Michael Wear. Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America. Nelson Books, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Michael Wear was a staffer in the Obama Administration. The inside flap of the cover states that Wear was “Appointed by the president in 2008 to the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and later directed faith outreach for the president’s 2012 election campaign…”
If there is a theme in this book, it is that Wear was initially drawn to Barack Obama because Obama was reaching out to evangelicals and was seeking common ground with social and cultural conservatives (i.e., pro-lifers). Over time, however, Wear became disillusioned with the Obama Administration, as it embraced polarization rather than seeking common ground.
Here are some of my thoughts about this book:
A. Barack Obama in this book is somewhat like the man behind the curtain. On the one hand, Wear seems to defend Barack Obama as a man of genuine Christian faith. On the other hand, Wear appears rather cynical: if Obama sincerely embraced same-sex marriage as early as 2007, for example, why did Obama appeal to his religious beliefs in his public rejection of it for so many years? Isn’t that shamefully and insincerely exploiting religion for political purposes? Wear himself seems to wonder what exactly made Barack Obama tick. There was an occasional glimpse into Barack Obama, though: I think of Wear’s account of Obama expressing openness to an abstinence-only program, which may have shown that Barack Obama at one point sincerely sought to transcend polarization.
B. This book only goes so far in being a behind-the-scenes account. I do not recall too many accounts in the book of discussions that occurred inside the Oval Office. Wear’s contribution was significant and valued, but my impression is that he mostly advised President Obama from a distance. Wear said that Vice-President Biden was pushing for a stronger religious freedom exemption in the contraception mandate, and that is somewhat of a behind-the-scenes story, but that was briefly mentioned, without a whole lot of development. In short, if you are looking for something juicy, or an inside account of the machinations of power, then this book is not for you. Regarding political narrative, I did not find much in this book that was not also in the newspapers at the time. At the same time, the book was rather eye-opening in describing how clueless some of the Obama staffers were about faith. One of them had no idea what “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) meant!
C. Some of Wear’s policy discussions were better than others. Wear offered a decent defense of the Affordable Care Act and weighed the positives and negatives of President Obama’s foreign policy. His discussion of the effectiveness of faith-based initiatives and adoption reform was insightful and even beautiful. But he did not really justify his apparent opposition to federal funding of abortion (or so I interpreted his position).
D. Regarding Wear’s justification for his policy positions, my impression is that Wear believes it is better to bring people together rather than to tear them apart. At one point, Wear seems to offer a political justification for such a stance, but then he has to admit that Barack Obama won in 2012 by being polarizing, so being polarizing did not hurt Barack Obama electorally! But there are important things besides winning elections, as far as Wear is concerned. Conservative evangelicals do a lot to serve people, and, in Wear’s opinion, it is better to seek common ground with them rather than to reject them out of ideological absolutism. Moreover, political polarization has encouraged rancor and animosity.
E. Wear does well to seek common ground, but he should have made more of an effort in the book to empathize with people on the other side. What about a poor woman who cannot get an abortion because the federal government refuses to fund it? What if the pregnancy takes time away from her job or hurts her health? What about an LGBT person who is fired in the name of religious freedom?
F. Wear probably is more conservative than I am on certain issues, but I did appreciate the times when he transcended the left-right dichotomy. I liked something he said on page 225: “Christians cannot protest for their religious freedom one day and protest against a mosque opening up down the street the next.”
G. Wear made an interesting point on page 222, in justifying government funding of religious organizations that embrace a conservative approach towards sexuality: “…to categorically deny federal funding and recognition to any group is to say to them and their fellow citizens that they are not a part of the American family. That they are somehow beneath the nation, unfit to serve their neighbor in partnership with their government. There may be circumstances in which as a nation we might want to send this message, but we should be careful when we do, and keep in mind the social ramifications of this position.” Speaking for myself personally, I think it is problematic, on a practical level, when Catholic hospitals refuse to provide contraception. On the other hand, I am also uncomfortable with saying that receiving government assistance means they have to surrender their religious freedom. Wear on page 222 provided food for thought on such issues.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers. My review is honest!