Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book review: Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear

Michael Wear is an Evangelical Christian who was a college student in Washington, DC, when he heard Barack Obama give his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and decided to hitch himself to Obama's wagon. Wear served a role in faith outreach in the 2008 campaign and then in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama's first term. He returned to do faith outreach in the 2012 campaign and then left Obama-ville.

This book is his account of that time. It's part memoir, part political analysis, and part religious witness.

There's no question that, especially in the early days, Wear was a true believer. What appealed to him about Obama, as to so many of us, was the candidate's steadfast commitment to bringing all sides together. One of Obama's greatest moments, Wear says, was his invitation to Evangelical super-pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his first inaugural. There was significant blowback among Obama's staff and supporters to this choice because, like most Evangelicals, Warren has a poor record on LGBT issues; but Obama said, early and often, that just because we can't agree on everything doesn't mean we have to oppose each other on everything. And Warren spoke.

Back when I was in rabbinical school I wrote a sermon to the effect that Democrats can't expect to win the presidency if they can't talk convincingly about faith. (Ten years later, applying moral language to progressive public policy is the what I do in life.) The Democrats that won, Bill Clinton and then Obama – could do that, and the ones who lost – Dukakis and Kerry, to give two examples – couldn't. There are a lot of people in this country who have strong faith identities, and ignoring them or humoring them or belittling them doesn't provide a path to victory. The question of why Hillary Clinton, lifelong Methodist, couldn't square this circle will have to wait for another day.

Wear's book starts with the narrative of how he got involved with Obama and the first campaign. The middle covers three issues that were challenges to Obama's relationships with conservative Christians in his first term: abortion, the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and Obama's “evolution” on the issue of gay marriage. Wear's main theme is that the promises of 2008 and 2009 had so faded that, by the time of the 2012 campaign, Obama was essentially a partisan Democrat of the unsavory variety.

In the case of abortion, early Obama was at pains to make pro-life forces feel heard and not vilified, even if there was a limit to how far he was willing to do for them. His policies focused on “reducing the need for abortion” (as the 2008 Democratic platform put it), developing policies that could “move our politics before the zero-sum game of the culture wars, and actually reduce abortion by addressing its root causes.” These policies included relationship health, strengthening adoption, and supporting maternal and child heath. Wear is proud of times when the president appeared open to policies supported by abortion opponents – abstinence-only education, for instance – even if it was over the opposition of his staff. Parenthetically: It's not really such a great example, because abstinence-only education doesn't actually work.

Yet zero-sum politics won in the end. Here's a sentence that is repeated a number of times in various ways: “By the end of 2011, hopes of following through on the president's commitment were virtually slashed.” In a couple of cases Wear sees Obama as doing begrudgingly at the end what he should have done at the beginning – ruling abortion coverage out of the Affordable Care Act; having the insurance companies, rather than faith-based employers, pick up the tab for contraception coverage – only after the political damage had been done, the tenuous relationships damaged beyond repair.

In the case of gay marriage, Wear is even more critical. Obama stated his opposition to gay marriage often in his first campaign, basing it on a faith-resonant definition of marriage and invoking God. By the time he announced his “evolution” on the issue in 2011, that language was gone. Wear does a rather forensic analysis of Obama's statements, and it appears to him possible if not likely that Obama was always in support of gay marriage, and that he used his initial opposition to it to prepare the path for his eventual “evolution.” This really bothers Wear because if Obama was being, shall we say, strategic, then he was using faith language disingenuously, which really bothers Wear.

By the time of the 2012 election, the dream was over. Rather than running as the hope-for-all candidate of 2008, in 2012 Obama ran a data-driven, turn-out-the-base effort that used language – vilifying Romney, accusing the Republicans of a “war against women” - that he would have forsworn in the earlier campaign. The point is thrown into sharp relief by the comparison between Rick Warren's invocation in 2009 to the all-but-rescinded invitation to Evangelical leader Louie Giglio to participate similarly in 2013. In 2009 Obama stuck to his guns, but in 2013 he didn't, and Giglio withdrew. And that inauguration was Wear's basically last event in Obama's service.

Wear's a good writer, his story is interesting and his perspective is clear. However, I do have some criticisms. Most of these flow from the uncertainty about what this book is supposed to be, and who it is supposed to be influencing. Is it a political book designed to discuss the whys and hows of faith outreach, or is it a book of Christian witness? Because these two are, to a significant degree, at cross purposes.

For one thing: it's almost always Obama's fault. Obama came in with a lot of talk about bipartisanship and civility and he was faced with rather implacable opposition from a unified conservative base. Probably by the time of the 2010 mid-term election and certainly, as Wear notes, by 2012, he was moving away from his conciliatory language toward a more partisan front and a more unilateral way of governing, as seen in his reliance on executive orders rather than legislation. One can argue, as Wear does, that it was incumbent upon Obama to be the bigger person, and that there were opportunities, even in later days, to reach across the divide. But you also have to note that Republicans basically threw away all precedent in their implacable opposition to Obama, as evidenced by the Marrick Garland heist. Wear doesn't much note the refusal of Obama's opposition to work with him, without which his subsequent retreat from his best intentions is decontextualized.

Second, Evangelical positions are always given a huge benefit of the doubt. Wear notes that politically prominent Evangelicals who make the news don't always represent the broader community, and that there are many Evangelicals doing great work that isn't politicized or publicized. Fair enough. But we now we have the perspective of knowing the 81% of white Evangelicals supported Donald Trump, and that they're willing to ignore all of his ignoble behavior for the sake of political advantage. That's not media shorthand, that's the facts.

