Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America

by Michael R Wear


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Now in paperback with a new afterword from the author. "An important and extremely timely book...Get it, read it, and talk to others about it." —Timothy Keller

In this unvarnished account of faith inside the world’s most powerful office, Michael Wear provides unprecedented insight into the highs and lows of working as a Christian in government. Reclaiming Hope is an insider’s view of the most controversial episodes of the Obama administration, from the president’s change of position on gay marriage and the transformation of religious freedom into a partisan idea, to the administration’s failure to find common ground on abortion and the bitter controversy over who would give the benediction at the 2012 inauguration.

The book is also a passionate call for faith in the public square, particularly for Christians to see politics as a means of loving one’s neighbor and of pursuing justice for all. Engrossing, illuminating, and at time provocative, Reclaiming Hope changes the way we think about the relationship of politics and faith.

"A pre-Trump book with serious questions for our politics in the age of Trump...More necessary than ever before." — Sojourners

"Should be read by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and all who are concerned by the state of our politics.” —Kirsten Powers, USA Today columnist and CNN political analyst

"Reclaiming Hope will certainly give you a fresh perspective on politics—but, more importantly, it may also give you a fresh perspective on faith.”—Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Ministries

"An important contribution in this age of religious and political polarization." —J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy

"A lifeline for these times." —Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts and The Broken Way

“We can hope, and this book can help us.” —Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718091521
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 01/09/2018
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael Wear is the founder of Public Square Strategies LLC, a consulting firm that helps businesses, non-profits, foundations, and Christian organizations at the intersection of faith, politics, and culture. Wear directed faith outreach for President Obama’s historic 2012 re-election campaign and was one of the youngest White House staffers in modern American history, leading evangelical outreach and helping manage the White House’s engagement on religious and values issues, including adoption and anti-human trafficking efforts. He holds an honorary position at the University of Birmingham’s Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, and serves on the national board of Bethany Christian Services. He lives with his wife, Melissa, in Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt

Reclaiming Hope

Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About The Future of Faith in America

By Michael Wear

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2017 Michael Wear
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7180-8233-8



My path to working for the president was an improbable one.

I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, in a town and a family emblematic of what writer George Packer has so strikingly referred to as "the unwinding," the massive social and economic transformation of the last forty years that has led to a hollowing out of America's middle class. When I was seven years old my parents divorced due to economic strain, and so my older sister, Dana, and I were primarily raised by my mother, Genevieve. We did not have a lot of money — my mother worked two and sometimes three jobs for most of my childhood so that we could get by — but I was surrounded by a large, loving Italian family.

The patriarch of that family, my grandfather Jerry, was the man I looked up to, and he was like a father to me. He was a great man. He was an army artilleryman in World War II and fought in northern France. My grandfather was certain the Lord was with him in the war. One night he opened his eyes and everything was bright; his whole area was being bombed. He left his tent and ran across the street to check on the other soldiers. After confirming they were safe, he returned to his tent to find his bed torn to shreds by shrapnel. "No one can tell me there's no Lord," he would say.

I looked up to my grandfather my entire life, and he never disappointed me. I feel a great sense of warmth and security even today when I think of the sound of his electric razor accompanied by his joyful humming of old songs from the army. He taught me through his example about citizenship and community, and about the importance and value of family. It was my grandfather who sparked my interest in public service and politics at a very young age, and those commitments have guided much of my life. Whatever I have accomplished, whatever good I have done in my life so far, is largely due to his towering presence.

He died in the summer of 2005, and I was devastated. I delivered the eulogy at his funeral, marking the end of my adolescence and the beginning of a new age of responsibility. I was seventeen years old. There were so many important decisions to make ahead, and now I had to make them without the one person whose assurances gave me instant comfort.


I certainly didn't receive much comfort from religion as an adolescent. My family was not particularly religious. In Buffalo, it seemed as if everyone was born Catholic. It was a Catholicism of rituals and rhythms that gave structure to the weeks and years. Religion was "like brushing your teeth in the morning," my mother says: "you just did it." There were Catholics of deep faith in my family when I was growing up, and I have met many more since, but in my youth, religion seemed empty and contrived.

