I absolutely loved Michael Wear's brand new book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of America (Nelson Books; $25.99; see our 20% off sale price at the order link below.) I think many readers will enjoy it, will learn much, and that regardless of one's affiliation (or non-affiliation) with a political party, it will be a valuable, even important read. The book is graced with bunches of rave reviews from significant political leaders from across the political spectrum (from several countries, no less) and many respected Christian leaders - from Tim Keller to Russell Moore, pundits, (from Kirsten Powers to E. J. Dionne) and writers as different as J.D. Vance and Ann Voskamp, all insisting this is an important, graceful book. You see, I'm not alone in highly recommending it although it really is a "Hearts & Minds" kind of book. We think our customers and friends will really appreciate it.
Let's get this said right away: Yes, Michael is a life-long Democrat and, yes, he worked for the Obama campaign and landed a job as one of the youngest White House staffers ever. And, yes, he finished his job well but didn't seek another season of service - not exactly in protest, but certainly with great sadness and inner conflict - before the 44th President finished his final term. Which is to say that if you loved, sort of liked, or significantly disliked President Obama, you will find something interesting and helpful in these reflections from this insider.
Books by Washington insiders are nothing new - many well-known officials from previous administrations have certainly told their side of their story and interested citizens gobble them up. I think this is a mostly a good thing; of course some of us just want gossip but many want to understand, from the primary actors, what really went on in this historic episode or that significant policy debate or this or that shift in emphasis or dip in the polls. If you've watched The West Wing or Madame Secretary (and I hope you have) then you can realize how informative and entertaining reading a book like Mr. Wear's memoir can be. Agree or disagree with former President Obama, and agree or disagree with Michael's own efforts within that Administration, Reclaiming Hope: What I Learned in the Obama White House... is a great book.
Young Mr. Wear first met Barack Obama quite by accident (or was it providential?) when he went to a meeting to volunteer at the wrong time and almost literally bumped into the then-Senator who just happened to be in the lobby for another meeting. Wear dropped out of college to work on the first Obama Presidential campaign and eventually earned a job in the White House under President Obama as the assistant to the Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Even the name and focus of that office - which began during the Clinton Administration and became more publicly known during the Bush years - was a political decision President Obama had to make and Michael tells us some of that back-story; those of us who have followed that creatively-designed office, or, who have known and admired some who held that position, will find this really interesting.)
In the introduction to the book, Wear explains what became his job:
I led outreach to moderate and conservative religious believers, including evangelicals, and helped manage the president's engagement of religious leaders and issues. I also coordinated our office's work in certain policy areas, most significantly the child welfare system and efforts to combat human trafficking. After working in the White House for three and a half years, I was asked to lead religious outreach on the president's reelection campaign, where I was chiefly responsible for outreach to religious Americans and the campaign's engagement of religious issues. Following the campaign, I directed religious affairs for the president's second inaugural.
The book starts with some really interesting background telling Michael's own story, his blue collar roots, how his sister came to faith in Christ during their high school years and how she and her youth group friends tried to evangelize him. He was an agnostic at the time, and people gave him books like The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and other thoughtful resources that could undo his skepticism. He debated with on-line bloggers and some thoughtful Christians slowly made a difference in his thinking.
In that chapter called "Family Values" he says he is from a working class Italian family in the suburbs of Buffalo, which he describes as:
a town and family emblematic of what writer George Packer has so strikingly referred to as 'the unwinding': the massive social and economic transformation of the last forty years that has led to a hollowing-out of America's middle class. My parents divorced when I was seven under the pressure of economic strain, and so my older sister, Dana, and I were primarily raised by my mother, Genevieve. We did not have a lot of money - my mother worked two and sometimes three jobs for most of my childhood so that we could get by - but I was surrounded by a large, loving, Italian family.
I loved hearing him talk about his grandfather who was an army artilleryman in World War II and his memories of the rituals and rhythms of his inherited ethnic Catholicism. That early chapter drew me into Wear's story and sets the stage very nicely.
