Culture

An Obama Insider’s Lament

President Obama campaigns in Nevada, November 2012 (Jason Reed/Reuters); inset: Michael Wear’s book
In his new book, the director of faith outreach for the 2012 campaign paints an ugly picture of the administration’s cynicism.

Conservatives will have a hard time finding a more like-minded guide to the decision-making inside the Obama White House than Michael Wear.

Wear served in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during Obama’s first term, and then directed faith outreach for the president’s reelection campaign. His memoir of his time in the administration, Reclaiming Hope, is a spectacularly readable portrait of a unique niche in Obama-world to which many progressives grew hostile over time, representing as it did faith in general and Christianity in particular.

At a meeting early in Obama’s first term, Wear recalls, he was introducing himself to some other young staffers and explaining his job when “the second-most senior staffer at the table interrupted me and began a rant about the separation of church and state and what he deemed to be the impropriety of [faith-based outreach].”

By his own account, Wear was naïve at the beginning of the Obama years, a 21-year-old out to change the world before the world changed him, too inexperienced to know what was “impossible” and therefore willing to reach for what no one had done before. He is as admirably frank as Democrats get these days in acknowledging the virtues of faithful Americans, and he doesn’t shy away from or gloss over the Obama administration’s problems and clashes with Christian groups, dissecting each one as an insider who remains deeply sympathetic to Obama but who can’t deny what he saw all around him.

In describing the battle that erupted between the administration and the Little Sisters of the Poor over Obamacare’s contraception mandate, Wear casts himself as Cassandra. “This was not a standard disagreement between religious conservatives and a progressive White House, but instead a potentially landscape-shifting conflict-stoking move. This reality was conveyed to the highest levels of the White House repeatedly.” He claims that the administration chose “the path of most resistance” in the contraception fight as a deliberate, cynical political strategy: “A senior political advisor repeatedly thought that the bishops’ complaints would bolster a useful campaign narrative: that supporters of their view, including Republican Mitt Romney, held anachronistic views about women and family planning.’”

On gay marriage, Wear warily recounts Obama’s declaration to Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church that “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman” and his May 2012 announcement that he suddenly realized that opposing gay marriage was incompatible with the Golden Rule to treat others as one wishes to be treated. Wear reminds readers that the president’s language was “poll-tested and promoted by LGBT groups as effective.” He also notes that “many [campaign staffers] now acted as though he had never opposed same-sex marriage in the first place.”

For cynics, it’s easy to conclude that President Obama is a liar, or that all of his statements come with an expiration date. But for Wear, a true believer, the conveniently timed, unpersuasively explained change of heart challenges the public persona Obama constructed during the 2008 campaign.

Rarely will you hear a participant in a winning presidential campaign describe the victorious effort so scathingly.

“I was forced to ask myself, would he really have used religious language to convince voters of something he did not believe?” Wear writes. “If the president did believe in and support same-sex marriage in 2007 or even earlier, his repeated assertions that he did not were a direct rebuke to the type of politics he said was possible. To let stand the claim that he supported gay marriage all along is to choose political gain over the integrity of the president’s own words.”

Rarely will you hear a participant in a winning presidential campaign describe the victorious effort so scathingly. Wear cringes at Democratic National Convention speakers “almost comically excited about abortion.” The cynicism of the endeavor grates on him. “Data-driven politics is incompatible with an aspirational politics. It is willing to sacrifice a broader coalition for a few bucks, a dozen hours of free airtime and an angrier base.” He’s clearly uncomfortable with the effort to paint Republican opponents into extreme, theocratic monsters: “Too often the White House would not seek to marginalize the most offensive voices but to prop them up. . . . One former aide to Obama summarized the 2012 campaign’s ‘basic message’ to voters was that ‘Mitt Romney hates you.’”

Wear concludes by contrasting the 2009 inaugural — where Obama stood by the decision to have Rick Warren deliver the invocation — with the 2013 inaugural, where controversy erupted surrounding Louie Giglio.

Giglio is the pastor of Passion City Church, a particularly outspoken activist against human trafficking, and, in Wear’s words, “the type of evangelical leader Democrats had pined for just years ago when they were on the defensive on social issues.” He was no stranger to Obama; he was one of four Evangelical leaders invited to the White House to meet with the president after Obama announced the administration’s support for gay marriage. But after he was announced as a speaker at the 2013 inauguration, liberal and gay-rights groups threw a fit.

Wear describes increasingly tense negotiations that climax when a senior staffer at “one of our country’s leading LGBT rights groups” is asked what kind of religious leader would be deemed acceptable to replace Giglio. The reply was, “Honestly, if it is a Christian, we will find something on him, and make him famous.” Giglio withdrew.

Wear’s conclusion is succinct and disturbing: “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel all dissent.”

You might expect a book with tales like this to be angrier. Throughout, it’s clear Wear loves Obama — both as a Christian and as a political leader. The story amounts to an affectionate, forgiving look at a leader’s increasingly consistent betrayals. Your perspective on Christianity may determine whether you walk away from Reclaiming Hope thinking of Wear as a merciful soul or as a man who got suckered and is rationalizing his past loyalty.

Undoubtedly, a part of Obama’s conscience wanted a more civil, respectful tone in politics, a Democratic party in which the Christian faithful felt warmly welcomed and celebrated instead of vilified, and a nation where religious liberty was broadly respected and persons of faith would feel like they were being demonized for political purposes.

Throughout his presidency, Obama wrestled with that conscience, and he always found a way to beat it.

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