All U.S. citizens have a duty to participate in our political system, but for Christians, the obligation is even deeper, says Michael Wear.
“There is a Christian obligation to be politically involved, given the Christian command to love our neighbor,” Wear said. “It’s fine for Christians to place themselves within institutions and steward the influence that they’ve been given in a way that they think is best-oriented toward the good of their neighbors.”
In fact, Christians can make an important contribution, he said, because for them, politics is not “a first love” or “an ultimate thing.”
“Christians bring an ambivalence to politics, because we don’t believe it’s the forum for deciding final matters,” he said. “That’s not just a restraint; it’s a contribution that would make our politics healthier.”
An evangelical Democrat, Wear served in the White House faith-based initiative during President Barack Obama’s first term and directed faith outreach for his 2012 re-election campaign. He later founded Public Square Strategies LLC, a strategic consulting firm on faith, politics and American public life. He is the author of “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.”
Wear was at Duke recently for “Road of Hope? The Challenges of Faith in Politics,” an event sponsored by the Duke Center for Christianity and Scholarship and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.
He spoke with Faith & Leadership about faith and politics, the evangelical vote in the 2016 election, and what Democrats can do to reach out to religious voters. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Tell us about your background in faith and politics. You worked on the Obama presidential campaigns, and also in the White House, right?
Yes, my background is specifically in faith and politics. I worked on the president’s first campaign in 2008 as an intern. After we won, I worked on the National Prayer Service for the first inaugural and then worked three and a half years in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I ran religious outreach for the president’s re-election campaign in 2012. Then I ran religious affairs for the second inaugural, and that was my last formal role with the president.
Since then, I’ve worked as a consultant helping Christian organizations navigate the political and cultural landscape and helping mainstream organizations partner with the faith community on common goals.
Q: Where do you locate yourself politically these days? As I understand it, you’re an evangelical Democrat.
Yes, that’s it. If you’re going to describe me, that’s as good a way as any. I’m a Democrat Christian. I definitely hold views on religious freedom and abortion that are more conservative than what seems to be the status quo in the party right now.
Q: The issue of faith and politics is everywhere recently. What role should Christians play in politics?
There isn’t one role that transcends time, culture and place, but for American Christians living now, there is a duty that is a matter of just earthly citizenship, living in a country like ours with a system of government like ours. There isn’t an opt-in. You’re already opted in by being a citizen.
And then there is a Christian obligation to be politically involved, given the Christian command to love our neighbor. It’s fine for Christians to place themselves within institutions and steward the influence that they’ve been given in a way that they think is best-oriented toward the good of their neighbors.
One contribution Christians bring to our politics is that politics is not a first love for us. It’s not an ultimate thing. Christians bring an ambivalence to politics, because we don’t believe it’s the forum for deciding final matters. That’s not just a restraint; it’s a contribution that would make our politics healthier.
Q: Is it possible to be active in party politics and remain a faithful Christian?
Yes. But in the short term, day to day, it may mean that you take some losses for not being willing to go outside the boundaries of faithfulness. It means that for Christians, there are some tools in the political toolbox that we don’t pick up.
There is a value in restraint and respect for your political opponents -- a basic acknowledgment of their human dignity -- that in the long term will bring significant benefits to the way that you engage in political disagreement and make progress on issues.
Christians can be involved in politics, involved in parties, but some things aren’t on the table for us.
Q: What are the tools Christians don’t use?
Incessant fearmongering, putting this existential weight on political decisions in order to rile people up. Christians won’t deploy fear as a motivation with the same flippancy and instrumentalization that has become standard in our politics.
Christians won’t use deception in our politics. Christians will present their opponents’ argument in a way that their opponents put it forth and not willfully mislead people about what the other side wants.
That means you can’t draw as stark a contrast, which seems to be the name of the game in politics now. That’s not the kind of politics that Christians will be interested in employing, because we’re not motivated by hatred of our enemies. We’re motivated by a love of enemies.
Q: What do you make of Christian support for Donald Trump?
What turned religious voters in 2016, especially white evangelicals, was that they had only one candidate who was asking for their vote. For my Democratic friends, yes, it’s despicable that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. That’s not the way I would have advised them to vote.
But Democrats’ first reaction should be to look inward and say, “We didn’t even care enough about them to make a case. We made a case to every other constituency in the country. But white evangelicals -- we couldn’t even fathom why they would support us, other than, ‘Trump is so bad, they have no choice.’”
Well, they did have a choice, and their choice was a man who certainly didn’t vocalize the moral convictions that white evangelicals had been known for, but he did say he’d protect them and their religious freedom. And Hillary Clinton and the Democrats didn’t even deign to give their own positive vision for what religious freedom could look like.
But what’s also been driving much of this conversation is the safe harbors that Christianity generally, and white evangelicalism in particular, have been for misogyny, racism, sexism and xenophobia. The fact that those are things that we’ve, at best, tacitly allowed -- and, at worst, welcomed -- meant that we did not have the resources within our institutions to push back when Trump made appeals to those kinds of emotions and perspectives.