Interestingly, he learned to love rhythm and blues and soul music, which, as he recalls:
constantly brought me into contact with the gospel. Whether it was a gospel tract on an otherwise secular album or the unencumbered praising of God on award shows by my favorite black artists, it was through black music and culture that I felt a sort of tension, a constant knocking that indicated a question that had yet to be confronted stood right outside the doors of my mind and heart.
Also, very interestingly, the 2002 acoustic album of Grammy Award-winning star Lauryn Hill with a "theologically rooted political awareness" really captured his attention. Michael tells us that "the intellectual heft of the effort, combined with Hill's emotional sincerity, moved me. In one song, "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind" Hill sings about how she tried to find contentment in other relationships, but they fell short." You may know the song and how she ends with what seems like weeping, praising God, "riffing through tears about a God who is merciful and wonderful."
At his sister's church, once, somebody gave him a little booklet which was simply the book of Romans. You will appreciate his reflections on how that seminal New Testament epistle rocked his world, but there it is. A smart, young, politically aware convert, eager to think more about the interface of faith and life, the Bible and politics, justice and grace, Christianity and his Democratic party. Not your average teenager, I suppose, but it's genuine and a good bit of background to know.
Happily, in those years before he headed off to college to George Washington University, Michael met a sharp, thoughtful, bold young Christian gal who would become his first love and eventually his wife. You have to love a book where the first chapter says "Melissa has been my reminder that I am not my politics. She knew me and loved me before the campaigns, before the White House, before the fundraisers and fancy receptions. I would need that reminder in the days ahead." Yes, he sure would!
And then, we are off to the races. I knew from that first storytelling chapter that I was going to love this book.
In chapter two, Michael meets the Senator who has so captured his attention. Michael - a white guy, remember, who loves R&B - was involved with the black student organization at his college and got involved as a freshman with the leadership of the College Democrats. He was supposed to lead students to a DNC convention, an important event with primary candidates, nominees, even super-delegates. Michael went the wrong day, oddly bumped into the Senator who was rising in fame in part due to his now-classic 2004 Convention speech, and blurted out, "Senator, I'm a Christian who has followed your career for years, and I believe in your vision. I think you should run for President and I would love to work for you when you do." Michael was persistent, almost annoyingly so, apparently, being in touch with Obama aids Reggie Love and Joshua DuBois (who then covered faith issues for Obama's Senate office.) He even offered the (unannounced) Senator free campaign advice. Ha.
Why did he dive so passionately into this opaque job possibility? He, himself wondered that:
Barack Obama's singularity as a politician was definitely a large part of it. It is undeniable that for me and others of my generation, working to elect Obama became a way to place ourselves in the historic civil rights movement. My first explicitly political convictions were related to civil rights, and as a student at George Washington University I protested the police shooting of Sean Bell... it was beyond compelling to support Obama's campaign.
Michael continues with a very important declaration:
My identification as a Democrat did not mean that I was completely at ease in the party. When I became a Christian, I soon understood that throwing myself without reservation behind any party platform was impossible. My allegiances were elsewhere. Politics provided a choice between imperfect options. I remained a Democrat because of the party's historic commitment to the working class, to combating poverty directly, and the Democrats' leadership in the modern civil rights movement. I was deeply troubled by abortion (discussed later in this book), and that issue made navigating Democratic politics difficult at times. I also disagreed with Democrats' general approach to matters of sex and sexuality, along with other issues. Still, I had profound disagreements with the Republican party, too.
That sort of keen and Biblically-faithful insight - being involved in a real party, but holding ultimate allegiance to Christ alone, aware of one's party's tendencies, both good and bad, and willing to be honest and humble about that - is a basic, fundamental assumption about our civic life that is all too rare. Young Michael displays in these simple sentences remarkable spiritual maturity and it is for this reason many, many people on both sides of the political isle should read this book.
That Wear's years of service in the White House itself (having the ear of the top aides of the President of the United States and sometimes the President himself) was framed by this moderate, thoughtful, non-ideological vision, makes this a valuable case study in contemporary Christian political service. That this made life harder for him - not always lining up with his own party, being misunderstood among secularist colleagues, being "in but not of" the party - is an illustration of what most of us face, I think, in our own careers and callings, professional spheres, and within the cultural institutions and organizations and even families we find ourselves.
