Election 2020

Former Obama Staffer: Dems Have a 'Religious Illiteracy Problem'

Michael Wear, former director of Barack Obama’s 2012 faith outreach efforts, said the Democratic Party is in serious trouble because it cannot connect with theologically conservative Christians. Although he is opposed to both abortion and same-sex marriage, Wear supported Obama because he considered those theological positions, while issues like poverty and immigration are also important to his faith. But other Democrats seem increasingly unable to understand him.

“There’s a religious illiteracy problem in the Democratic Party,” Wear told The Atlantic‘s Emma Green. President-elect Donald Trump won every Christian voting bloc. “It shows not just ineptitude, but the ignorance of Democrats in not even pretending to give these voters a reason to vote for them.” Perhaps ironically, the party’s success at reaching out to young people has also driven a wedge between Democrats and faith.

“It’s tied to the demographics of the country: More 20- and 30-year-olds are taking positions of power in the Democratic Party,” Wear explained. “They grew up in parts of the country where navigating religion was not important socially and not important to their political careers.”

This was not always the case. Wear pointed out James Carville, a Democratic strategist who helped President Bill Clinton win the 1992 election. “James Carville is not the most religious guy, but he gets religious people—if you didn’t get religious people running Democratic campaigns in the South in the ’80s, you wouldn’t win.” But the new Democrats make James Carville look like Billy Graham.

In his book Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, Wear recalled writing a faith-outreach fact sheet on Obama’s poverty initiatives, calling it “Economic Fairness and the Least of These.” Many Christians will recognize “the least of these” from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25, when Jesus says the Son of Man will reward people for helping the poor as though they had helped God Himself: “whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Rather than recognizing the reference as a good religious argument for helping the poor, Wear’s fellow staffer deleted “the least of these.” His comment: “Is this a typo? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Who/what are ‘these’?”

But scripture references aside, Democrats seem unable to understand conservative Christian positions on political issues. “There were a lot of things that were surprising about Hillary’s answer [to a question about abortion] in the third debate,” Wear noted. “She didn’t advance moral reservations she had in the past about abortion She also made the exact kind of positive moral argument for abortion that women’s groups—who have been calling on people to tell their abortion stories—had been demanding.”

This represents a sea change among Democrats, who “used to welcome people who didn’t support abortion into the party. We are now so far from that, it’s insane.”

Wear also explained why: “This debate, for both sides, is not just about the abortion rate; it’s not just about the legality of it. It’s a symbolic debate. It’s symbolic on the pro-choice side about the autonomy of women and their freedom to do what they want with their bodies. On the pro-life side, they care not just about the regulations around abortion, but whether there’s a cultural affirmation of life.”

A similar rift emerges on the issues of LGBT rights and religious freedom. Rather than understanding the reasons conservative Christians are hesitant to support gay marriage or transgender surgery, liberals dismiss their concerns as “bigotry” and attack their support for religious freedom as a smokescreen. Indeed, the Obama administration even used Obamacare to try to force religious employers and doctors to pay for and perform transgender surgeries!

Democrats are so focused on their own issues, they don’t understand how anyone could disagree. This happens — on both the left and the right — when political activists and commentators retreat into their own bubbles instead of trying to understand the other side. Wear pointed out another example of Democrats tuning out anyone who disagrees: the debate over Betsy DeVos.

“No matter Clinton’s slogan of ‘Stronger Together,’ we have a politics right now that is based on making enemies, and making people afraid,” the former Obama staffer explained. “I think we’re seeing this with the Betsy DeVos nomination: It’s much easier to make people scared of evangelicals, and to make evangelicals the enemy, than trying to make an appeal to them.”

This can be a real political problem. As Wear pointed out, “America is still a profoundly religious nation.” He lamented that high-level Democratic leadership was uninterested in reaching out to white Catholics or white evangelicals. “That’s a huge portion of the electorate to throw out,” the former Obama staffer noted. “It doesn’t help you win elections if you’re openly disdainful toward the driving force in many Americans’ lives.”

Much has been said about Republicans’ problems appealing to racial minorities, but it seems that Democrats have a similar problem with America’s Christian electorate. This could cost them dearly.

The Reclaiming Hope author didn’t just have criticisms for Democrats, however. “We also need to have a robust conversation about the support or allowance for racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia in the evangelical tradition,” he said. The guy is a liberal, after all.

He also has a point or two. Evangelicals do need to realize that radical Islamic terror — while it does exist — is not the only type of Islam out there. Muslims like M. Zuhdi Jasser are not just freedom-loving Americans, they specifically oppose Sharia (the system of Islamic law) in American law — unlike quite a few advocacy organizations. Islam is also a rather diverse religion, even among violent terror sects.

As for accusations of racism and misogyny, most of these attacks likely refer to Trump. While the president-elect is not racist, his sexual past is concerning — especially for the same religious right who condemned Bill Clinton.

On this theme, Wear had some excellent points:

Liberals have been trying to convince Americans, and evangelicals in particular, that America is not a Christian nation. The 2016 election was evangelicals saying, “Yeah, you’re right! We can’t expect to have someone who is Christian like us. We can’t expect to have someone with a perfect family life. What we can expect is someone who can look out for us, just like very other group in this country is looking for a candidate who will look out for them.”

The former Obama staffer referred to Jeremiah 29, the prophet’s letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. “The message Jeremiah had, and that the Lord had, for the exiles is that they should seek the peace and prosperity of the city where they’ve been planted, and multiply—they should maintain their convictions for the flourishing of others,” Wear said. “The concern I have, and that many others have, is that in this time of cultural transformation in America, you’re going to have many evangelicals who just become Babylonians.”

Ironically, Wear’s concern applies to both sides. Some Christians are indeed tempted to follow the cultural backlash against liberal overreach in ways that damage their witness, but many have also followed the cultural trend of liberalism into apostasy. Indeed, there are many Christians who believe Jesus is only a way and not the way to God and Heaven. Yes, conservative Christians go too far toward Trump, but liberal Christians actually reject the gospel.

Which is more dangerous to the faith? The Christian voters in 2016 may suggest an answer.