Michael Wear spoke as one of the panelists at the Evangelicals for Life Conference Jan. 26-28 in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a White House staffer in the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Barack Obama’s administration. He also directed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 re-election bid and recently released a book entitled, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America.
Wear sat down for an interview with the Biblical Recorder during the conference, offering a glimpse into the daily life of a young public servant in the halls of power. He also talks about how his Christian faith intersected with his work in the Obama administration.
Q: You were one of the youngest White House staffers ever. How old were you when you started, and how did you end up there?
A: I was 20 years old. I was at George Washington University, here in Washington, D.C., and I met [then presidential candidate] Barack Obama in the lobby of a hotel. I was supposed to be leading a group to a political convention in February of 2007, and I had the wrong date. So, I showed up to the hotel and nothing was going on. It was like a ghost town.
It was my first political convention, and I thought I’d open a door and the convention would be there. I finally gave up and asked someone – the receptionist. She said, “O, honey! It’s not for a couple days.” I walked out dejected and embarrassed.
Barack Obama happened to be walking in for a meeting. I met some of his staff and stayed in touch with them.
He hadn’t held public office for too long – unlike Hillary Clinton, who had three decades of her and her husband’s staffers to staff a campaign. Barack Obama’s campaign was in talent acquisition mode, so it made it possible for me to get a position.
Q: Was it intimidating, working in the White House at that age?
A: No. For a lot of people, when they get a job at the White House, it’s because they’ve worked their entire lives trying to strategize and figure out a way to get there. For us [referring to himself and another young staffer], we worked for a guy named Barack Obama who was facing Hillary Clinton and polling in the single digits. A year later, we were in the White House.
I guess there was some intimidation. You walk in the Oval Office, and of course it’s intimidating. But, as for the whole experience of working at the White House, it was more like, “Wow! We have this incredible opportunity that’s fleeting. We know it has an expiration date. So, how can we make the best of it?”
You know you have four or eight years to serve this country with everything you have.
Once that time is done, you can take all the vacation you want, you can sleep all you want. But for this period – that’s why people work 16-hour days, because they know with each passing day you have less time to get done what you want to get done.
Q: To many Americans the White House is a caricature, a mythical castle of incomprehensible power occupied by either a hero or villain, depending on the results of the latest election cycle. Give us a peek behind the curtain. What is it like to work there day-in and day-out?
A: The vast majority of the time, it’s not like television: it’s not like Scandal, it’s not House of Cards, and it’s not The West Wing. People aren’t that funny. People aren’t that creatively malicious.
In Republican and Democratic administrations – I’ve met enough George W. Bush White House staffers and now some Donald Trump folks – these are just exceptionally bright people who are trying to serve their country in the best way they know how.
There are times, in the middle of a political crisis, when things get ratcheted up, and it becomes a political environment – because it’s a political office. But the vast majority of the time, it’s folks having really boring conversations about really important things.
If people had the ability to follow staffers throughout the full scale and duration of their time in the White House, they’d be proud.
The country is being served well and being served with great passion by the vast majority of its public servants.
Q: You were one of the panelists at Evangelicals for Life – a large, evangelical, pro-life conference. You also worked in President Barack Obama’s administration, arguably the most liberal U.S. president to date. You even directed faith outreach for his 2012 campaign. For many evangelicals, it’s unthinkable that someone could be a conservative Christian and a Democrat at the same time. How do you respond to that?
A: I was asked recently, “Was it uncomfortable working in a Democratic administration?” My response was, “I’m a Christian. Of course it was.”
But if what is behind that question is the assumption that if I had been working in a Republican administration that I’d be completely comfortable, then I think they’re misunderstanding politics – how it works, what’s involved.
Christians don’t have the luxury of getting their political views from a political platform. We answer to a higher source. In addition, I was somewhat protected in the White House. I wasn’t in the communications shop. I was in the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. My job was to resource the faith community to serve those in need and to make sure that people of faith were represented in policy discussions and outreach.
So, my job was to be honest with people of faith and to be honest with the administration about how people of faith were feeling.
Now, of course that’s a diverse faith community. Christians have all sorts of views on torture, the environment and immigration. My job was to help communicate all those views.
The last thing I’d say is that I became a Christian at about 15 years old after reading Romans. My views on civil rights, poverty and immigration reform were all motivated by my Christian faith. While they aren’t perfectly represented by the Democratic party, the Democratic party has definitely been more comfortable on those kinds of issues than the Republican party, especially the Republican party of today.
I was always very clear on the issues where I disagreed with the Democratic party. What we need now – more than anything, when it comes to politics – are faithful Christians who are happy to call themselves Democrats that are willing to speak within that structure on behalf of pro-life views.
What we need more than anything are faithful Christians, happy to call themselves Republicans, who are willing to speak within the Republican party for a compassionate view toward immigrants. And that’s how this polarization will be stemmed.
We have the highest number of political independents we’ve ever had in this country – Gallup just came out with new numbers, it might be 43 percent.
These are all people who have completely checked out of the two-party system. So basically, all you have left in each political party are people who believe every jot and tittle of the party platform. Then, we wonder why our parties are so extreme.
Everyone who disagrees with a party on anything has withdrawn from the process because they’re too morally precious to be a part. The point of a party is not to sign your conscience over. The point of a party is to be investing and pouring your views into shaping that party.
Our country would be a lot better off if we would recognize that and view our parties as things to be shaped, as opposed to things that are shaping us.
Q: Do you believe religion will play a greater or lesser role in future national elections?
A: America is still a profoundly religious country. So, for all the conversation leading up to the 2016 election about the end of Christian America, evangelicals still account for 26 percent of the electorate.
Seventy-plus percent of Americans believe in God.
Yes, we need to be aware of some of the trends, but those micro-trends don’t negate the fact that we’re still one of the most religious countries in the Western World. Religion isn’t going anywhere.
What I’m concerned about is that we’re seeing, on both sides of the aisle, a containment of basic theological concepts as simply having private relevance in the personal sphere and not having anything to say about what our public life should look like. That undermines our witness to the public.
We’re not Christians because our mommy and papa were. We’re not just Christians because it gives us a great little community to hang out with. We’re Christians because we believe it’s true. And it’s not just true for us, but it’s true for everybody.
When we are willing to let our theology follow politicians instead of the other way around, we’re heading into some dangerous places.
My hope for the faith-based office in the Trump administration is that it continues to focus on serving the vulnerable. It’s primarily an office that’s about resourcing the non-profit community.
If the tools of the faith-based office are used simply to prop up religious leaders who agree with the current administration on everything, it’s going to destructive to religion in this country. I don’t think the faith-based office will be able to survive that.