April 12, 2013
Friday Five: Michael Wear
What are evangelicals' biggest misconceptions about President Obama? We asked one who knows him well.
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Michael Wear. Michael was the faith outreach director for President Obama's 2012 relection campaign and until recently served in the White House Office of Faith and Community Partnerships. He recently cofounded Values Partnership with another Obama faith veteran, Joshua Dubois. This is a social enterprise that helps nurture public, private and non-profit partnerships within the faith community. Michael and his wife, Melissa currently reside in Washington, D.C. where they attend National Community Church. You can follow Michael on Twitter here: @michaelrwear
What is the biggest misconception evangelicals have about the President's faith?
There are some surface level misconceptions, or insufficiently informed judgments, some hold that are obvious: that he’s a Muslim (he's not) or otherwise not a Christian (he is), for instance. But I think a more fundamental misconception that some might hold runs deeper and applies to a range of politicians and public figures: that his faith is inanimate. What I mean by that is, I fear many of us talk about the President’s faith as if it is like anything else related to The White House or government—something to be debated or dissected, something to be poked and tested. And this can be done without much regard for the soul of the man.
I’ve prayed with him, and I’ve been with him as he’s discussed his faith in public and in private. He is no theologian, but he is a man on a walk with Jesus. He ponders scripture. He prays. He starts his day with a Christian devotional. We should be very careful about how we address the faith of such a person, President or not, particularly if we don’t have a relationship with him.
The President alluded to some of this in a speech he gave at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2010:
My Christian faith then has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years. All the more so, when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, we are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we're being true to our conscience and true to our God. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”
If we care first and foremost about seeing men and women come to a saving knowledge of Christ, and to grow in that faith, than that should be our modus operandi when thinking about the faith of the President or any other person.
Working in the White House and on a Presidential campaign is a pretty intense job. How did you maintain your spiritual vitality?
Excellent question. To be honest, early on, I didn’t take the challenge seriously enough. I was maybe putting as much in the tank as I was prior to working for the President, but the problem was that I was taking so much more out! It took a bit for me to understand what was happening in my life, and that I would need to create new rhythms so that I could stay grounded in the Gospel in a pretty tough environment. While I was in DC, I started reading my Bible on the metro ride into work, which helped me prepare for the day. My wife and I also joined a small group at our local church here in D.C., National Community Church.
When I started the campaign job last year leading faith outreach, I knew I would be facing a whole new set of challenges, and so I asked a few close brothers who I trust and respect to join me on a prayer call each week. Finally, it was really helpful that for the entire time I was serving the President, my job allowed me to connect with Christian leaders and organizations on a regular basis, which made it easier to keep my faith at the center of my day.
Evangelicals have some disagreements with the President on a number of issues, but also found ways to work with him. How hard was it for you to navigate that relationship?
When I was working at The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, we wanted to pursue building relationships with evangelicals (and all religious and non-profit groups and leaders) that prioritized our shared capacity to serve people in need, rather than politics. For too long, engagement of evangelical leaders in D.C. seemed to be all about political power. That approach was both inconsistent with our values, and also, I should add, untenable given that so many of the evangelicals in this country doing good work had purposefully rejected a concentration on partisan politics. We—the Administration and evangelical leaders--provided each other room to disagree on some issues so that we had the freedom to partner on areas of common cause. So on issues from adoption to immigration reform to human trafficking to climate change, and so many more, we sought to connect with those who were doing the best work in these areas, and found ways to partner in concrete ways that actually moved us closer to our shared goals. There are problems that can arise in these kinds of partnerships. It takes courage and putting your reputation on the line. But I believe more than ever that this spirit is critical if government truly wants to serve all of the people, and it’s crucial for the church as a testimony to who we are and who we serve.
Campaigns, of course, are all about political power. So in that context political differences are not able to be overcome in the same way that they could in government. However, in my role leading faith outreach for the President’s re-elect, I tried to make sure that our work communicated an appropriate level of humility and left space for committed people of faith who disagree with the President. I hope that was felt by folks during the campaign.
Some groups have been concerned about the HHS mandate and religious liberty. Do you think the White House will continue to address their questions?
This is such a tough issue. I think The White House will continue to listen to and find ways to address conscience issues raised by religious groups in a way that is consistent with their values. I think Melissa Rogers, the newly-appointed head of The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, understands religious liberty issues as well as anybody in the country. She will serve the country well, and we should be thankful someone who has thought so much about these issues is in that role.
I will mention two things that I think are important in this general area of religious liberty that I think will be increasingly important in what is a rapidly changing, post-Christian national culture where Christianity no longer provides the dominant narrative and backdrop for the way our society considers issues. First, we can no longer assume familiarity with what it means to be religious. I met very few leaders in Washington, of either Party, who were intentionally antagonistic toward people of faith. In more cases though, the messages of the faith community can just get lost in translation. We need to think about how we communicate what it means to be religious to policymakers who may or may not be believers themselves, and what practical implications that has in their work. I care a great deal about this issue today, and I view it as central to my work moving forward.
Second, for an issue as important as religious liberty, we must ensure that what we are communicating is essential, is actually essential. We must not conflate issues of religious liberty with general policy goals that we have, because that will undermine our pursuit of protections for religious liberty. In an increasingly pluralistic nation, hyperbole can’t be our primary mode of rhetoric as we engage in the public square. Let’s reassess what is essential and what is not, and then stand strong for those things that are core to protecting religious liberty in this country.
How would you counsel Christians to pray for the President?
I think that we should pray for the President as we would for anyone in a position of power. Pray that God will give him a peace that surpasses all understanding, and banish anxiety from his heart. Pray for perspective, that God would speak to him, and that he will have the faith to follow Him. Pray for his family.
But more directly to your question of how we should pray for the President: Pray with a spirit of love and goodwill. Pray knowing that Jesus is Lord over all things, and that he cares about the future of this country and the fate of the world more than any of us ever could. And pray without condescension in your heart, with a humility that represents a proper perspective of who we are, and who God is.
Bonus Question: You're a huge Buffalo Bills fan. How do you think they will do this year?
You’re asking at the wrong time, Dan. Our team is in utter disrepair: We don’t have a legitimate starting quarterback; we have a #1 wideout who would be a phenomenal #2, and not much to back him up; our linebackers were the weakest part of our team, and for some reason we’ve let go of our best ones without any sign of a replacement; at the moment our offensive line started to gel, we decided we didn’t want to pay one of our top lineman (Levitre); need I go on? I’m withholding a final judgment, because it’s too painful to think about now, until after Draft Day. Ask me then, and I will likely either be in deep despair, or holding onto the faintest glimmer of hope. I think we’re looking at 5-11 right now, and even that may be too optimistic.
Daniel Darling is a pastor, author, and speaker. He regularly blogs here. Follow him on Twitter: @dandarling