At some point, I’ll find enough perspective to write a reflection on the 2016 presidential election. For now, I’m just struggling with the uncertainty on a new administration where every day brings new questions and puzzles. It’s really hard for a policy wonk like me to figure out what’s likely to happen in the coming months. So many things are up in the air: health care, international trade, the Middle East, market stability, transparent government. And it’s only day three.
The afternoon before the inauguration (best ever! record crowds!) I was pleased when the mail carrier delivered Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America. I finished it last night.
As a college student, Michael got to meet then-Senator Obama at a Winter meeting of the DNC. Michael introduced himself as a Christian who believed that Obama should run for president and that he could win (based in no small part on that rousing 2004 DNC keynote). He offered to join the campaign when the day came and badgered just the right amount to be taken up on the offer.
Being an evangelical Christian gave Michael insights into a segment of the American electorate that too many Democrats had been tone deaf toward. He actually wrote some background material that Obama used when having his Saddleback interview with Rich Warren. After Obama’s victory months later, Michael was invited to join the administration in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership (OFBNP — a reworking of the office Bush had launched) where he spent the next four years.
Most of the book summarizes the work of the OFBNP, both positive and negative. It shows the difficulty of developing allies within the religious community (especially among evangelicals and Catholics). It shows the difficulty of working in the midst of administration colleagues who were functional religious illiterates. He tells a story of designing a policy document on faith and economics titled “Economic Fairness and the Least of These” and his colleagues couldn’t figure out who “these” referred to. On the evangelical side, he had to navigate prominent evangelical leaders who wouldn’t believe that Obama was a Christian (in spite of his repeated testimonies to the contrary) and actively worked against the president.
As might be expected, the tensions between the OFBNP and the broader community were particularly high around issues of abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. It’s not that other issues (like poverty or human trafficking) weren’t important. It’s just that the trigger issues seemed to overwhelm everything else.
Michael, true to his job description, tried to make clear how these policy initiatives would be read by various religious groups (most notably Evangelicals and Catholics). Too often, these concerns did not sway the general sentiment of the political shop. Too many decisions were made in light of protecting the interest of various constituent groups and not in building bridges to new populations. This was especially true in the run-up to the 2012 re-election campaign.
In reading the book, you sense Michael’s early idealism give way to frustration (but, to his credit, never cyncism). His last day with the Obama administration was Inauguration Day 2013. He closes the book with reflections on the Christian notion of Hope and how that changes the political calculus (especially when compared to views expressed by people like Ta-nehesi Coates).
In finishing the book, I found myself with several questions (which I hope Michael might address).
- How can faith groups work with both parties in pursuit of the common good? This strikes me as incumbent upon those religious groups to reach out to political entities from all perspectives as an alternative to being coopted by one political party. Even if one party isn’t open to persuasion at the moment, it’s the prophetic thing to do. We aren’t called to win every argument but to bear witness to the Kingdom.
- How do political entities find common ground with evangelical groups on hot topic issues when the faith group is likely to see these as winner-take-all contests? Michael addresses the issue of reducing the need for abortion through adoption and family support. But since abortion is a bright-line issue for evangelicals it feels like anything short of overturning Roe is a compromise of principles. It would be nice if evangelicals and Catholics could celebrate that abortions are at their lowest level since Roe was enacted. Is it asking too much to recognize that demonizing abortion advocates as “baby killers” might not lead to the best governmental policy? Is it too much to ask that contraception coverage be included in insurance programs so that people don’t avoid contraception due to cost concerns? If we are concerned about the common welfare (Michael has a nice passage about Jeremiah’s concern for Babylon), can’t religious groups give some ground?
- How do political entities reach out to a variety of constituent groups, religious and non-religious, and explain their principles rather than pitting one group against another? The contraceptive mandate is a good example. There are those groups for whom requiring they cover contracteption become quickly problematic (especially for Catholics). A smart political shop would recognize where the pitfalls lie and figure out how to navigate them for the common good without exploiting particular groups because they are less numerous. Michael describes the number of “final” solutions to the contraceptive mandate — if political folks had more religious savvy, they would have gotten to the no-sign off, insurance provided, solution sooner. (I’m still not sure what to do with those who claim that some contraceptives were abortifacients in spite of significant evidence to the contrary.) At the very least, exempting Plan B might have been a reasonable accomodation that would have still vastly expanded contraceptive coverage and thereby improve health outcomes and rates of unwed births.
- How do the shifts described in Robert Jones’ The End of White Christian America change how political and religious groups will work together? If White Christians are a shrinking share of the American landscape, how do we approach religious freedom questions? As Michael observes (as do many others), religious freedom is only meaningful if it is extended to include all religious groups, including the non religious. Far better to see these changes as a reality of modern political life rather than defining them only in terms of a loss of Christian America. The 2016 election saw strong nostalgic sentiment (MAGA!) but our political work will take place in this new reality not some earlier imagined one.
- How can we create space for people to have complex views? Michael tells the story of how Louis Giglio was inited to pray at the second inaugural but was then attacked by activists who took offense at comments Giglio had made about LGBT folks nearly two decades before. It kept the spotlight away from the work Giglio had done to advance the cause of human trafficking, especially among evangelicals. Somehow, we need to get away from proof-texting everyone’s comments (although I’ll give anyone a pass who re-posts Trump’s tweets about protesting the 2012 election!). Nobody toes the party line (yes, that’s the word, not “tows”) all the way along. And some may shift position over time or even hold a position privately until it’s politically prudent to advance the position. None of us are 100% consistent over the long-haul.
- What will the shifting views of young evangelicals (like Michael) mean for our political future? Today’s millennials, including millennial evangelicals, are committed to issues of justice, diversity, and equal protection. They are put off by overly strident political talk that repeats old tropes. They are idealistic but repelled by politics as usual. I loved Michael’s defense of the two-party system and his call for engagement. Rather than abandoning party, he calls his readers to dive in and attempt to moderate the extreme partisanship within the parties. This gives me cause for the hope where Michael ends the book. My students would very much resonate with the strategies he lays out in his final chapter.
The book was a wonderful read for a political junkie. It fed my desire for inside knowledge and for seeing the sausage get made. I shared in Michael’s frustrations and still end up in an idealistic place.
Politics has always been one of my imagined alternative careers if I weren’t in academia (journalism is the other). Maybe it’s not too late, even for me.