With a new president, Donald Trump, entering the White House, there has rightfully been a lot of discussion about our outgoing president’s legacy—not least when it comes to matters of faith. To be sure, Barack Obama’s legacy in this area is both complex and important to understand for the future of our nation’s politics.
However, as a Christian, I believe we must not only think of how politicians interact with religious issues, but also how we ourselves interact with politicians and the work they do. What is the legacy of Christian witness in the Obama years, and what lessons can we learn to apply in the Trump era?
Here are three recommendations, based on my personal experience in the Obama White House.
When it comes to faith and policy, take politicians’ words seriously.
A certain kind of cynic tends to think that political wisdom consists of discrediting everything a politician says. On this way of thinking, realism demands that we understand that politicians have a motive for everything they suggest, and therefore nothing should be taken at face value. This approach was a major hindrance to the efforts of conservative Christians during the Obama years.
Partisanship played a major role in hardening this posture. A deep antagonism toward Democrats from Religious Right groups filtered down to the average Christian as a general distrust of Democrats, including Obama. When you consider the eagerness of some Christians to take even the slightest Trump utterance on judges or family values as a sacred promise, the partisan nature of (at least some) distrust toward Obama becomes clearer still.
A better approach would have been to take the President’s words seriously, to make clear that Christians believed what he said and would hold him accountable for his words. This is what other advocacy groups do. If the President goes to the Sierra Club and makes a commitment on land conservation, they put it up on their website and remind his staff over and over again about the commitment he made. Those advocating to close Guantanamo Bay did the same thing. In 2008, the President said in a speech that he did not support federal grants going to faith-based groups who considered faith when they hired employees. He later moderated that position, in large part because of his respect for the work faith-based organizations do and the effect such a policy would have on efforts to fight poverty. But the groups who wanted that policy to change sent letter after letter asking the President to follow through on his commitment.
Instead, when the President said he supported traditional marriage, many conservative Christians scoffed. When the President said he supported restrictions on abortion, instead of calling his bluff and asking his administration to draw up an abortion restriction along the lines of what he would find acceptable, pro-life groups worked to assure their members that no progress was possible. The President spoke to religious freedom in his re-election campaign in a video directed to people of faith that should have equipped religious freedom advocates for conflicts in his second term. Instead, the remarks went largely ignored as the “war on religion” charges made it difficult to acknowledge common ground.
Perhaps most profoundly, at a time when Christians are largely viewed as anti-science, anti-intellectual, and just generally uncool, a president who was widely hailed as brilliant, scientific, and very cool spoke from the East Room of The White House during Easter season every year about the saving grace of Jesus Christ and what he accomplished on the cross. Republican, evangelistic Christians (and I use “evangelistic” intentionally) ended up taking the same basic posture to these remarks as Bill Maher, who repeatedly questioned President Obama’s faith (though Maher did not face the same criticism as the evangelical skeptics). For Maher, Obama was just too open-minded, too pro-science, to believe in something like the Resurrection. The failure of evangelicals to view the faith professions of Obama as a moment for fresh conversations about our faith might be one of the greatest missed evangelistic opportunities in America during the last decade.
Again, the lesson here is not that everything a politician says should be accepted as unassailable truth. Nor is it that we ought to look to politicians to affirm our sense of belonging, our sense of being known. In fact, it is because of our deep emotional attachment to politics that we, the American people, have become so ineffective at influencing politics. So enamored are we with being recognized and affirmed that we have become too easily pacified and misdirected, content to be coddled.
No, the lesson here is to take politicians’ words seriously, even if they don’t mean them. President Trump, just like President Obama, will be accountable to all Americans. He cannot be allowed to tell his base of supporters what he really feels, and then tell the general public something that those who know better recognize as manipulation. The best way to normalize Trump will be for his political opponents to pretend that basic democratic norms no longer apply. They apply to Trump, as to any president, because of the chair he sits in, not because he happens to be (or not to be) personally trustworthy.
Be an honest broker.
The reason Russell Moore is so effective as a conservative Christian leader is, contrary to popular wisdom, not because he’s unpredictable but because he is predictable. People who work with him in Washington know he can be trusted to stand on his convictions and the mission of his organization. In the end, fidelity and faithfulness are the most effective traits in Washington, as they are anywhere else.
It is not true that evangelicals did not have a voice in the Obama White House. I am an evangelical, and I worked with evangelicals every day. What is true is that antagonistic bomb throwers were not as welcome because nobody likes antagonistic bomb throwers. What politician is going to be used as a mere pawn for someone else’s posturing and fundraising potential? This isn’t about retribution; it’s about not letting the wolf into the henhouse.
When you are an honest broker, it not only allows you to influence a politician when you do agree, but you also gain credibility to have a voice where you do not. The influence on issues where there is disagreement will not always be seen—usually it is found in policy actions that do not take place and are therefore difficult to point to—but it is real influence. So while the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals strongly disagreed with the Obama administration in areas like religious freedom, they were vital allies on protecting the social safety net, immigration reform, and advancing nuclear non-proliferation efforts. And it was, in part, because their efforts were so necessary to advance those causes that they had influence on issues where there was disagreement.
I would want my money going to organizations like that, organizations that have influence regardless of the political circumstances, rather than political bomb throwers who exist to tell me how much the other side is out to get us.
Count the cost of Christian disunity.
I walked into my first Easter Prayer Breakfast with two evangelical leaders. As they scanned the room, we discussed how refreshing it was to see so many Christian leaders gathered in the same room. Every year at the breakfast you could have a Catholic bishop, an internationally known evangelical pastor, a head of an African American denomination, a leader of a Christian social service agency, and a Christian music artist—all at the same table!
But I also remember the regret that struck my two friends when they realized how many of the people in the room they did not know personally. The fact that this gathering required the President’s initiative should be of great concern to Christians who take seriously Jesus’ prayer in John 17. This year, which marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, is as good as any to be thinking about the theological implications of Christian disunity.
However, there are also political costs to Christian disunity. As America becomes more secular, as political questions become more fundamental, being closer to our political party than we are to one another will hamper our political witness. At this time of deep polarization, I must have faith that Christians of various backgrounds, experiences, and political opinions can stand together as a rebuke of the partisanship of this era and as a voice for the common good.
As we witness a new president take office, we must learn from our experiences during the last eight years. We will need them in the days ahead.
Michael Wear is the founder of Public Square Strategies LLC. He served in the White House Office of Faith and Community Partnerships under President Obama. This article is loosely adapted from his book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House (Thomas Nelson).