Q: What should the Democrats be doing to reach religious groups?
The first step is to reach out, to show up. If we don’t believe that what we’re proposing is best for everyone in the country, then we don’t deserve to be elected. I was proud to work for Barack Obama. He would meet with people he knew weren’t going to vote for him, but if he was going to be elected, he wanted them to know that they had his ear, along with everybody else in the country. That he was going to be president for them, too.
Democrats have strayed from that. Barack Obama has been clear with his critique of what happened in 2016. I think that what he sees happening in the Democratic Party now is that it was naive, instead of rejecting the politics of division as he did in his 2004 convention speech, to think that the Democratic Party would win if they’d just appeal to 51-plus percent of the country and have a turnout war.
That’s not good for the country, and that’s not good for the party. We saw that in 2016.
So the first thing Democrats can do is reach out. There are ways to reach out to evangelicals, Catholics, the broad faith community as the faith community, not using faith as an institutional foot in the door but actually treating faith seriously.
Also, make institutional changes to make sure that our campaigns have faith outreach and are making a direct case based on the policy perspectives of the candidate and of the party, advancing the most positive case to people of faith.
There are policy changes that are important. America’s faith communities are diverse, but from a strategic perspective, the Democrats could do a lot more to emphasize economic fairness, and specifically, anti-poverty policies. They could do a lot more on policies that support families, family creation, family stability, family security, and then they could turn back the clock to five minutes ago when the party had room for diverse perspectives on the issue of abortion, when the party was willing to make a positive case around religious freedom.
People act as if it’s normal for the Democratic Party platform to call for federal funding to go toward abortion. But that wasn’t the Democratic Party’s policy until 2016, when the platform changed. Before, it was always off the table. Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the most pro-choice people, was a leader on conscience clauses, because he thought there had to be a respect for a difference of opinion, particularly of religious institutions, on those issues.
[As we think] about positive policy changes -- justice issues, criminal justice reform and other issues -- we need to create more room in the party for socially moderate and even socially conservative folks. There’s a lot that can be done.
There’s so much talk about the 81 percent of evangelicals who supported Trump, and there should be. But if Democrats are going to talk about the 81 percent, we also need to talk about the 16 percent, which is what Hillary Clinton got of the white evangelical vote.
It’s a historic low. John Kerry got more of the evangelical vote than Hillary Clinton did. Barack Obama got [24 percent] in 2008. We’re talking about [nearly] a quarter of the electorate, so just a point or two difference is millions of votes. In 2012, after Obama became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage, after the HHS contraception mandate and folks accusing him of engaging in a war on religion, he still won 21 percent of the white evangelical vote. Hillary Clinton only got 16 percent.
Q: I understand that you feel strongly that people of faith should be involved in politics, whether they’re Republican or Democratic. You had a piece in Time taking to task Republicans who have left the party to become independents.
When I go to college campuses, nothing riles people up more than suggesting that independents maybe aren’t the best thing for the country.
The reason for that is clear. In this country right now, we have the highest percentage of independents that we’ve ever had. The last numbers I’ve seen were 43 percent, [matching 2014’s] record high.
You would think that if independents were the bomb that a lot of the media suggests [they] would be, then we’d be starting to see the impact. But you can track the rise of independents with the decline in our politics and the polarization of our political parties.
When people leave the party and become independent, they’re starving our political parties of the balance and nuance that parties need in order to justify moderation and inclusion. If the only people left in our political parties are people who can sign on to every jot and tittle of the party platform, then the parties have no internal rationale for allowing any difference of opinion or not being the most strident they can be.
What the Republican Party needs most right now are faithful Christians who are happy to be Republicans and to be voices within that party, for instance, against that party’s rightward xenophobic turn on immigration. What the Democratic Party needs most right now are faithful Christians who are happy to be Democrats but are willing to be a voice within that party for moderation and nuance on issues involving sanctity of life.
But those voices, compared with 25 years ago, are largely gone. And then we critique from the outside: Why are our parties so extreme? It’s because you’re not there. Not only do they have little reason to listen to you; they have very few lines of communication to listen to you. You’re literally not at the party.
Q: How do Christians even begin to find common ground?
I am not as concerned from an ecclesial standpoint about disagreement among Christians on issues. It’s healthy for there to be Christians motivated by different issues, whose experiences lead them to different positions. God uses that. I’m not sure uniform Christian politics would be good for the church.
That being said, what’s really been exposed is not a crisis in political thinking among Christians. What’s been exposed is a crisis of discipleship. What’s been exposed is a crisis of spiritual formation.
What’s been exposed is this fact that we have millions of Christians who don’t think God has anything to say about their politics. That Jesus is somehow confused about our political system, that he just doesn’t get it.
[It’s as though] the only purpose of politics is to achieve security, whatever that means, and power, so that we can continue to be Christian in our personal lives. But God has a claim on more than that. So we need to be thinking as a church about what spiritual formation for public life looks like.
That doesn’t mean that we need pastors speaking on Sunday morning about what they think the marginal tax rate should be. What it does mean is that we should be insisting that Christians are thinking “Christianly” about politics.