The millennial generation is the first to grow up in a time when religious skepticism is pervasive and accepted in mainstream American culture. Like many of my peers, I internalized messages about religion that I did not really understand myself. I was convinced the Bible was self-contradictory, though I had never read it. I viewed religion as a crutch without interrogating the actual experiences of religious people. I believed religion was anti-intellectual without considering the brilliance of the religious people I knew, or the fact that many of the great intellectuals of human history were religious.

In the same way many in previous generations considered themselves to be Christian because it was reinforced by their peers and culture, I assumed God was unknowable and irrelevant, if God existed at all.

Yet I could not escape God. This God-who-did-not-exist was everywhere.

I have loved rhythm and blues and soul music for as long as I can remember, and it constantly brought me into contact with the gospel. Whether it was a gospel track on an otherwise secular album or the unencumbered praising of God on award shows by my favorite black artists, it was through black music and culture that I felt a sort of tension, a constant knocking that indicated a question that had yet to be confronted stood right outside the doors of my mind and heart.

Then, quite literally, God infiltrated my home. My sister was influenced by a number of high school peers who were devout Christians, and they led her to begin exploring her own beliefs when she was a teenager. Soon enough, she told me she had given her life to Christ, and that I should too. I looked up to my sister in the way a little brother usually does — begrudgingly but undeniably — and so her conversion demanded my attention.

Over the next several years, Dana was persistently proselytizing me. She would give me books, many of which I pretended to ignore but secretly read. She would share with me what she was learning, most of which I initially mocked and later contemplated. One time, she tried to sit down with me and read me something from the Bible and I stood up, started yelling at her, and threw the large Bible back in her face. I found out later that she was praying fervently for me this whole time.

My protestations aside, in my solitude — where there was no one I needed to impress or defend myself against — there was an excavation of all that I thought about religion, about Christianity, and the questions kept turning over in my mind. I read Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, which was a bestseller at the time, and Strobel helpfully deconstructed some of the more obvious, pervasive material critiques of Christianity. I came across a Christian blogger who was gracious enough to correspond with a fifteen-year-old boy who asked difficult, sometimes exacting or obscure questions of him. I exchanged multiple e-mails with the pastor of my sister's church.

In 2002, Lauryn Hill released an acoustic album, a follow-up to her multiple-Grammy-winning debut solo album. The 2002 album merged a theologically rooted political awareness with deeply probing, emotional songs about the artist's personal relationship with God. I listened to the album over and over again, and the intellectual heft of the effort, combined with Hill's emotional sincerity, moved me. In one song, "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind," Hill sings about how she tried to find contentment in other relationships, but they fell short. At the end of the song, Hill starts weeping, praising God, singing that God is now her peace of mind, and riffing through tears about a God who is merciful and wonderful. There comes a point when the performance seems to end, and it is just her singing to God. I thought, Something is going on here that is more than just ritual and tradition.

One evening, after months of saying no, I finally agreed to attend my sister's youth group with her. I think I figured if I attended, I would have more ammunition with which to dismiss her beliefs, but at this point I was also a bit curious.

It did not work out as I had planned: I did not fit in. I did not know the language. I did not understand the culture. One of the girls in the youth group, who was around my age and knew that I was not a Christian, introduced herself and asked, "What is your favorite book of the Bible?"

I, of course, did not have a favorite book. In that moment, I wasn't even sure I knew one. Before I could answer, she responded, "Well, mine is Hezekiah."

I responded hurriedly, "Mine too."

It was only after I became a Christian that I realized that there was no book called Hezekiah in the Bible. She was messing with me.

I did not enjoy the youth group at all.

I endured the event program of music, games, and a sermon. When we were finally dismissed, I told my sister I would be by the car, and I hurried out hoping to avoid another Bible quiz. As I walked through the large, open space of the church's youth center, one of the volunteer leaders with the group was handing out little books. To be civil, I took one. For some reason, I did not immediately discard it. I returned home that evening, sat on my bed, and just stared at the book for a few minutes.

