In a hyper-politicized age like our own, intellectual honesty is one of the first casualties. Hewing to the ideological line prevents otherwise honest people from admitting error when things go wrong. Inevitably, every side falls prey to this. So when a book comes on the scene that reminds readers what an honest critique of one’s own tribe looks like, we’re surprised by such honesty and we find it refreshing—because something about self-assessment reminds us of our own predilection to myopia.
Intellectual honesty is the theme I came away with after reading Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America. Wear does not shy away from issuing honest, blunt critiques of the modern Democratic Party’s foreignness to faith and of the tension inherent in being an evangelical in a party whose platform flatly contradicts biblical teaching at many irreconcilable points. For conservatives who believe that the modern Democratic Party is uncompromisingly hostile to evangelical and conservative Catholic beliefs, Wear’s book in large part confirms this angst.
One of the youngest White House staffers in American history, Wear is unusually young to have written a memoir. Although he is not yet thirty years old, he writes with great maturity and insight about serving on both of Obama’s campaigns and serving in the White House from 2009 to 2013 in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. In 2012, Wear was tapped to lead President Obama’s faith outreach in his campaign. This is no small honor, especially considering his youth.
Wear’s book is equal parts autobiography and autopsy. Though he recounts his personal story of finding faith as a teenager in Buffalo, New York, he also performs a detailed analysis of the efforts of the Obama White House to connect its social policy agenda to faith initiatives across the United States.
Religiously Motivated Social Policy
Wear served as a “connector,” acting as a liaison between the Obama White House and America’s faith community as well as helping connect institutions and movements that aligned with the policy agenda of the White House. While I disagree with many of Wear’s policy prescriptions (he remains a defender of the Affordable Care Act, for example), it is indisputable that Wear operated from a position of good will and concern for the common good.
Wear’s book defends and praises the way that President Obama used faith to advance policy goals. In Wear’s eyes, Obama was transformative not only because he was the first African-American president but also because he was an outspoken progressive who did not run from religion. On this, Wear is correct. Although I strongly disagree with the substance of Obama’s progressive Christianity, Wear clearly demonstrates the ways in which religious themes punctuated Obama’s domestic agenda. Wear is right to applaud President Obama for not taking the familiar progressive approach of simply abandoning religion and religious outreach (something for which Wear has criticized Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign).
Wear recounts numerous episodes within the Obama White House that saw religiously motivated actions promote the common good. In Wear’s tenure, his office helped tackle unemployment with the assistance of local churches, and assisted congregations in helping feed needy children through the work of the US Department of Agriculture. In ways that civil society-oriented conservatives would champion, Wear’s emphasis on community service through local action—for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency providing training to congregations to help serve their communities in times of disaster—offers examples of how church and state can coordinate together without becoming problematically intertwined. Seen in this light, Wear’s role in the White House was to help the government partner with institutions of civil society to empower citizens. On that front, conservatives ought to applaud such motivation—even if we might question the role that the state plays in Wear’s view of government intervention.
Progressive Hostility to Religious Faith
At the same time, one of the themes that recurs throughout the book is the uncomfortable place of religion—particularly evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism—in Democratic politics. Wear makes it apparent that Democrats found the goals and approaches of religious conservatives constraining, anti-intellectual, and totally contrary to the coalition they deemed necessary to win elections.
This was especially true in the chapter “Searching for Common Ground on Abortion.” Wear goes to great lengths to paint the Obama White House as seeking to reduce abortion, but he respectfully demonstrates how entrenched and embedded abortion is in Democratic orthodoxy. Wear does not shy away from lamenting this sad state of abortion politics, and how abortion is the third rail of Democratic politics that no amount of “common ground” tactics can broach.
In Wear’s view, the whole controversy around the HHS contraception and abortifacient mandate, which sparked enormous resistance in conservative advocacy circles, could have been avoided if the Obama White House had listened to the religious liberty concerns of those whose counsel it sought. Instead, such concerns fell on deaf ears. Rather than make concessions and broaden exemptions, the White House doubled down on the mandate.
One of the most clarifying and critical sections of the book was one of the most provocative: concerning the decision of President Obama to announce his so-called “evolution” on gay marriage. The way Wear tells it, Obama White House insiders knew all along that—as both a candidate and a president—Obama was a supporter of gay marriage. But as long as gay marriage was still an electoral loser, Obama would not publicly support it. This insider’s view left Wear noticeably cynical; he goes on to lament how zero-sum LGBT and religious liberty politics have become.
