In Response to Reviews of Reclaiming Hope

I have kept my responses to reviews of Reclaiming Hope pretty limited up until now. I have done this because most of the reviews have been thoughtful and wise, with critiques that I think are valid and rational even if I might disagree with them. I have also not responded to reviews yet, because I think it’s generally wise to let a book breathe for a little without the author suffocating dissent by asserting their authority as the creator of the content.

However, it has now been three months, and I do want to elaborate on some ideas, and respond to common critiques. In particular, I want to respond to the recent review in Comment Magazine, as it helpfully tees up some broader issues.

I should say that I was honored that Comment Magazine and Heath Carter reviewed the book. Comment is an admirable publication (I mean, they did have the honor of publishing my wife, Melissa Wear), and Heath is a true expert on the intersection of faith and politics. His review was fair and insightful, and his critiques were all above-board. I focus on his review not because Carter wrote anything particularly egregious, but because it is the most recent review and it was one of the most direct in its criticism.

If you have not already read Reclaiming Hope, I hope that you will. The book is a passion project, and I believe in it even more now than when I wrote it. You can buy the book at AmazonIndieBoundHearts & Minds and Barnes & Noble.

Let’s dive in to this review.

The Election of Donald Trump

Carter opens his review with the idea that Reclaiming Hope is less relevant in the Trump era. Indeed, the through-line of his review is that the book, and its author, failed “to anticipate the political earthquake that shook both the nation and world while his book was in production.” I think this is a bit of a non-sequitur. Reclaiming Hope makes no prediction about future electoral outcomes. The book was not written to speculate on the 2016 presidential race. It is fine to wish that the book commented on the subject, but the fact that it did not was not an oversight or failure to anticipate developments, but a conscious decision about what the book was and what it was not.

One clear goal I had in mind for Reclaiming Hope, which relates directly to the election outcome, was to explain in a way that could be heard and understood by both religious conservatives and Democrats the intersection of faith and the Obama Administration. Based on reviews and feedback, the book has already helped many who do not share the policy views of religious conservatives understand nevertheless their legitimate and substantive frustrations with the Administration. As I have argued in my writing and speaking leading up to and since the election, the election of Donald Trump cannot be understood separate and apart from the pressure that was built up in evangelical and Catholic communities as a result of political decisions made during the Obama era and the coinciding changes in American culture. These developments are described in Reclaiming Hope in unprecedented detail and perspective.

Additionally, the book provides specific examples of the kind of religious ineptitude and misunderstanding that was decisive in the failure of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Carter writes that “Trump's surprising victory does not render Wear's concerns about the Democratic Party mute,” but this makes no sense. Why would a disastrous, unexpected loss by Democrats that included perhaps the Party’s worst ever showing among religious voters in a presidential election render concerns about the Democratic Party mute?

Carter’s reason for suggesting the book fails to anticipate Trump is that because of Trump it is Christians’ lack of integrity that should be a focus, not historical reflection on the Obama years. First, and again, to the extent Christians’ integrity ought to be examined after 2016, I don’t think their vote (particularly white evangelicals) is disconnected from the Obama years. I’ll say it again: you can’t understand how evangelicals voted in 2016 without understanding the role of faith in Obama’s presidency.

Two more quick points on this: First, we are doing a great disservice to our politics if we justify all other infractions in light of the great dumpster fire that is Donald Trump. This is how Trump creates a new normal—we allow him to set the new standard by which we judge what is acceptable or not in our politics. Second, it’s outside of the scope of this post, but many others on the right and left have pointed out that some of Trump’s antics and misdeeds build on precedents set by his predecessors. We cannot ignore or postpone reflections on the past. I think that would be foolish.

I would suggest that it is difficult to read Reclaiming Hope, and not see in it the seeds that gave rise to Trump. Any reader of the book would be more prepared—not less—to understand and explain 2016.

The Critique I Was Waiting For

 Carter is the first that I have seen to make this critique:

It is striking that, in Wear's account, the administration's chief failings were on conventional culture-war issues. We read nothing about the tensions, to put it mildly, between major veins of Christian social ethical teaching on the one hand and Obama's record of mass deportations and drone warfare, let alone his conspicuous coziness with the corporate sector and failure to address the declining fortunes of poor and working-class Americans, on the other.

I accept this criticism. It is a consequence of both my experience and the nature and goals of the book. Let me elaborate briefly, but non-exhaustively as, again, I don’t disagree with Carter’s basic contention.

First, while there certainly were religious objections to the president’s policies on issues like those mentioned by Carter, the religious objectors were generally part of a larger coalition that was not characterized by religious opposition. Faith voices were part of the coalition that opposed the president’s policies in these areas, but they did not lead it. Furthermore, people of faith who argued that the president did not go far enough on issues like immigration reform or poverty, were nonetheless likely to support and vote for him given the opposition. There was faith-based opposition to the president’s drone warfare policy, but that policy fight was not primarily a fight with the faith community.

Secondly, I did not play a role in the policymaking process regarding issues like drone warfare. My work touched on consumer finance protection and payday lending, the social safety net and immigration reform, but I was not at the center of the policymaking process on those issues. The faith-based office had a seat at the table, but it was not a primary decisionmaker in those areas.

