Q&A: Why faith groups should stay engaged in politics and public debate
Posted February 17
Michael Wear wants to build a better relationship between faith groups and politicians because he's experienced the frustrations of the status quo.
In his four years at the White House, he saw high-level staffers mischaracterize religious convictions and clergy members reject compromise in favor of personal political gain. He was frustrated by how the White House handled religious accommodations to the Affordable Care Act and the way President Barack Obama sometimes used his faith to justify contentious policies.
The experience left him lost and disheartened, but he says it also gave him the tools to fight for better outcomes.
In his new book, "Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America," released on Jan. 17, Wear outlines his key takeaways from working on religious outreach for Obama's two presidential campaigns and in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He describes faith-based political engagement as a potential antidote to growing polarization.
Wear, a 28-year-old evangelical Christian, understands that's he's not the only believer who sometimes feels cynical about politics. "As I have talked to pastors around the country, I've come to understand that many of those who refrain from political engagement do so not because they believe it is unimportant, but because they know, for too many of their congregants, politics is important in all of the wrong ways," he wrote.
Wear thinks he can help. Using anecdotes from his work in the White House, as well as Bible verses, he shares a vision of how to maintain hope in the midst of imperfect political bargaining.
We spoke with Wear this week about the relationship between religion and politics, increasingly tense religious freedom debates and his impression of President Donald Trump's first few weeks in office. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You worked on Obama's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Did religion grow more politicized between the two?
I don’t know if I’d say from one election to the other faith groups got more politicized. In general, there’s been a professionalization of religious political engagement, and that has both upsides and downsides.
Religious actors who choose to engage politically are doing so in a way that's less naive.
Their engagement is more transactional. (Religious actors) oblate to traditional interest groups. There are some real downsides to when religious organizations and leaders act like everybody else in politics.
How should people of faith engage the political system?
My hope is that they will be guided first and foremost by their faith.
That does not preclude people being proud Democrats or proud Republicans or whatever party people want to join. I think being part of a party is a pretty fundamental way to be politically involved.
But for religious folks, the character of their political engagement should be different. It should be other-centered.
We have a very self-centered, self-interested politics right now. People are going to politics expecting very personal appeals and to get a level of personal attention that really is not well-suited to democracy in general.
What would be the ideal relationship between religion and politics?
The relationship between government leaders and faith leaders should be characterized by honesty, integrity and humility.
To put it simply, religious leaders should be able to affirm what is good and reject what is bad without too much interest in political gamesmanship.
That’s not a call to be naive. If religious people’s words can’t be trusted, if they are refusing to acknowledge what is good in favor of some sort of long-term political strategy, I think that undermines their witness and undermines what can be unique about their engagement.
There are plenty of people who are strategizing for political gain. Religious people should be the folks who are trying to speak out on what supports the common good.
Does being religious make someone a better American?
Oh yes. It absolutely should.
We already know that people who are religious are more likely to volunteer. They donate and they give of their resources.
I spend time in my book talking from a Christian perspective about how our citizenship can be a living out of the greatest commandment: to love God and love our neighbor.
Religious practice should make people better citizens, but here's what it requires.
It requires folks not cordoning off their faith from politics. That’s been an increasing concern of mine — that we are, in various religious communities, treating religion as a personal, private force that for some reason just doesn’t apply to the public.
People think, "(My faith) is true for me, but it doesn’t have any applicability on the outside of my life."
People need to examine what they’re saying. What does it mean to believe in an all-powerful Creator God and then to sort of reduce the scope of his influence to just your personal and private interactions?
In "Reclaiming Hope," you provide a behind-the-scenes look at the White House's approach to some key religious freedom issues, such as the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate. What's at stake when religious freedom becomes a partisan issue?
It was a lot harder to write about religious freedom for the book than I imagine it would have been a decade ago. That’s an indication of how partisan it has become.
The case I try to make is that when you limit religious freedom in one instance it has effects across the board. If we have a different view of religious freedom depending on whether it touches our personal interests or point of view, there’s no telling where that attitude will lead.
That applies to a conservative Christian who refuses to respect the religious freedom of Muslim Americans or other religious minorities, and it goes for instances when religious freedom is in conflict with other government interests related to a range of sexual issues.
When religious freedom becomes partisan, we end up neglecting religious freedom when it’s seen as an obstacle to our ends, without realizing that we’re actually undermining it for when we need it most.
I talk in the book about how it was religious freedom that provided the space for abolition movement to be grounded in churches. It was religious freedom that allowed for the Episcopal Church to come out in support of gay marriage without government penalty.
Progressives should be very careful about rejecting religious freedom in moments when some perceive it to be a threat to progressive values. You never know when religious freedom is actually going to be the thing that allows for your ideas to flourish.
There are a whole bunch of people in this country who are antagonistic toward religious freedom. But they may not have a good reference for what it means to have a religious conscience, for what it means to put your moral judgment underneath the authority of a religion or scripture.
This moment should be viewed by religious communities as an opportunity for evangelization and religious education.
How would you rate the Trump administration's religious freedom work so far?
Trump doesn’t have an extensive record on this issue.
However, his Supreme Court nominee seems to have thought quite a bit about religious freedom. From that perspective, I’m pretty happy with (Neil) Gorsuch’s record.
But Donald Trump’s insistence on the repeal of the Johnson Amendment as the core religious issue of our time is flawed. While the Johnson Amendment is a pretty core issue, it actually protects religious freedom. Trump wants to open up religious communities to the same manipulation and contortions of their practices as any other special interest.
What we’re seeing is Trump driving this politicization of religious freedom to new heights, not just through the policies he’s pushing, but also through his use of religious freedom to reinforce and exacerbate religious communities' — and especially the Christian conservative community’s — feelings of embattlement and isolation.
Who did you write your book for?
The book is written directly to the person who feels tempted to withdraw from politics and from public engagement in general. This person may have gone through the Bush years and then the Obama years without feeling satisfied by others, so they’re thinking they’ll give up on the whole endeavor.
The argument I want to make to them is that political engagement is not about finding complete satisfaction. It’s not about feeling like you belong in every political moment.
Political engagement is actually about service to country, to neighbor and — if you’re religious — service to God. You can view politics as an essential form of loving your neighbor
I also wrote the book because I want to contribute to the discussion about President Obama’s legacy. I think it’s impossible to understand the president’s legacy and who he is as a man without understanding how his life and administration intersected with religion and faith issues.
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