I don't know if Michael has read Andy Crouch's exceptional book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, on wisely stewarding the gifts of power and working for reform within good but fallen institutions, but his on-the-ground day by day work in politics as told in his own fascinating book is a great testimony to this sort of understanding and that kind of perspective and posture. Without saying it overtly too often, Wear is working out a particularly Christian perspective within his own career - at high levels of influence, no less - without being a rowdy revolutionary or an entrenched traditionalist (that is, if I may be blunt, he was not akin to either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.) I suspect he has drawn on insights from our friends over at the Center for Public Justice, too - just as one example of an organization that is neither left nor right, really, but seeking a higher conversation and deeper, lasting, reforming impact. Mr. Wear's Reclaiming Hope book is not exactly a treatise on Christian political theory or a study of Biblically-informed scholarship about the task of the state - see my several BookNotes book lists of important resources for direct teaching about third way Christian thinking and the wonderfully rich books that offer conversations between Christians who are struggling to find consensus on what that might really look like in our time. Those are important, but this book is, well, a lot more fun. And interesting.
Michael is fluent in this broader conversation - he has spoken at places like the CCOs Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh and Q Ideas conferences, the big Catalyst events -- but his calling was not to be a scholar or pundit but to actually live it out within a particular party and particular administration, in the give and take of real world political work.
Reclaiming Hope is not like Jim Skillen's must-read The Good of the Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (Baker Academic; $24.00) or the wonderful, thoughtful, point-counterpoint books like Five Views on The Church and State: edited by Amy Black (Zondervan; $19.99) or Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views edited by P.C. Kemeny (IVP Academic; $22.00) or the feisty back and forth debate like Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics between Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes (Elevate Faith; $19.99.)
Michael Wear's new book is more autobiographical and lived out, telling the story of what that vision of thoughtful Christian public service actually looks like in real time, set in the last 8 years or so. Fortunately, I'd say, Wear is informed by these healthy, faithful, mature works that have shaped his own assumptions and attitudes, which is exactly why I hope people of varying political convictions or opinions about the Obama years will read this book. It is certainly illuminating about the Obama White House and current events of the last decade, but, also, between the lines there is this mostly tacit dimension pointing us towards how to be involved in the real world of actual citizenship and politics in a principled, reasonable way. And, it hints at the cost of discipleship in public life when one comes to disagree with an employer and the organizational culture of one's workplace or, in this case, with the political proposals and tone of his party. It isn't the heart of the book, but it is part of it.
Have you been there in your own context, your own work-world or school or church, in your own small place? I bet you have, and I bet you will take some inspiration from how Michael himself handled his own growing disillusionment and frustrations on the job and in his own circle of best friends and beloved colleagues.
I've been there, myself, in my own small way, and seeing Wear's courage and conviction and decision to walk away rather than compromise literally brought tears to my eyes as I read some portions of his story. Do you know what I'm talking about? Have you ever struggled to live out your convictions in a space that is less than congenial to your ideas and hopes and dreams? It isn't the only story of Reclaiming Hope: What I Learned... and it certainly isn't the only take-away, but the conflicts Michael faces nearer the end of the book become an important and, at least for this reader, very, very moving.
Please -- not that there are many cynics or ideologues reading BookNotes -- don't turn up your nose and say, therefore, I told you so; he never should have worked for Obama in the first place. Get over that and learn from the book and maybe applaud his principles and good faith efforts. Or, conversely, please, don't turn up your nose saying he should have been more loyal to his boss (leader of the free world that he was) and party consistently no matter what. Again, these are the reflections hard earned from the story of a young politico navigating his way "as the sausage is made" and working for what Steve Garber in that great chapter in Visions of Vocation calls "proximate justice" -- discerning how to compromise and be faithfully living with hope, even as the sausage is made. This in itself, no matter where you stand on which side of the isle, is admirable and good and beautiful.
