President Obama's director of faith outreach on mixing religion and politics

Michael Wear is the founder of Public Square Strategies LLC. He is an evangelical Christian writer who served in the White House’s faith-based initiative during President Obama’s first term and—at age 23—directed faith outreach during the 2012 re-election campaign. In the faith-based initiative he led evangelical outreach and helped manage the White House’s engagement on religious and values issues, including adoption and anti-human trafficking efforts. He writes about faith, politics and culture for The Atlantic, Christianity Today and other publications. He also serves on the national board of Bethany Christian Services, the nation's largest adoption agency. Mr. Wear lives with his wife, Melissa, in the Washington, D.C., area.

On Dec. 9, I interviewed Mr. Wear by email about his faith and work.

When you worked for President Obama’s reelection campaign, what was your strategy for winning Catholic votes and political support?

My approach to my job was to present the president’s positions honestly in a way that could be received by various faith communities, but to allow people of faith to make their own decisions. As a person of faith, I am sensitive to the manipulation that can sometimes occur in politics, and so we tried to be sure to never claim that President Obama was the candidate for Catholics or any other faith community.

President Obama did fairly well with the Catholic vote in his reelection. For Democrats to duplicate that success among Catholic voters in the next election, what are their winning issues?

Yes, President Obama won a majority of Catholic voters in both of his presidential campaigns, and a big reason for that is the president’s recognition of the linkage between economic security and the stability of American families. Democrats’ continued success with Catholic voters will largely depend on their ability to sustain the focus President Obama has had on that intersection of economic security and strengthening American families.

In the heyday of U.S. labor unions, American Catholics were once a strong Democratic voting bloc, but they started splintering off to the Republicans on values issues under President Richard Nixon. Today, many Catholic voters continue to be wary of the Democrats’ pro-choice platform. In a recent filmed interview with America Media, Vice President Biden said there is “absolutely” a place for pro-life Catholics in the Democratic Party. If so, what is it?

I was glad to hear the Vice President to say that. It is who he is, and the Democratic Party has been fortunate over the years to have leaders like him who recognize the moral and political importance of openness to principled disagreement on this issue. Unfortunately, we do not have as many of those leaders today. I was glad and proud that Cardinal Timothy Dolan was welcomed to the 2012 Democratic Convention, and that Sr. Simone Campbell spoke in support of her pro-life views from the convention stage.

However, it cannot be ignored that the Democratic Party has become more closed-minded on this issue in recent years. There will always be a place for anyone in any political party—they’ll take votes wherever they can get them. The question is whether pro-life Americans will be welcomed in the Democratic Party as they have been in the past.

I do want to note though, that for those who care both about a culture of life and the actual rate of abortion in this country, there has to be acknowledgment and reflection regarding the fact that the abortion rate has dropped significantly under President Obama. In fact, the abortion rate is at its lowest point since 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade decision.  

You identify as an evangelical Christian, but most evangelicals tend to identify with the Religious Right. When you worked at the White House, how did you go about convincing evangelicals to work with the Obama administration?

You work together with folks where there is common interest. There was not too much persuasion involved, but instead an identification of where there was common interest, clear communication about what partnership would entail, and religious groups making a determination based on that. We worked with many faith communities, including evangelicals, on a broad array of issues: foster care and adoption, disaster relief efforts, combatting hunger, fighting poverty at home and abroad, stewardship of the environment and so many others.

The faith community doesn’t need a whole lot of persuasion to get involved in these issues—we’ve been doing this work for a long time. So where the government had value to bring in partnership in a way that would not interfere with the overall mission of faith-based groups, we were generally able to partner in ways that benefitted the American people and people around the world.

Relations between the U.S. bishops and White House have been strained at times. What can President Obama do better in his relationship with the Catholic Church?

The president has a long history with the Catholic Church going back to his days as a community organizer, and the U.S. bishops have been integral to so many of the president’s priorities: protecting the social safety net; serving the vulnerable, including refugees; advocating for environmental stewardship and so many other areas. Catholics make up a significant portion of the country he leads. Unfortunately, political incentives and genuine policy disagreements have sometimes led to friction that is not healthy for the Democratic Party, for the church or for the nation as a whole. 