Wear’s willingness to criticize the Obama administration on points like this is evidence that he takes his faith seriously and does not view it a tool to be used for personal gain. As he writes:
My identification as a Democrat did not mean that I was completely at ease in the party. When I became a Christian, I soon understood that throwing myself without reservation behind any party platform was impossible. My allegiances were elsewhere. Politics provided a choice between imperfect options. I remained a Democrat because of the party’s historical commitment to the working class, to combating poverty directly, and the Democrats’ leadership in the modern civil rights movement. I was deeply troubled by abortion, and that issue made navigating Democratic politics difficult at times. I also disagreed with the Democrats’ general approach to matters of sex and sexuality, along with other issues. Still, I had profound disagreements with the Republican party, too.
This paragraph in the beginning of the book shows Wear to be an honest broker concerning religion and politics. In a time when religion is used for political gain, Wear proves himself unwilling to prostitute his convictions for the sake of political expediency. Yet it was his exhaustion at faith’s bombardment that ultimately led him out of the White House.
Hope Is Not Just Abstract
Aside from a willingness to criticize the Obama administration’s manipulation of faith and zero-sum political tactics, perhaps the most inspiring element of Wear’s book is the clarion call he issues for Christians to get engaged within America’s political institutions. Such engagement, according to Wear, emanates from a foundation of hope. But contrary to the misty-eyed conceptions of this idea that permeated the Obama campaigns, Wear is remarkably and refreshingly clear on where his hope is centered: the Christian gospel.
An episode between famed African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and African-American pastor Thabiti Anyabwile illustrates Wear’s approach. Recounting a discussion where Anyabwile shares the gospel with the atheistic Coates at an Atlantic event on race in America, Wear quotes Anyabwile on how the Christian basis of hope offers a better approach for engaging in politics than atheistic despair:
Hope was beneath the respectable Sunday-best attire worn to civil rights marches. Hope was undergirding calls for respectable self-control among sit-in demonstrators while being inhumanely sprayed with condiments at lunch counters. Hope was resting in the weary hearts of respectable marchers and demonstrators packed in jail cells following protests. . . . Hope is not an abstraction or an escapist fantasy. Sometimes hope is the only real asset the oppressed have. . . .
My sort of case for hope builds on the fact that there is coming the greatest most perfect criminal justice ever known. That when Christ comes and establishes his reign, there will be no more injustice, there will be no more crime. Everything that has been crooked will be made straight.
Wear states clearly: “While I am convinced that we should not place our hope in politics, what I also know from seeing our politics up close is that our nation benefits greatly from people carrying hope—real hope, one rooted in reality—with them into the public square.”
Although I appreciate and am inspired by this insight, I disagree with what Wear says about what he calls the two most urgent issues for the future of Christian public advocacy: religious liberty and race. While I want no less Christian advocacy on these two enormously important issues, I think Wear underplays or ignores the greatest threat to the common good (with which both religious liberty and race intersect): the family.
Wear argues that Christians need to be less concerned with repealing same-sex marriage (because he fears such an outcome would break up families) and more concerned with society’s affirmation of “romantic, monogamous, life-long commitment.” Of course, same-sex marriage could be repealed without doing the damage that Wear fears. Wear does not actively support same-sex marriage, but his concession on the issue strikes me as a bridge too far. Forfeiting the playing field over what constitutes the family seems unwise. Yes, same-sex marriage is a legal reality, but same-sex marriage is symptomatic of the larger confusion around the definition and role of the family. Moreover, considering the role that the family’s decline has played in African-American communities and how religious liberty’s politicization is exacerbated around conflicts over the definition of family, it seems wiser for Christians to wage a multi-pronged offensive that includes religious liberty, race, and the role of the family in fostering the common good. We should work to promote the conjugal definition of marriage and family while demonstrating its relevance to social stability and mobility, and its reliance on an ecosystem of religious liberty.
Michael Wear is someone I count as a friend. He has taken unpopular stands that are deeply at odds with where the base of the Democratic Party now finds its critical center: abortion and the sexual revolution. He and I share the same faith but see different policy avenues of applying that faith in the public square. Still, even if he were not my friend, I would reach the same conclusion: Reclaiming Hope is an excellent book that deserves a wide reading, especially by rising activists and statesmen seeking to find ways to make their faith relevant in an increasingly post-Christian world.
Andrew T. Walker serves as Director of Policy Studies at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is a PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of the forthcoming book God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Really Say About Gender Identity?