As I say with so many books I review and recommend, agree or not with every detail of the author and his views, you can enjoy the book and learn much from it, and I think this is especially the case with this one. You can learn about the White House and how it works, you can learn about the Obama campaigns and administration and how they worked, and you can learn about how, especially, his office helped work with varying religious communities in our pluralistic society. Again, I hope this book is read by Democrats and Republicans and Green Party activists and Tea Partiers and libertarians and independents alike. I hope it is read by those who are apathetic about politics as such, the jaded and cynical, too. It shows at least how this one guy did his thing. It's a story worth reading. For people of Christian faith perplexed by politics, it is really worth reading.
I am not alone in commending this so vigorously. Listen to these endorsements:
Tim Keller says that Reclaiming Hope is: "an important and extremely timely book...Get it, read it, and talk to others about it." Wow, how 'bout that?
E. J. Dionne says it is "a fascinating insider's look in the Obama administration's faith-based initiatives and a stirring call for Christians - indeed for Americans of all faiths - to rediscover a sense of hopefulness." Yes!
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution says it is "Unusually important and moving... a fascinating portrait of a critical moment in American public life. Will appeal to anyone interested in the complex intersection of faith and politics." You see, this isn't even a book only for Christians.
Do you remember Mike McCurry, the White House Press Secretary (1995-98)? He now teaches public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary and McCurry calls Reclaiming Faith "a road map for how we can pick up the broken pieces of our political life and reassemble a national commitment to a common good."
I realize I've hardly touched on the major chapters of this book. There are ten chapters telling the tale - from the first campaign to President Obama's faith as expressed in the White House in the 2009 - 2010 era, and how Obama's faith was expressed in 2011 - 2012. These are exciting years and there was lot of controversy (remember Jeremiah Wright?) and Michael was involved in managing the fall-out of episodes you most likely heard about in the news.
Equally interesting, he was involved in a whole lot of stuff you haven't heard about - so much was going on as government agencies and leaders partnered with local folks, faith-based organizations, drawing together faith leaders to either serve as sounding boards and consultants on various sorts of public concerns and to unite different religious organizations, nonprofits, and ministries, around common goals for the common good. They worked on adoption issues, inner city social architecture, school funding, fatherhood initiatives, rural health care, organizing around the fight against sexual trafficking, and continued the good work of the Bush administration fighting AIDS in Africa. Behind all of this is this larger conversation about shaping the public imagination regarding how religion fuels social change and how in our democratic society faith and government should and/or shouldn't properly cooperate.
There are two serious chapters, then, that are very important for anyone interested in public justice and how the Obama administration, did or didn't move in helpful directions on matters of public controversy. One is called "Searching for Common Ground on Abortion" and it is a wise and important study. More should be said about this - one brave and important proposal is in the under-appreciated Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation by Charles Camosy (Eerdmans; $22.00.) Wear's chapter on this in Reclaiming Hope tells a hard part of this story and I respect him for his thoughtfulness here.
Things began to unravel for the Administration, and for Michael's own work, as they moved towards what became known as the contraception mandate, which insisted that organizations that had reasons of conscience to oppose abortion-causing kinds of contraception still were required to pay for their employees to use these kinds of abortifacients. (Think of the Hobby Lobby lawsuits and others, such as the Obama Administration's legal battle against the Little Sisters of Jesus, a group of elderly nuns who serve the poorest of the poor but couldn't agree to pay for contraception for their support staff's insurance if it included what they believed to be something sinful.) All of this led to much-publicized Supreme Court rulings and Mr. Wear, despite misgivings, was working hard to build relationships of trust within various religious quarters, helping explain what increasingly became hard to explain. No matter where you stand on these issues, this chapter will keep you turning the pages, hearing from the inside how things went down.
Wear's day-by-day narrative unfolds much that went on around these admittedly complex matters. There were meetings with groups like the Association of Jesuit Colleges and the Sisters of Mercy and the Planned Parenthood political action committee (which launched an unprecedented $1.4 million ad campaign that argued Mitt Romney wanted to deny women cancer screenings.) There were months of negotiations on the specifics of the plan - there were leaks and hearings and meetings and reports, legal responses to an "Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking." It is all very interesting and well told - not as tedious or detailed as some political memoirs are, but not shallow or too brief, either.
