Tomorrow at noon, Donald J. Trump will become the 45th President of the United States of America. Depending on your political persuasion, reading that line either stirs your sense of hope or saps it.
Enter Michael Wear, a former Obama White House staffer who directed the outgoing president’s faith outreach during his 2012 reelection campaign. Wear has just written a sobering book, “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.” It contains a messages for all Americans, whether you believe that the incoming president poses a threat to America’s greatness or will truly make us “great again.”
Here, Wear and I discuss whether Obama’s “hope and change” promised failed, how pro-Trump Americans should check their sense of hope, and why anti-Trumpers have reasons to keep hope alive in this new age. He explains why all Americans have reason to hope no matter who they voted for last November.
RNS: Let’s begin at the beginning. Define “hope” for us succinctly.
MW: Hope has been misused and undermined for personal and political purposes so often that it is important to sort of excavate hope amidst the rubble, to reclaim it. Clearly, hope is generally accepted today as a kind of wishing, a kind of desiring for some perceived good. What I am concerned with is which hopes are justified. We can hope for all kinds of things, but if hope is not in a secure place, what we hope for will ultimately lead to disappointment.
Real hope is a confidence in a God who wills our good that opens our eyes to possibilities that would otherwise be closed off without that hope. As I write in the book, “Christian hope is both individual and corporate, personal and universal. It is a hope that reaches across time, from the past to eternity without skipping over this very present moment in our lives.”
RNS: Should Christians even place their hope in the public square or individual politicians?
MW: Yes. We can live out hope in politics, but we must never invest our hope in politics. What happens when we place our hope in politics is we delude ourselves into ignoring that politics is about imperfect choices, uncertain outcomes and unforeseen consequences. And so we end up propagandizing hope, and we force ourselves to demand politics deliver outcomes it can never deliver.
RNS: President Obama ran on a platform of “hope and change,” and you helped in that effort. In your opinion, was he successful? Did he infuse America with a sense of hope, or as his critics claim, did he sap hope?
MW: President Obama’s message of hope was one that expanded many Americans’ sense of possibility, and it is a good thing to lift our eyes up to the horizon and to consider our role in making the lives of our neighbors better. There is no reason to believe that God can work through our private charity, our churches, our families and our vocations, but that somehow politics is off-limits to Him.
To the extent that the president’s rhetoric encouraged people to put their hope in politics, to treat politics as ultimate, that is a false hope.
The idea that the “moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is not original to Barack Obama or King. King wrote the phrase in a small Christian newsletter, and he was quoting another minister, Rev. Theodore Parker. What is clear from how King invokes the phrase, is that the idea of the “moral arc of the universe” is inconceivable to King apart from a sovereign God. The things we hope for are in politics are going to be most helpful if they are signposts that lead to a deeper, firmer, more lasting hope.
RNS: Tomorrow at noon, Donald Trump will become the President of the United States. Are you hopeful about America’s future under his leadership?
MW: I believe Donald Trump’s presidency will pose serious challenges to our nation. Hope is not about wishing away this reality.
I am hopeful about America’s future, because I am open to the possibility that the next four years will provide clarity to the American people about what they want from their politics and their politicians. I am hopeful because after decades of Christians like myself and other people—of various religious and political backgrounds—observing that the Christian faith had become synonymous in the public mind with Republican politics, a Trump presidency will offer multiple, stark opportunities to disrupt that notion, and to allow our faith to shape our politics rather than the other way around.
And I will always be looking for ways to advance justice and the common good no matter who is in office. Can we make our criminal justice system more equitable? Can we hit the reset button on the religious freedom conversation in this country? Will the racist antics of Trump jolt Americans to reckon with the racism that exists today, and focus on restorative racial justice to move our country forward?
And, look, I think we need to have some humility that some of what Trump is talking about might have merit. This does not mean we give him a free pass and “see how it goes,” by any means, but we cannot be reduced to reactionary opposition either. I am not invested in partisan gain in the next election if it means ignoring opportunities to help people now.
RNS: Many people — indeed many Christians — have placed their hope in Trump’s ability to “make America great again.” Is this misplaced hope?
MW: Yes. I cannot be more clear on this point. There are many constructions of what it means to “make America great again”—like many political slogans it is denotatively meaningless and connotatively manipulative. Immoral leadership will never make America great again. God’s will for America does not require moral compromise, but faithfulness and moral fidelity. Christians do a great disservice to their neighbors, and they delude themselves, if they express more hope in Trump than they do in the Church. God is worthy and capable of meeting all our best hopes.
RNS: Some minorities in America feel hope-less about America’s future under Donald Trump. What do you say to them?
MW: I’m hesitant to say much of anything, as I learned about hope from minority Christians who understand, as Dr. Raphael Warnock has said, that hope requires a “tough mind and a tender heart.”
I have been very critical of Democrats’ lack of faith outreach in 2016, and their arrogant refusal to engage the legitimate policy concerns among many Christians of all races. Democrats need to reflect on the role our strategy played in allowing someone like Trump to win the presidency. But this is not the principle question white Christians, particularly those who voted for Trump, need to be asking. Instead, there should be some soul-searching as to why the concerns and priorities that drove the vast majority of non-white Christians to oppose Trump did not carry as much weight for so many white Christians. It is first the burden of those whose candidate won—and believe me I’d be asking the same of supporters of Hillary Clinton if she had won—to ask why so many people feel like President Trump’s America does not include them.
I have also been thinking a lot about the twenty-third Psalm. It was precisely when David was surrounded by enemies that God led him beside still waters, and set a table for him. It was precisely when David’s security was threatened by the world, that he found his security in God. We can do the same.