Just Romans. That's odd. No culturally hip messaging? Nothing to try to scare me or woo me? No emotional manipulation?

I read the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans from the New Testament in its entirety that night. The letter contains not just the story of Jesus but an argument about how Jesus fits into the story of human history. Looking back, I suppose that the sensation I had reading that remarkable letter — a letter so extraordinary that while it was written to an entire civilization, it seems to so many readers to have been written just for them — was one of a culmination of learning, a consummation of all that had been working in me those past few years, perhaps even all of my life. But in that moment of rapturous realization, there was a feeling of discovery, of reaching the summit of some majestic mountaintop that I only just realized I had been climbing all along.

Romans is a breathtaking, lawyerly argument about the nature of God, creation, and the human condition. Paul's claims in it are concrete rather than ethereal and he stated them as fact.

As I read, I was compelled to ask the straightforward question I had circled around for years: "What if this is real?" And it was there, at the end of all of my striving to not believe, that I found myself believing. It was there that grace found me.

On an evening in the autumn of 2003, in the car with my sister as she dropped me off in front of our house after school, I told her, the first time I told anyone, that I believed in Christ, "my Lord and my God." To this day, my sister's steadfastness in her prayer and conversations with me is one of the great witnesses of faithfulness I have personally encountered.

Now that I believed, I was not really sure all it signified for my life. What did it mean to follow Jesus? Initially, I thought I had to forget about politics, go to seminary, and become a pastor. What did following Jesus mean if not entering the ministry? After some study and good counsel, I chose a different path: I wanted to discover what faith ought to look like in public.

For a while it seemed to me as though I would have to figure it out alone. I felt isolated as a teenager, but was already beginning to reconcile myself to the idea that my decisions would be mine alone and that I would have to take action alone. This sense seemed to be affirmed as I went deeper into my teenage years.

And then Melissa appeared, as in a vision that seemed like a dream, another reality. She was bold and brilliant — willing to make arguments and defend her intellect. She was utterly unique — we could laugh about the dumbest things, but she never seemed frivolous. She was not flailing about like other teenagers; she was grounded and purposeful. She seemed to be made of meaning.

We began dating before I headed to college in Washington, DC, while she finished her senior year of high school, and we have been together ever since. Melissa has been my reminder that I am not my politics. She knew me and loved me before the campaigns, before the White House, before the fund-raisers and fancy receptions. I would need that reminder in the days ahead.



I met Barack Obama not just by chance, but chance that arose out of my own personal error. I was eighteen, a freshman at George Washington University, and I held a position on the executive board of the College Democrats chapter on campus. In that position, I was supposed to lead students to attend the Democratic National Committee's Winter Meeting. The convention that year was particularly important, as it represented one of the few times presidential candidates would have all of the party's superdelegates together in one place. Superdelegates are party leaders who have a vote in the nominating process that can be cast however they decide. They play a critical role in legitimizing a candidacy, and if the race is close enough, they can even tip the balance in one candidate's direction.

This was my first party convention, so while I was excited, I had no idea what to expect. When I arrived at the Washington Hilton — where I would spend future mornings with President Obama for official events — I expected to see crowds of people and political paraphernalia. Instead, I found an empty hotel lobby.

After twenty minutes of wandering around the hotel, I finally asked the concierge where I might find the convention. The receptionist told me what should have been obvious: I had the wrong date. The convention had not even started yet.

Embarrassed and dejected, I walked through the lobby toward the outside doors. As I neared the exit, I noticed a man whose political career I had been following for several years already and who I was certain would run for president: Barack Obama. Accompanied by only a couple of staffers, Obama walked directly toward me. He had not yet announced his campaign — in fact, his appearance at the convention would be one of the final milestones on the road to announcing just days later. Because he was not yet a presidential candidate, he was not surrounded by hordes of press and aides, and I was able to walk up to him almost immediately.

I stretched out my hand to shake his and began to speak. He leaned toward me, with his ear just inches from my mouth.

"Senator, I'm a Christian who has followed your career for years, and I believe in your vision. I think you should run for president, and I would love to work for you when you do."

