Before he had turned 21, Michael Wear found himself deep inside the halls of power in the Obama administration as one of the youngest-ever White House staffers. Appointed by the president in 2008 to the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and later directing faith outreach for the president's 2012 reelection campaign, Wear threw himself wholeheartedly into transforming hope into change, experiencing firsthand the highs and lows of working as a Christian in government. In this unvarnished account of faith inside the world's most powerful office, Wear gives unprecedented insight into the most controversial stories of the last eight years, from the president's change of position on gay marriage and the politicization of religious freedom to the administration's failure to find common ground on abortion and the bitter controversy over who would give the benediction at the 2012 inauguration. Wear also reveals the behind-the-scenes struggles behind some of the administration's signature achievements, including the adoption tax credit and making human trafficking a presidential priority. And he offers a rare window onto the ways the president himself viewed the role of faith in politics. More than a memoir of the Obama administration, Reclaiming Hope is also a passionate call for faith in the public square, particularly for Christians to see politics as a means of loving one's neighbor and of pursuing justice for all while promoting racial reconciliation and fighting for religious freedom for people of all faiths. At a time when large numbers of thoughtful Christians are arguing for withdrawal from participation in public institutions, Wear's experience at the white-hot center of civic life shows how and why Christians must be involved in every aspect of cultural life - even if failures seem to outnumber successes - while working on behalf of the nation's common good.
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Michael Wear seems like someone I would really like in person. We share a fairly similar politics. People that I know, that know him, like him. And while he is more than a decade younger than I am, he seems like he has learned much in those years about the way the world works and has managed to not become cynical, but instead has maintained the capacity for hope, while understanding the fallenness of humanity.
Reclaiming Hope is part memoir, part political theology, part history of the Obama presidency. Michael Wear was a young college student when he was attracted to the new young politician on the political landscape. Obama had roared onto the scene in 2004 and by 2007 Michael Wear and worked his way into the campaign. (Obama was my State Rep and then State Senator and then US Senator, so I was aware of him long before many on the national scene. I remember having him as a guest lecturer at one of my grad classes in spring 1998 and talking to him afterward about a problem I was having with my non-profit work. I came home to my wife and announced that Obama was going to be president someday.)
Wear worked on Obama’s presidential campaign in faith outreach and then was hired as one of the youngest West Wing staffers in modern history, to work in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Wear left the West Wing to head up the outreach to faith groups in the 2012 campaign. Finally, he worked for the inauguration committee for Obama’s second inauguration before stepping away, burned out, disillusioned, but hopeful for a better way.
Reclaiming Hope has several chapters on rough history of Obama’s presidency and how the role of faith was important, and where there were problems. The summary, for several issues, is that faith was seen as important, but often was shunted to the side because it was not important enough, or that the political staff for Obama were too secular to understand why it should be important.
The first was Obama’s outreach to conservatives around Abortion. Obama wanted to find areas of common ground where pro-life and pro-choice policies could overlap so that there could be an actual reduction in abortions and an increase in adoption and other solutions. In this area, Obama was largely spurned by the right, although there were some results around adoption.
The contraception mandate, as part of the ACA, was an example of the President’s policy staff just not understanding the religious freedom issues surrounding the mandate. Wear narrates a story of misstep after misstep that were grounded mostly in ignorance. But by that time, there were also some political realities of how the right had spurred (I think inappropriately) some of the out reach attempts and thumbed their nose at the White House with things like the Presidential Prayer Breakfast planning.
The final policy issue recounted in a full chapter was Obama’s evolution on gay marriage. This may be the closest to cynicism that Wear gets. I think because he is still not sure if he was played and Obama had decided he was for gay marriages before the first campaign or if there was an actual evolution.
All of the history and policy exploration I think was good and interesting, especially for someone like me that leans Democrat, but is still well grounded in the Evangelical world, and thinks that there should be areas of common ground.
The last couple chapters, and sprinkled throughout the rest of Reclaiming Hope, is an exploration of political theology. How is it that Christians should engage politics? How should we understand the role of faith in our political decision making? And maybe most important, how is it that we approach politics when we are not in the majority?
Hope is not incidental to the title or just a play on Obama’s campaign slogan. It is the real thread running through the book and central to Wear’s vision for the future. Michael Wear and Alan Noble and others have started Public Faith to advocate for faith as a means of calling on both the right and the left to see the importance hope in politics. This isn’t a re-incarnation of the religious right, but an intentionally politically diverse group that wants to be a hopeful conscious.
From the Public Faith website:
In the midst of another divisive election and a political culture that thrives off of conflict, many Christians and other Americans are tempted to check out and claim the posture of a conscientious objector or to dig in for even greater political hostilities. We believe that neither political withdrawal nor reinvigorated culture wars by Christians will help our nation and communities through the difficult challenges we face. Instead, we seek to offer a different voice: confident and hopeful, equally full of conviction and grace. As Christians, we believe that our faith has something essential to contribute in this moment.
We invite all Christians and those of good will to join us as we advocate for a perspective that challenges political parties with a better vision. We call on Christians to work within political parties to advocate these essential ideals and to change parties or create new ones when reform is no longer feasible.
At a time when many are anxious and divided about politics, Michael Wear's book offers an important message: Our faith should drive our politics, not the other way around. Faith, not politics, is the only true source of hope that can deliver us from a misplaced idealism that inevitably breeds cynicism. He encourages us to fight the temptation to withdraw from political activity, and he challenges us to let a strong faith inform our political actions and hope for the future. This is NOT a partisan book. Wear offers an even-handed, and even occasionally funny, analysis of the Obama years. Everyone should read this book for its insights into the Obama administration and reflections on the relationship between faith and politics.