Well, now that my 3400 word introduction is complete I can finally get around to reviewing Reclaiming Hope, Michael Wear’s brief memoir of his time with the Obama campaign and White House. Political memoirs tend to be one-sided, catty, and full of ‘juicy’ gossip. That’s probably why I don’t read many of them.
But after noticing several positive reviews of Reclaiming Hope – and seeing the remarks that certain evangelical leaders made about it – I couldn’t help myself. The story of an evangelical who worked to get Barack Obama elected – twice – and worked in the White House sounded too appealing to pass by. So I downloaded the Kindle version and got to reading. And boy did it open my eyes.
A Little About Mr. Wear
Unlike many political memoirs, one of the big-shots didn’t write this one. Michael Wear wasn’t an elite decision-maker or a world-class politico. He was barely an adult. He writes in the prelude, “I was twenty years old, it was my first day at a new job, and I was walking toward the Oval Office for a meeting with the president of the United States. I was not calm and collected.”
But it’s this genuineness and matter-of-fact way of writing that endeared me to Wear as I read. He neither blindly defends nor arbitrarily attacks Barack Obama or anyone else. He doesn’t rant and rarely complains. It’s obvious from the very beginning that his agenda isn’t driven by political concerns. But by Christian ones.
And that makes sense. Wear is an evangelical who worked in the White House’s faith-based initiative during Obama’s first term and helped with religious outreach during both campaigns. Now, for some folks that might sound like something of a contradiction. “An evangelical worked to get Barack Obama elected?! That couldn’t be!” But that’s part of what makes Wear’s story so fascinating. He doesn’t fit the labels we’re so fond of.
An Evangelical Supported Barack Obama?
Though he doesn’t spend much time discussing his own political or theological views (until the last part of the book), it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he isn’t your typical ‘liberal Democrat.’ From what I could gather he seemed like he’s probably fairly socially conservative and fiscally moderate-liberal. He’s also like many millennials who are more sensitive when it comes to issues of race.
And let’s not forget that in 2008, Barack Obama ran a surprisingly moderate campaign. Probably the best evidence for this is the fact that, at the time, he claimed to be against gay marriage since God is “in the mix.” It was only during certain off-the-cuff moments that conservatives could peg him for anything resembling a leftist (remember when he met Joe the Plumber?).
Though most conservatives ardently campaigned and hoped against him – he really didn’t act like a strong liberal during the campaign. He talked about bringing people together. His lofty rhetoric consistently pointed to the idea that he’d originally brought up in his 2004 DNC speech where he said, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
It was this sort of rhetoric that drew many moderates to Barack Obama. Unfortunately, as Wear sadly recounts, he didn’t always practice what he preached.
Meeting Barack Obama
It’s obvious that Wear had – and still has – a great deal of admiration and respect for President Obama. He spends a chapter briefly detailing how he met Obama and describing the president’s relationship with religion/religious speech. After this, he discusses the 2008 campaign – a campaign that was a success in Obama’s broad appeal and reception. Even from religious people. I love how Wear remembers Obama’s meeting with Rick Warren at Saddleback church. He had crafted a memo for the future president, preparing him for the kinds of questions Warren might ask.
Wear recounts a particular exchange between Obama and Warren and then writes, “I had written something just days earlier, and now it was informing what the leading candidate for the presidency of the United States was saying in response to a question from one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the country.” I can imagine the excitement he must’ve been feeling in that moment. Though later in the book he laments the idea that his memos and help may have ended up painting a false picture of the president. Especially after he discovered that Obama had been for gay marriage all along and had only said he was against it for political expediency’s sake.
His Time in the White House
Wear spends two chapters discussing faith in the White House between 2009 and 2012 in rather general terms. He outlines the big objectives that the faith-based initiative was trying to accomplish. He discusses the Affordable Healthcare Act – along with the religious backlash it received. The prayer breakfasts during those years get some coverage. And he talks about his experience with Barack Obama’s personal faith.
All of this is very interesting but it’s clear that Wear’s time in the White House was wearing him down. Hostility toward religion in general – and Christianity in particular – became more and more apparent. In fact, it got so bad that by 2012, when the controversy over Louie Giglio delivering the inauguration prayer blew up (he had – surprise – called homosexual acts sinful in the mid-nineties) a White House staffer told an advisor that they needed a replacement who wasn’t a Christian. According to Wear, the staffer said, “Honestly, if it is a Christian, we will find something on him, and we will make him famous.”
You can learn a lot in four years. And Michael Wear certainly did. He went from being a young, hopeful White House staffer, full of dreams for the possible to…almost sounding cynical.
But he never quite gets there. Instead, I think he just became realistic.
I could say a lot about the lessons Wear learned and hopes to communicate through his writing.
He learned that the nation is more polarized than it’s ever been – and is only becoming more so.
He learned that a lot of Democrats don’t understand religion in general, or Christianity in particular.
Likewise, he learned that politicians are politicians and, too often, do things for political and cynical reasons.
I could list a dozen more lessons learned. And that may be part of the thing that sets this apart from other political memoirs. Wear isn’t writing to settle a score. He’s writing to learn – and to teach – valuable lessons about what it means to be a Christian who lives in America. It’s a great reminder that neither side of the political aisle is saintly. Someone could almost certainly write a similar book about George W. Bush’s time in the White House.
So what do we do about it? Do we settle for cynicism and politics as usual? Or retreat like the Amish? Do we throw our hands up in disgust?
Wear doesn’t end this book in despair. Like I said earlier, he never actually reaches cynicism. Instead, he settles for something resembling Christian realism. He recognizes the brokenness of our nation, our system, and the people who inhabit it.
But he doesn’t stop there. He points beyond the system, to the redemptive power of the Gospel and Jesus Christ. And that’s what makes this memoir stand head and shoulders above any other political memoir out there. It isn’t about Michael Wear or Barack Obama or 2008-2012. It’s about us learning how, through Christ, to hope in a hopeless world.
Because if we can get our eyes off of our political ‘enemies’ – and off of ourselves – we might just be able to focus on Jesus.
And I’m just as confident as Michael Wear is that through Christ, we can reclaim hope.
May we settle for nothing less.
Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America
P.S. – Don’t forget to sign-up for our newsletter. Not only will you get my book, ‘A Disciple’s Manifesto’, for free, you’ll also be able to easily keep up-to-date with the book club, podcast, and other updates.