Hoping for Too Much?

An Obama staffer's memoir shows that the problem with American politics might be us.
April 27th, 2017

One hazard of writing a book about contemporary life is that sometimes, in the months that pass between hitting "send" on the manuscript and its appearance in print, the world changes—or at least our sense of it does.

Michael Wear's Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America is a case in point. Wear worked on the 2008 Obama campaign and went on to serve during the ensuing presidential term as a staffer in the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Programs (OFBNP). The book contains his reflections on those experiences. He recounts how, as a college student with a serious interest in politics, he exuberantly embraced candidate Obama, whose post-partisan vision proved irresistible. Wear brought more than an enthusiasm for the new president into the OFBNP. As a white evangelical Christian and a committed Democrat, he boasted a wealth of experience in straddling worlds that did not often mix. But it did not take long for him to discover that his passion for building bridges was out of place inside the Beltway. As time passed, Wear grew increasingly frustrated with the distance between the president's professed commitment to a more inclusive politics and the administration's too-often doctrinaire approach to wedge issues such as abortion, the contraception mandate, and gay marriage. These dynamics went on vivid display in the final days of his tenure with the OFBNP, as LGBT advocacy groups exerted so much pressure on the White House that evangelical leader Louie Giglio resigned his speaking role at Obama's second inauguration. The acute sense of alienation Wear felt in that moment had subsided several years later, when he sat down to write Reclaiming Hope. But still at that point—with Hillary Clinton the odds-on favourite to be the next president—the question remained: Was there room for Christians such as himself in the emerging Democratic majority?

One hazard of writing a book about contemporary life is that sometimes, in the months that pass between hitting "send" on the manuscript and its appearance in print, the world changes.

Wear can hardly be faulted for failing to anticipate the political earthquake that shook both nation and world while his book was in production. Few did. Reclaiming Hope hit the shelves in January 2017, just as Republican Donald J. Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States.

Trump's surprising victory does not render Wear's concerns about the Democratic Party mute. In fact, as he and others have since gone on to argue, the Democrats' inability to connect with white evangelicals and Catholics may be a sufficient explanation for why they lost the White House in 2016. Had Hillary Clinton garnered a total of merely eighty thousand additional votes spread across three key states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), she would be the president today. Given such razor-thin margins, not to mention the sizeable pockets of cultural conservatism in these states, it is legitimate to wonder what if: What if Obama and, in turn, Clinton had sought common ground with pro-life Americans rather than casting their movements as a "war on women"? What if the original incarnation of the Affordable Care Act had accommodated religious institutions with serious qualms about contraception rather than establishing a mandate that incensed not just cultural conservatives but also some of the administration's most reliable religious allies? What if Obama had stayed true to his 2007 avowal, "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman"? Reclaiming Hope is a profoundly earnest book, and nowhere is this more evident than in the chapter that discusses Obama's evolution regarding gay marriage. Wear was indignant upon discovering, via David Axelrod's memoir, that already in 2007, Obama the man was supportive of marriage equality, even if Obama the presidential candidate was not. Wear's palpable sense of betrayal at this revelation speaks to his countercultural—in this cynical age, some would no doubt call it quaint—expectation that elected leaders should say what they mean and mean what they say.

But on this side of the 2016 election, any and all questions about the integrity of Barack Obama or even the Democratic Party pale in comparison to concerns about the integrity of American Christians. Exit polls underscored that believers' political witness remains overwhelmingly conformed to the pattern of a conscience-stifling two-party system. How else to explain the fact that white evangelicals and white Catholics did what they have consistently done for a generation, namely, pulled the lever for the GOP presidential candidate; and that they did this, knowing all the while that, if elected, Trump would instantly become one of the most unabashedly impious, biblically illiterate, ethically compromised scoundrels ever to inhabit the White House? Meanwhile, black Protestants, Latino Catholics, and white mainliners flocked predictably to Clinton, whose promise to carry on the Obama legacy was not without grave problems of its own. 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.

One can certainly understand why, things being as they are, countless believers opted to hold their nose and make a prudential choice for either Trump or Clinton, hoping that at the end of the day the lesser of two evils might prevail. But this is a stopgap measure, not—as Wear would have it—a sustaining practice. 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.

Wear grew increasingly frustrated with the distance between the president's professed commitment to a more inclusive politics and the administration's too-often doctinaire approach.

Wear's alternative—for Christians to commit to a political party and advocate from within for a platform that reflects their values—is fraught with perils. At a purely pragmatic level, there's a question about whether this strategy might be doomed from the outset: after all, when a political party knows it enjoys someone's strong allegiance, then what reason has it to cater to their wishes? Christian voters who proceed in this manner may well be setting themselves up to be taken for granted (as they so often have been and as Wear, in fact, felt at times while working for the Obama administration). But even if this strategy could work, the question remains: At what cost? Believers who commit to a political party with aspirations of shaping it must be wary of the ways they are re-formed in the process. Especially in its current, money-drenched incarnation, the two-party system tends to undermine holistic Christian public witness. Consider that, notwithstanding a venerable and robust Catholic social teaching tradition, which includes both support for labour and opposition to abortion, pro-union Catholic Republicans and pro-life Catholic Democrats are both endangered species in the halls of Congress. The most salient orthodoxy in these and far too many other cases is that of the political party. And what's true at the level of ideology is also true at that of community. The deeper that party loyalties run, the more they threaten to usurp a believer's primary identity as a member of Christ's body. One need only look around to see that, in the heat of partisan battle, brothers and sisters frequently mistake one another for enemies. The recriminations flew a bit faster and harder than perhaps is typical in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, but the reality is that the devolution of anything resembling Christian solidarity has reached an alarmingly advanced stage. Sign in to Twitter on any given day and you will behold the contempt with which believers regard one another, the nonchalance with which one anathematizes the other.

To Wear's credit, the spirit of both his book and his broader public witness reflects his personal commitment to a different and more irenic way: one that balances unwavering concern for justice with deep respect for Christians of differing political persuasions. And there is no doubt that some in his target audiences will find Reclaiming Hope's affirmation of the structural roots of injustice and corresponding exhortation to engage the political sphere—"one of the essential forums in which we can love our neighbor"—challenging. 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. If we are truly going to reclaim hope, we'll need to start, not by removing the speck from the Democratic Party's eye, but the log from our own.

 

Heath W. Carter is an associate professor of history at Valparaiso University, the author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford, 2015), and the co-editor, most recently, of Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 2017).

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