There is a politicization, even a hypocrisy, within the Evangelical Christian community that cannot not be noted, but Wear doesn't note it. He takes their positions completely at face value, including on the the question of “religious freedom,” which to Evangelical Christians means the right to practice their religion according to their conscience but to everyone else means the right to discriminate against LGBT folks under the guise of religion. Maybe that's not be putting if fairly, but it's there, and it remains unmentioned by Wear.

Note this quote, about pulling away from political parties not being the answer:

Withdrawal from politics and our political parties is not the answer. The Republican Party needs now more than ever Christians advocating from within for a position, for example, on immigration reform that respects human dignity and take the consequences of deportation on families seriously. The Democratic Party needs now more than ever Christians advocating from within for a recognition, say, that abortion is not a moral good, that it is not how a just society addresses unintended pregnancies, and that a respect for human dignity and a sense of protecting the vulnerable extends to those not yet born.

Most mainstream Democratic politicians are well aware that abortion is a divisive issue, and few nationally prominent figures position abortion as a “moral good.” Obama himself, as Wear notes, instituted a strong framework of policies to limit abortion, and Bill Clinton talked incessantly about “safe, legal and rare.” But it is also clear that Democrats believe that abortion should not be illegal, that in most early-term cases it should be up to the woman's conscience, and that late term cases restrictions must have exceptions for the life of the mother and significant fetal abnormalities. If outreach to the faith community requires Democrats to adopt Kansans for Life's position on the issue, well, they'll be waiting a long time.

Rather than building an equivalency between abortion and immigration, Wear could point out right-wing Christians' obsession with abortion to the exclusion of all other “ethic of life” issues, such as access to the social safety net and healthcare by the “born” population. Or, you know, AR-15s. What Evangelical Christianity has right now is an ethic of life that ends at birth, and it's no wonder so many people are disgusted by it. Wear could also take the opportunity to point out that Christians can advocate for whatever they like but they shouldn't, and shouldn't expect to, force their religious beliefs onto the rest of the population. Yet that idea never even crosses his mind.

And this leads to my deeper critique of the book: When Wear says “religion” or “faith” he means, pretty much exclusively, white Evangelical Christianity. There are a couple of mentions of black churches (in the context of them being largely similarly socially conservative) or the Catholic hierarchy, but from Wear's book you wouldn't know that there's any such thing as Methodists or Lutherans, and word “Jewish” doesn't even appear in the index. The over-identification of “faith” with Evangelical Christianity is a big problem, both in the Christian world and in the mainstream culture. Wear could have noted it; instead, he falls victim to it.

But then this gets worse. The last part of the book starts off with a chapter of Christian witness, including a conversation between Te-Nehisi Coates and a Washington, DC, pastor named Thabiti Anyabwile. The pastor says, essentially, you can either believe in man or you can believe in Christ. “When Christ comes and establishes his reign, there will be no more injustice, there will be no more crime. Everything that has been crooked will be made straight:

Coates followed him right to that point and said, “I think what I'm left with here is that those of us who don't necessarily share the same religious belief are left without hope. Is that the upshot of what you're offering?” Again, Anyabwile responded to earnestness with earnestness, not dancing around the point, and told Coates, “I think there is a sense in which that is true. That is just a sort of unpleasant consequence of my line of reasoning.”

Wear quotes this approvingly, and this is where I find the cross-purposes in the book. On one hand, Wear is (or was) a Democratic functionary, and his role is to tell Democrats why and how to do outreach to Evangelicals. On the other hand, Wear is a Christian, believing in the living and returning Christ as the only way to have authentic hope. This strikes me as really inappropriate, especially coming from a public servant, especially a public servant in the Obama administration.

One would hope that, as a politically (as opposed to theologically) liberal Christian, Wear help coax his co-religionists to a politics that is more in keeping with their core values, perhaps by pointing out the inconsistencies in Christian doctrine as it is currently applied in the public square. Maybe he did that in his job, but we don't get much of it here. Instead, we get Evangelical Christianity treated as given, as not only morally right but theologically right, with any problems with Obama having to do with his inauthenticity or his (partisan) refusal to accede to Evangelical demands. Soul searching is required, but only from one side. But this doesn't take into account the real damage that politicized Evangelical Christianity is doing, both to the body politic and to the cause of religion itself. And that is a topic Wear doesn't broach.

The best way for progressives to reach out to people of faith is not to cede the language of morality to those who would use it as a bludgeon. Too many Democrats want to forego moral framing, despite the great history in this country of it being used for progress and social justice. This aversion is both politically and morally counterproductive. The answer is not to give in on important policy issues; neither Bill Clinton nor Obama had to pander to the Christian right (although Wear thinks Obama did pander on the issue of gay marriage), but they did take pains to make people of faith feel that they were heard and understood – and it made all the difference.

Politicized Evangelical Christianity will continue to fade, as the country gets more diverse and more and more people are turned off by its domination, intolerance, and hypocrisy. But our alternative must resonate with a moral framework that people continue to hold. The way to encourage the additional 6% of white people that we need to win national elections is not by pandering to them on abortion or gay marriage (or worse, to racism or homophobia). It is to provide a holistic ethic of justice and tolerance that appeals to our higher values, our greater selves, however we identify religiously. That's the way we can reclaim hope in this benighted era.