Religion and the Democratic Party: Michael Wear
If one were to observe Democratic campaigning during the 2016 election, they may well come to the conclusion that the GOP is the only party claiming to speak for Christians. Such a conclusion is particularly bizarre given that a recording of the 2016 Republican standard-bearer braggadociously describing sexual assault was broadcast in primetime. Indeed, these are odd times.
Characterizations of either major party in the United States as Christian miss the mark, largely because Christians of all traditions register for both parties. Certainly, there are trends of evangelicals swaying heavily towards the GOP and historically black congregations largely identifying with the Democratic Party. However, Democrats have shown a particular proclivity for ham-handedness when it comes to dealing with Christian groups. One recent example, found in a batch of emails stolen by Russian intelligence and published on Wikileaks, illustrates a private conversation taken by many as showing of disrespect for Catholics and evangelicals.
While Republicans have their own religion problems to work out on the local and national level, there are Christian Democrats making the case for progressive political causes to Christian voters while bringing a faithful witness to political messaging within the Democratic party. It is my hope to feature this type of work within the Democratic Party for the sake of highlighting the role that Christians play, and can play, across the political spectrum. I begin what will be a broader project with Michael Wear.
As an alumnus of the Obama White House and both presidential campaigns, Wear brings an abundance of on the ground experience to the conversation surrounding Christianity and politics. While serving in the Obama administration, Wear led evangelical outreach through the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and went on to direct faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 campaign.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Wear about his work with President Obama, the future of the Democratic Party, and his recent book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America. Throughout the book, Wear is able to offer a unique perspective that will prove insightful to readers of diverse political leanings.
Like many young voters leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Wear found himself attracted to a first-term Senator from Illinois, who had not yet announced his campaign for the nation’s highest office. While there was a great deal to be excited about, Wear singles out Obama’s longstanding commitment to civil rights issues, and his fresh approach to faith and politics as the two issues that most greatly informed his support for the Senator.
For Wear, President Obama fundamentally put to rest the notion that faith does not have a role in American political life; a notion that Obama rejected throughout his career. During his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama seemed to transcend old culture wars when he affirmed “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”1 It was this same drive to overcome old markers of division that compelled him to “keep and strengthen the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”2 Obama’s tone, however, would eventually shift toward the more calculative approach, which he had initially hoped to overcome.
Wear highlights efforts early on in the Obama White House to “reduce the number of women seeking abortions” that were met with opposition from pro-life groups largely because a pro-choice president could not be seen as “leading the charge to reduce abortions.”3 This cold response to outreach, coupled with the distrust bred from Democrat’s reluctance to take public funding for abortion off the table while debating the Affordable Care Act, created the perception that political olive branches and moderate positions on issues like abortion were simply not worth the electoral returns.
Democratic Party Politics
In a recent conversation with The Atlantic’s Emma Green, Wear argued that the Democratic Party has a religion problem, particularly with white evangelical voters. Wear offers several experiences that illustrate a perplexing illiteracy when it comes to Christianity; an illiteracy that Democrats must overcome in order to communicate an effective message to evangelical Christian voters.
The Democratic Party itself has continued to moved away from moderate policy positions and big tent platforms on social issues over the last eight years. One flashpoint for this trend is found in the 2016 platform committee’s resolve to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prevents taxpayer money from funding abortions. Wear points out that this moves the debate from the legality of abortion to whether it is a social good; a debate that will only further alienate those voters who cannot fall in line with party dogma.
Strategies moving forward ought to draw on the past success of big-tent approaches that can broaden the coalition of Democratic voters. Wear points to the party’s success in 2006 as evidence for the validity of big-tent approaches to issues like abortion, arguing that even the 2016 platform allowed for disagreement on issues such as trade and the TPP. In his view, the opposing strategy played itself out in the 2016 elections with Republicans retaining control of the House and Senate while taking back the White House. The question for those working in Democratic politics now becomes, how much debate and disagreement can a coalition house while simultaneously preserving a sense of party unity?
Hope and Politics
In addition to a unique set of experiences inside Obamaworld, Wear’s recent book contributes a robust discussion on the topic of hope and how Christians ought to understand and engage with political spaces. At the center of this conversation is an engagement with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Whereas Coates argues against the value of hope, Wear points to a different center of hope that is able to circumvent the inevitable shortcomings of hope in human endeavors.
For Wear, the center of this hope is found in Christ’s life and ministry:
The Life Jesus offers gives us reason to hope in the here and now, hope both for ourselves individually and for all of creation. This hope is rooted in Jesus’ announcement at the start of His ministry that He is ushering in a kingdom used by God for His purposes of justice and mercy. […] God promises to be with us in the present, and so our present is as secure as our future. The point of our lives, therefore, is not to make peace with the inevitability of death but to reconcile with life.4
This is not to say that hope in political systems is bad or completely unfounded; there are times when a situation may well warrant a certain level of hope. Rather, hope in political systems, parties, powers, or people must be tempered with the knowledge that those things will inevitably fail. Wear’s view is informed by theologians and thinkers such as Jürgen Moltmann, N.T. Wright, and Joseph Pieper, and as such, he communicates a clear and reflective message of hope that those Christians engaging in political spaces and those Christians disenchanted with those same spaces would do well to consider.
I find Wear’s work to be both necessary and refreshing for the conversation surrounding faith and politics in this country. His understanding of hope helpfully places party politics in the right context for the Christian life. Though, Wear’s conversation on hope does not seem to consider how his conception of hope applied to political spaces can overcome the divisions and calculative campaign tactics that he critiques the Obama campaign for retreating into. While this may well be a conversation beyond the intended scope of his current project, I hope Wear continues to pursue creative ways of overcoming this age-old problem through both publication and professional work.
A marriage between Christianity and a single political party is not beneficial for Christians nor members of that party. Our current marriage has created conditions in which hucksters are able to prey on worried communities of Christians by peddling a nationalist pseudo-Christianity. As everything bears fruit, so too will this message continue to demonstrate its shallow roots. I am not suggesting that a similar marriage between Christians and Democrats would better serve anyone. Rather, by highlighting the voices of those working in diverse political settings, I am seeking to highlight a different vision for Christian political engagement that is not bound by nationalism or partisanship.
(1) Barack Obama, “Transcript: Illinois Senate Candidate Barack Obama,” Washington Post, July 27, 2004. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19751-2004Jul27.html.
(2) Michael Wear, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2017), 58.
(3) Ibid., 107, 111.
(4) Ibid., 196.