As another election year begins and Americans brace for what will undoubtedly be another contentious presidential race, Michael Wear’s new book, The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life, has an important message for us: If politics is causing you to stumble, care less about it.
It’s an intriguing message from a political consultant who now runs The Center for Christianity and Public Life, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing more robust Christian presence and resources to political life in America. After all, politics has defined Wear’s career, beginning when he somehow managed to finish his undergraduate degree while working for President Barack Obama (first as an intern on his presidential campaign, then in the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships).
You might expect, in an election year, to hear calls to whip ourselves into a greater fervor because the stakes are so high. But Wear has written a book that urges the exact opposite. If there’s ever a conflict between political victory and moral faithfulness, he argues, we ought to choose faithfulness every time.
Rejecting silence and subservience
Indeed, the central contention of The Spirit of Our Politics is that undisciplined political fervor and a desire to defeat our political enemies is poisonous for our spiritual health. We must first seek the kingdom of God before aspiring to participate in political action.
Wear is deeply concerned that the toxicity and rancor of American politics are seeping into American churches, leading to the use and abuse of Christianity as a blunt instrument in political discourse and furthering a mass epidemic of shallow faith defined less by trust in God and more in political affiliation. At the same time, there is a strong countercurrent of opinion that wants to dismiss the role of Christian teaching and faith in politics, denying Christians a political voice as Christians.
The theme that unites these dangerous developments is the idea that politics is a realm in which Christian discipleship and personal moral development do not apply. Wear describes this as “a fatal choice between a Christian silence in politics and a Christian subservience to political programs, ideologies, and aspirations.”
Some Christians argue that politics is a rough-and-tumble world of brute force and power plays, so trying to apply the principles of the Sermon on the Mount is like trying to enforce tea party etiquette during a rugby match. Other Christians, like many non-Christians, see the moral strictures of Christianity as irrelevant to politics because faith is merely a personal choice akin to one’s opinion on the color of the carpet on the Senate floor.
Both perspectives entail divorcing spiritual formation from political life; Wear’s argument is that good spiritual formation will make us better participants in political life and that America’s political life needs well-formed Christians more than ever.
Wear draws heavily from the work of Dallas Willard, author of many books on spiritual formation and philosophy, to make these intertwined arguments. Willard wrote about what he calls “the disappearance of moral knowledge,” that is, the cultural transformation of moral truths into a set of personalized beliefs that have no grounding beyond the faith of the individual who asserts them. This has made politics an arena in which Christian teaching is felt to be irrelevant or even harmful.
Politicians nowadays make statements about separating their “personal beliefs” from their political actions, as if there is some neutral, impersonal body of knowledge that will guide them apart from religious commitments. Life without moral knowledge is impossible, though, and Wear sees a natural hunger for moral knowledge experiencing the kind of resurgence that opens new avenues for Christian influence.
Willard was also highly critical of what he called “the gospel of sin management,” which leads Christians to think of their faith as merely a set of beliefs that get them out of hell and into heaven. In this view, Jesus is a “fixer” who deals with our “sin problem,” a point of view that tends to produce a weak sense of discipleship.
While Willard certainly seems accurate in this assessment, Wear’s attempt at bringing it into politics seems a bit muddled and hard to follow. He argues that Christians often look at Christian faith and politics with a “fixer” mentality, but his primary examples are Christians who absolutize political principles as tests for Christian faithfulness.
I struggled to see the connection between these two points, but the examples were disturbing enough on their own. Take, for instance, a progressive preacher leading his congregation to shout, “Filibuster is a sin!” Or a conservative minister telling his followers that if “they do not vote, or they vote wrongly, they are unfaithful.”
Both admonitions struck me as simultaneously absurd and disheartening. Wear describes this approach as spiritually corrupting, claiming that it is “a form of blasphemy to flippantly ascribe to our preferred policy instruments and political judgments the weight of religious dogma.” What Wear recommends instead is making political commitments informed by our faith rather than allowing our faith to be driven by political commitments.
A good chunk of the book is spent simply on biblical reflections about developing the kind of character we want, which is, of course, relevant to much more than politics. Drawing on Willard’s The Allure of Gentleness to describe an ideal of loving service and an emphasis on “vision, intention, and means” as the pathway to achieving our spiritual vision, Wear wants us to see that a healthy relationship to politics in a Christian’s life should naturally result from a strong relationship with God.
If we think that God’s moral commands apply in all arenas of life, we won’t treat politics as a place where those commands can be waived off in favor of fear, anger, vulgarity, and false confidence. If we’re confident in God’s power to bring about the kingdom he has promised us, then we won’t treat every election as an apocalyptic spectacle. If we’re grounded in a theological conviction about the nature of our relationship with God, we won’t anathematize our fellow believers over voting choices.
Besides the more obvious habits of prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, and worship that should characterize every believer’s life (and, let’s face it, these are probably some of the first things we neglect when we instinctively reach for our phones each morning), Wear suggests other spiritual disciplines that are key to political engagement.
He recommends service to others rather than “othering” people, relating a story about a pastor who changed his political views after spending time ministering to people he had only known through news reports and op-eds. He advises us to critique those we support and affirm those we oppose, practices that keep our minds from being warped by polarization.
He asks a critical question about solitude and silence: “Different noises make us feel fun, productive, in control, alive. What do we hear in the silence? Who are we there?”
Something worth saying
Wear concludes with a word to parents and pastors, who in many ways have borne the brunt of political polarization. He gives pastors permission to ignore political concerns in just about every aspect of their church’s liturgy except for prayer, and he exhorts them to use any political topics that do come up to connect congregants with the love of God for them and for all people. As important as politics may be, what comes first is leading people to worship God and letting any political applications flow out of that.
For parents, Wear wants them to make sure their faith and their political judgments avoid hypocrisy. And he encourages parents who are concerned about their kids’ political development to get them involved in some kind of real-life activism rather than leaving them to merely absorb information through a screen.
Wear’s first book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, was an honest look at what politics can and cannot accomplish, informed by his successes and failures at the White House. In many ways, his new book offers a natural continuation of those stories by describing politics as an important part of life but not as the primary or most critical means of effecting change.
If you or someone you love has gotten locked into a world that thinks only in terms of political activism, even to the point of destroying relationships, this book is a helpful antidote. I suspect, however, that some have gone so far down that path that they will dismiss what Wear has to say. Still, for people who have been turned off by politics in recent years, Wear’s vision of a political life grounded in Christian discipleship can give valuable hope and a compelling reason to engage in a process that seems hopelessly corrupt.
Even though we won’t be casting our final votes for nearly a year to come, I’m already seeing friends on social media venting their anxieties and hatreds. The Spirit of Our Politics isn’t just a much-needed corrective to those tendencies; it’s a strong argument for a much healthier way of life.
Dallas Willard’s work is worth revisiting these days, even if Wear’s reading of Willard doesn’t always map well onto what he wants to say about politics. Honestly, it’s refreshing just to read a book about politics and faith that only mentions Donald Trump in passing, doesn’t play on vague tropes about “the common good” or “moral values,” and isn’t obsessed with Christian nationalism (while still speaking to the questions it raises).
Wear wants Christians to have a closer walk with Jesus so that when we engage in politics, we’ll have something worth saying. In 2024, we need to practice what he’s preaching more than ever.
Matthew Loftus lives with his family in Kenya, where he teaches and practices family medicine. You can learn more about his work and writing at matthewandmaggie.org.