The Catholic Church, like many religious institutions in America, wants to continue to thrive serving God and neighbor in this new century. President Obama can deliver a clear message as he nears the end of his presidency that political leaders should seek to resolve tensions between the government’s interests and those of the church, rather than inflame those tensions for political benefit. The president ran in 2008 against the political tactic of using faith as a wedge. In his final year in office, it would be fitting for him to communicate that principle once again as a priority for our nation moving forward.

How has your faith changed or evolved over the years?

When I first became a Christian I basically agreed to a set of principles or ideas about God. Those ideas are important. They provide a framework for relationship. What has grown in me over the years is an awareness of a God who is active in the world today, of a kingdom that is not just “not yet,” but is “already” here as well.

I’ll say the other change has been a growing appreciation for liturgy and for the tradition of the church. There is something powerful, particularly in this great age of polarization and disillusionment that we’re in, to be able to join not just with Christians around the world but in centuries past, to proclaim faith in a God who is always faithful and never ending.

What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?

It depends what season I’m in, but I love John 14:6 and 1 Corinthians 3:9.

Though if I had to give one, I’d have to say Romans 10:9-10: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

I read that passage as a 15 year old and it changed my life.

Who have been your biggest role models or influences in the Christian faith?

The most influential have been individuals in my daily life who I will not embarrass by naming here.

I will name Dallas Willard, a teacher, writer and academic who passed away several years ago. I read his book The Divine Conspiracy in 2010, and it was like a second awakening in my spiritual life. He has helped me think about and discover what it means to follow Jesus in the here and now.

Have you ever felt any tensions between your faith and political career?

Absolutely. How faith and politics intersect and ought to intersect are complicated and determined by a whole range of factors. I do think the tension can be a good thing though. You know, when I first became a Christian I thought it meant I had to go to seminary, become a pastor and that would be that. That was the way to be a Christian. But I came to understand the idea of vocation in a Christian context, and realized I actually wanted to find out what it meant to be faithful in politics and public life.

That road has not been and will not be without its bumps, but I believe it is critical that Christians find themselves not just in the comfortable corridors of our churches, but out there in the public square.

What do you predict will happen with religious voters in the next presidential election?

It really depends. I think that it will really matter who gets their party’s nominations. It will matter how those candidates want to lead. I’ve heard too much about a 50%+1 strategy, referring to the fact that you only need 50% of Americans plus one in order to win an election. That might be fine for campaign strategists, but we need elected officials who do not view their job as a 50%+1 proposition. This is the type of politics that leads Republicans to think it is acceptable to win elections by stoking fear. It is the type of politics that leads Democrats to think it’s acceptable to pretend half of the country doesn’t exist or is somehow “the past.” We have to reject this kind of thinking.

In ecumenical relations, Pope Francis has been particularly friendly to evangelical Christians, even delivering a recorded message to a conference hosted by Kenneth Copeland Ministries last year. As an evangelical Christian, if you could say one thing to the pope, what would it be?

Pope Francis is helping orthodox Christians in the West imagine what it might mean to believe in orthodox teaching, and yet still thrive in the public square. It won’t be easy. People will try to manipulate us. But the Christian message is relevant for all times, and Pope Francis is helping us put a finger on the spiritual and evangelistic opportunities of our time. So I would humbly encourage the Pope as he continues to assert himself in public. This is not a time for Christian withdrawal. This is a time for a joyful confidence in the public square.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Father Stanley Rother, a priest of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese who was brutally murdered in 1981 in the Guatemalan village where he ministered to the poor, is shown baptizing a child in this undated photo. (CNS) 
Before Father Rother died for his people, he had farmed with them, listened to them and spoken of God to them.
Terrance KleinJune 28, 2017
Pope Francis greets young refugees during a conference on families and adolescent education at Rome's Basilica of St. John Lateran on June 19. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
“This is a pretty broad exception to the ban,” David Robinson says, “and it does allow for legitimate entry into the United States for people who can pass the screening process, which is what we want.”
Kevin ClarkeJune 28, 2017
The texture and variety of Stevens's new album creates liminal spaces between the sacred and the profane.
Reconnect Brooklyn is investing in people rather than properties, the residents who are struggling to remain in Bed-Stuy amid rising costs.
Wyatt MasseyJune 28, 2017