could and should be a much bigger conversation – something like the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that Wear’s book is one worth reading if the intersection of faith and politics in the US is of interest. He writes from a perspective that isn’t often heard, and it may well not be your perspective. But the encounter will help you define your beliefs on the topic, and in the process may help you reclaim hope.