Think what you will about which higher principle of law or common good or justice trumped which other principles in this complicated legal debate, Michael is surely correct when he observes:
The mandate brought the administration into direct, unnecessary conflict with organizations that serve the most vulnerable people, and provides invaluable service to this nation, and therefore misdirected attention and resources from servicing people to legal fees and public relations battles. Despite the numerous adjustments, many religious organizations, including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, still oppose the mandate. In July 2013, CHA announced its concerns were adequately addressed after another round of adjustments.
Besides the facts of the abortion-related aspects of what became known as Obamacare there was the huge question - and I agree it is huge! - of religious conscientious objection and religious freedom. Again, Wear is certainly correct to say, "The controversy was bad for America, and it was bad for religious freedom.... it made religious freedom a partisan idea."
He says, importantly,
I do not believe that anyone I worked with in the Obama administration, certainly not the president, deliberately sought to undermine religious freedom. That was not their aim. Religious freedom is not under attack.
"Religious freedom is not under attack," he says. But listen to this:
But it is under pressure. Religious freedom is increasingly butting up against other values in stark, personal ways, and religious freedom is often the loser in those collisions. We have a problem of pluralism, of different views and perspectives. What must be declared out of bounds is not our diverse perspectives, but the kind of zero-sum politics that disregards collateral damage in pursuit of a win. And the administration failed in this respect.
Wear does not think that the Obama administration's record on domestic religious freedom is all negative. He reminds us that "the president has rejected calls to refuse government grants to organizations that organize and hire around religion. The administration defended the National Day of Prayer in federal court and won. The EEOC fought workplace discrimination based on religion."
Yet, "there is a culture of fear and anxiety around the future of religion that the president has mostly chosen to ignore." Michael's thoughtful, balanced, and well-informed chapter on this often-misunderstood topic will help us immensely, I think. I will be interested in hearing what those who opposed the administration on this issue who are specialists in religious freedom litigation will think of his telling of this tale.
This part of the book - and the following chapter on the president's "evolution" on marriage equality and LGBTQ rights - is informative, balanced, and, again, deeply moving. I feel for Wear's desire to be faithful to his own conservative evangelical principles and his equally spiritually-motivated desire for common ground, public justice, and a effort to celebrate the good instincts of social justice embodied in his party's pronouncements. He wanted to continue his work, enduring in an embattled office, but grows in his dissatisfaction, seeming to be approaching burn out.
The appreciation he shows for President Obama and his associates in the working groups in the White House doesn't come from a starry-eyed, partisan liberal, it is thoughtful, considered, fair-minded, hard-earned. Nor do his criticisms come as cheap shots or with the nasty tones one might hear from the far right; again, his critique sounds fair and hard-won. Wear is not snarky or ideological or rude at all, although there are moments in the book where he seems heartbroken and conflicted, a loyal dissenter to the man he admired and to his party of choice. (Michael, I happen to know, shed some bittersweet tears at the recent final speech of President Obama in Chicago last week. Even though by the book's close he has left the White House, he was in Chicago for the big ending.)
Reclaiming Hope has a very good chapter comparing and contrasting the way religion was or wasn't treated in both the first Obama campaign and in the second re-election bid. This gives an unvarnished account of some of the tensions that rose to the fore in those middle years. One of the fascinating case studies was how Mr. Obama handled the criticisms from the secular left when they forcefully opposed Rick Warren's role in the first inaugural service (Obama stood by this friend, insisting on a big tent of varied religious voices, including conventional conservative evangelicals) and how the president handled similar criticisms four years later about his friend Louie Giglio, who had been asked to pray at the second inaugural. (Obama threw Giglio under the bus, capitulating to pressures to exclude respected evangelical leaders.)
There are some poignant, tender, even outrageous scenes in Reclaiming Hope and some of the most dramatic ones are in this section as Michael works around the clock trying to hold coalitions together, writing briefs and letters and speeches, doing the hard work of behind the scenes political service. If you've seen Madame Secretary lately, you know exactly these kinds of behind the scenes worker wonks, and the long hours they keep and the hard work they do, trying to rise to difficult occasions that keep coming, day by day, hour by hour, sometimes.