Obama smiled and pointed to his personal assistant, Reggie Love, who walked over with an open, small notebook.

"I want you to talk to Reggie. He'll get your information, and we'll be in touch. We'd love to have your help."

"Thank you, Senator," I replied.

I walked to a quieter spot in the lobby with Reggie, and we exchanged a few words of pleasantries while he collected my information. Reggie is a man of imposing kindness. A team captain with the Duke Blue Devils NCAA champion basketball team, Reggie would go on to serve as Obama's "body man," or personal assistant, in the White House. Essentially, Reggie was responsible for the president's needs — as much as any one person could be — 24/7.

I was persistent, perhaps even annoying, in my follow-up inquiries and reminders to Reggie and to Joshua DuBois, who covered faith issues in Obama's senate office. My e-mails would alternate between short reminders that I existed and multiple-paragraph e-mails that included campaign strategy recommendations. Looking back, it is hard to pinpoint what it was that motivated me to pursue what was an opaque opportunity.

I had never worked on a campaign before. Would I even like it? Barack Obama was polling in the single-digits for much of the nine months or so I spent trying to work for him. Even if he won, it was beyond my imagination that I could follow him to the White House.

Barack Obama's singularity as a politician was definitely a large part of it. It is undeniable that for me and others of my generation, working to elect Obama became a way to place ourselves in the historic narrative of the civil rights movement. My first explicitly political convictions were related to civil rights, and as a student at George Washington University, I protested in the wake of the police shooting of Sean Bell. I was also involved in the Black Student Union on campus. It was beyond compelling to support Obama's campaign.

My identification as a Democrat did not mean that I was completely at ease in the party. When I became a Christian, I soon understood that throwing myself without reservation behind any party platform was impossible. My allegiances were elsewhere. Politics provided a choice between imperfect options. I remained a Democrat because of the party's historical commitment to the working class, party members' dedication to combating poverty directly, and the Democrats' leadership in the modern civil rights movement. I was deeply troubled by abortion (discussed more fully later in this book), and that issue made navigating Democratic politics difficult at times. I also disagreed with Democrats' general approach to matters of sex and sexuality, along with other issues. Still, I had profound disagreements with the Republican Party too.

What is also important to understand is that I came of age during a time when the Religious Right had great influence and many Christians were coming to accept that some of the tactics of that movement actually caused damage to the witness of the American church. At the very time I became a Christian, it seemed many of my peers had an increasingly negative perception of Christians. This was in large part due to a presentation of evangelicals in the public square that led many to believe Christians were judgmental, hypocritical, and sheltered. In 2010, respected academics David Campbell and Robert Putnam concluded in their landmark book, American Grace, that partisan politics were directly to blame for the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans. "The growth of the nones," Campbell argued, "is a direct reaction to the intermingling of religion and politics in the United States." Evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt was more blunt in his assessment: "As American Evangelicals have become more partisan, American Christianity has suffered as more shy away from the faith." The evangelical political leaders that dominated political news seemed little like the evangelicals I knew and worshiped with in Buffalo or at my church in Washington. Yet those were the folks who had the Republican Party's ear. After losing two straight presidential elections, the Democrats were open to just about everyone.


Excerpted from Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear. Copyright © 2017 Michael Wear. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prelude xxi

Introduction xxvii

Chapter 1 Family Values 1

Chapter 2 Meeting Barack Obama 9

Chapter 3 A Campaign to Believe In 23

Chapter 4 President Obama's Faith in the White House (2009-2010) 57

Chapter 5 President Obama's Faith in the White House (2011-2012) 79

Chapter 6 Searching for Common Ground on Abortion 103

Chapter 7 The Contraception Mandate 123

Chapter 8 The President's "Evolution" 141

Chapter 9 A Different Kind of Campaign 159

Chapter 10 The Tale of Two Inaugurals 177

Chapter 11 Real Hope 191

Chapter 12 Reclaiming Hope 205

Afterword 229

Acknowledgments 241

About the Author 245

Notes 247

Index 275

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