Michael Wear first met Senator Barack Obama through a chance encounter outside a Washington, D.C. hotel. Wear was an ambitious 18-year-old college freshman at George Washington University, and Obama was just days away from declaring his candidacy for president. Like many college students, Wear, who was a new Christian, was eager to make a difference. He introduced himself to Obama, declared support for his candidacy and his vision, and expressed a desire to work for him. With some determined follow-up with Obama’s staff, Wear would go on to do just that, serving first as an intern during the 2008 presidential campaign, then as a White House staffer in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and, finally, as director of religious outreach efforts in Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
In his memoir, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America, Wear enthusiastically recalls the excitement of working for a candidate he believed in. As an intern during the 2008 campaign, he prepared materials to help staff members communicate more effectively with religious voters, explaining, for example, what staff should and should not do during church services. He also recalls the heady experience of hearing his own words voiced by Obama during the high-profile televised conversation with Rick Warren at Saddleback Church. For students who desire to exercise influence in the public arena, success stories like these are particularly inspiring.
However, Wear’s stories also help students to understand why many candidates fail to fulfill promises made on the campaign trail. Presidents are the only elected officials with a national constituency, and thus, in the course of governing, they are required to constantly balance the interests and needs of competing groups. Inevitably, any single decision is likely to disappoint many. This was seen clearly in the healthcare debate, as Obama’s administration pursued a mandatory contraception requirement without including a comprehensive religious exemption to protect those who found such coverage objectionable. For Wear, the disappointment was not necessarily with the bargaining that inevitably accompanies policymaking but, rather, it was in the willful abrogation of the president’s stated commitment to disagree without being disagreeable. In this particular policy debate, for example, Obama’s senior staffers regularly mocked or dismissed the sincere objections of religious believers and openly championed the interests of women’s rights groups without any consideration for the concerns of faith-based communities. Although Obama eventually ordered his staff to “[f]ix this,” permanent damage had been done. The relationship between Obama and many of his strongest religious supporters was irreparably breached, and the resulting conflict transformed the concept of religious freedom into a partisan idea.
This unintended legacy of the Obama Administration – the conversion of religious freedom from a broadly shared principle into a contested political football – is poised to impact us for generations to come. Not long ago, Democrats and Republicans joined together to protect the free exercise rights of believers with a near-unanimous vote on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and a unanimous vote on the subsequent Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. Between 1993 and 2002, more than a dozen states followed suit. Since the Obama Administration, however, these statutory declarations of religious freedom have been fought along partisan lines as the cultural war over contraception, abortion, and LGBT rights expands into new political battlefronts. Indeed, the fierce political fight over Indiana’s 2015 religious freedom bill and the intense debate last summer over a proposed California bill that would have limited religious liberty for faith-based universities suggest that the bipartisan support for religious freedom may be gone for good. This does not bode well for conservative or progressive religious believers who are reluctant to be drawn into increasingly polarized battles.
Although Wear’s loss of political innocence could have prompted him to urge readers to withdraw from public life altogether, he instead reminds readers of their Scriptural obligation to love and care for their neighbors and to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29), as God commands. In addition, he points out the practical reality that the solutions to our complex, systemic problems almost always require some form of political solution. In advocating civic participation, he urges believers to help shape the positions and activities of political parties by promoting change from within, and to support like-minded candidates by voting in both the primary and general elections. He also encourages volunteer activities in campaigns and in organizations that work within the community, even while acknowledging that people and organizations are imperfect and justice on this earth will remain incomplete. Ultimately, though, Wear ends by acknowledging that which Christian universities advance everyday: our hope rests not on the election of a candidate or the implementation of certain policies, but in Christ alone.
Jennifer E. Walsh is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of political science at Azusa Pacific University.
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