Some of this reporting is inspiring, some of it aggravating, much of it mesmerizing. One story strikes me as an example of some of the interesting stuff we find in this memoir: Michael has worked hard drafting a speech or paper about a particularly good Obama policy related to poverty; it was some white paper or draft of a brief; I forget, precisely. Wear cited the famous Matthew 25 passage where Jesus calls us to serve "the least of these." Repeatedly the paper came back from some of his associates in other departments of the White House, insisting that it was a misprint, telling him to fix it. Finally, Michael realized they simply had never heard the Biblical phrase and had no idea of its Biblical origin or what it meant.
One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
I do not think Michael tells this story as a dig against his Democratic colleagues - the new Republican President of the United States is himself Biblically illiterate and could have said such a dumb thing, or worse. I bet some of your own colleagues and associates might be equally Biblically illiterate. But it is revealing, isn't it?
How do we allow faith to shine in an essentially post-Christian culture and among religiously unaware fellow citizens and often-secularized thought leaders? Can there even be any hope for such a society? If an adult convert to Christ like Barack Obama who was regular in church attendance and had no awful skeletons in his closet and was in conversation with evangelical Christians could end up tone-deaf to many core Christian convictions and perspectives, contributing to the terribly toxic cultural divisions we now face, is there hope for a balanced and sustainable future? And if a loyal party operative like Michael Wear gets disillusioned and doesn't renew his position, is there hope for any Christians in political service? Is the vision for a moderate, reasonable, wise, nuanced, inter-face of Christian faith and politics an unrealistic hope?
And this, then, becomes the weight of the wonderful ending of this very good book - Michael has us on the edge of our seats as he sits in the Washington Cathedral the day of his final service to the Obama administration for whom he worked for years. He thinks about what these last years of his life have meant, what they have cost, what he might do next. He seeks God and ponders the meaning of hope. He draws inspiration from Dr. Raphael Warnock, who preaches from the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King was pastor -- who says, "It takes a tough mind and a tender heart to hold on to hope."
"But hold on we must," Michael writes. "Hope is our tether to reality, and our bulwark against despair."
Wear's next lines on Christian hope - both within and beyond history - are truly moving and I hope you find your way to those pages. They are not ponderous or deep, but they are lovely and good and wise. He reflects on the meaning of Biblical hope, explores what he calls "real hope" and ruminates just a bit on the nature of our secular age and the puzzle of what he calls "hope and possibility."
The final chapter is called "Reclaiming Hope" and Wear is solid and helpful here, too. (Ann Voskamp says it is "a lifeline for these times." Jonathan Merritt says "it arrives not a moment too soon." Richard Mouw says Michael Wear's work and witness "keeps me hopeful.")
Many of us need this good word of hope this year, and although it is brief, it is helpful. He reminds us to be good citizens, to stay engaged, to be involved in both local stuff and the bigger causes that transcend party politics. He gives a few examples of how individual action can make a difference and he encourages us to be involved in citizens groups and networks working for political change. He honors the fact that there can be disagreements about how to best proceed and he never implies it will be easy or simple. It is a very encouraging way to end this fascinating book.
In this last chapter Wear hints that there are many big issues before us, naturally, but he names race and religious liberty as two examples which will demand our serious attention in upcoming months. Like most issues, these have both cultural and policy aspects - there is change that must happen in our hearts and minds, in our families and in our neighborhoods and churches and schools and civic culture, but there are ways that government policy can contribute, too.
Michael, wisely, does not suggest that social improvement is only up to the state - government can only do so much and lasting social change is often up to individuals and organizations working in civil society. But social change is not only up to individuals or churches; government has a role to play and besides being members of churches, schools, jobs, and neighborhoods, we are citizens. We need to imagine what faithful public life looks like and we need to think about what Christian political life might be. Few books have done this from this vantage point of insider experience, by a true party activist who isn't an elected official, but an unsung public servant. Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America is not the last book on Christian political thinking we need, but it is an essential one. There may not be one like it in a very long time.
We will tell you more about this later, but please know that Michael Wear will be discussing his book at our Dallastown bookstore on March 10, 2017. Buy it now on sale and join us for the good conversation with him that evening. He will sign books, of course, that night, and answer questions about his time in the Obama White House. If you are in the area put it on your calendar and help us spread the word.
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