While I consistently argue in Reclaiming Hope for a broad application of Christian teaching in politics that touches on a range of issues, the focus of Reclaiming Hope is not to analyze every action taken by the president in light of Christian ethical teaching. Instead, it is explicitly a narrative argument based on my direct experiences as a staffer in the Obama White House. The book certainly does not cover every issue or event related to faith and the Obama Administration that it could, and there is more that could be written to be sure. I hope more will be written about how various faith communities interacted with the Obama Administration.

Independents

Carter, and many others, have also been unsettled by my analysis regarding the rise of independents. Carter writes:

At one puzzling juncture in the book, he argues that "hope looks like commitment" and goes on to inveigh against anyone who would buck the two-party way, declaring that "to become an independent is to check out of the system. It is to unilaterally disarm, to give up one of the primary levers we have as citizens to influence our political system. Withdrawal is not a prophetic message that those in power ought to shape up. They are not listening." Certainly Christians should not withdraw from the political process. But for the sake of our integrity, a collective declaration of—at minimum, much, much greater—independence from the two major parties might well be in order.

Carter’s language here about “bucking the two-party way” is the same kind of congratulatory language about independents that I critique earlier in that same section. The core of my argument here is not against “bucking the two party system.” Perhaps this would be more clear to the reader of Carter’s review if he had included the clause directly preceding his quotation. Here’s the full sentence: “In a two-party system of government, in a party-based system of government of any kind, to become an independent is to check out of the system.”

The core argument here is against becoming an independent, thus refusing to invest in and associate with any political party, including third-parties. I wrote this section (which I understood would be controversial for a reason I’ll mention later) so that people might consider whether their choice to become an independent was really a courageous risk for the common good, or a measure of self-preservation and virtue signaling. My sense is that many become independents because they have bought into the lie that their politics ought to define them. So when they discover that no political party is particularly suited to their personal needs and desires (as if that was the purpose or expectation we should have of political parties), they decide to “send a message” and become an independent. And, again, they leave not to join a political party that is closer to their position, because no party is close enough, but wash their hands of the whole system. Or so they think. When an independent critiques our political parties, their critique is often accompanied by a sort of righteousness. I know better. I’m not a part of that mess. I’m not culpable.

My argument is that they are culpable.

Some wonder why our political parties have become more extreme, why Congress is in a stalemate and compromise is nowhere to be found. A major reason is that many of the people who would provide either of our political parties with some semblance of balance have left the party altogether. This is not an abstract or symbolic argument. In many states, you cannot vote in a party’s presidential primary unless you belong to that party. You cannot become a party delegate and vote on the party platform unless you belong to that party.

Christian political engagement

Carter writes in the closing paragraph of his review:

But those who are already on board with these baseline assumptions may be left wondering whether our current plight does not call for more creative and daring forms of collective Christian political engagement than Wear proposes here.

In some ways, I find this critique has merit, and it is one I expected. The book certainly does not offer an academic or systematic vision for Christian political engagement. Indeed, when I first started writing the book, I considered making the content following Chapter Ten (the last chapter directly on my time working for the president), take up much more space. What I decided with my editor is that it would be outside of the scope of this particular book, and to attach a holistic, specific and thorough how-to for political engagement would undermine the unique contributions I intended for this book. The lessons for Christian political engagement are weaved throughout the narrative of the book, and are intentionally meant to be pulled out and identified by the reader as they walk through my experiences working in politics. I will say that there are worthwhile books that are specifically aimed at that purpose (The City of Man by Gerson and Wehner not least among them), and that I wrote this book understanding that I should not and could not say everything I have to say when it comes Christian political engagement. This book is a direct reflection on my experience in the Obama Administration, the intersection of faith and politics in the Obama years, with the aim of providing resources for Christians and others to think more wisely about politics in the years ahead.

So while I accept the criticism to an extent on one hand, on the other I would argue that in a time when politics is increasingly tribal, a call for an other-centered politics that puts faithfulness ahead of victory is creative and daring. I would argue that at a time when 43% of all Americans are independents, and a rejection of institutions lauded as a courageous act, encouraging people to stay in political parties and fight within them for what they view as good, true and just is creative and daring. In fact, on Thursday the editor of Comment Magazine tweeted a message that would seem to agree on this point: 

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My hope for Reclaiming Hope

What I do hope is that Reclaiming Hope provokes Christians to reconsider where they have placed their hope, and the resources hope provides them in politics and in life. I want the conservative Christian Republican who snaps at his kids because he’s so riled up after listening to talk radio to consider where his hope is placed. I want the church member who fires off a frustrated email to their pastor because the pastor dared to pray for the family of Michael Brown and Ferguson to consider whether their reaction springs from partisan tribal concerns or a Christian concern for justice and a Christian heart for compassion. What I hope is that if you are a conservative Christian who hates Barack Obama because you think he hates you, that you will learn that not only did the president accomplish much that Christians can support, but that the motivations for policies you disagree with are much more substantive, and less malicious, than you think.  

In Reclaiming Hope, I argue not that hope is necessary as a strategy, but as a reality. It is our politics, and the lives of Christians and others, that has been weighed down by false hopes and misplaced affections. My case for hope is not based in some assessment that it has utility in a difficult time, but that if we do not have hope we are failing to grasp reality, we are misdiagnosing the very nature of our situation. The ultimate aim of Reclaiming Hope is to move readers to consider contending with the reality of hope, and all that it requires of our politics and our lives.