POLITICS is doing “great spiritual harm” to the lives of American people, a former faith adviser to President Obama told a congregation in St Stephen Walbrook, in the City of London, this week: they have aligned their identity too closely with it, and are now filled with anxiety.
Michael Wear, who served as the President’s “ambassador to American believers”, described how, during a speaking tour in the United States, at least one person at every meeting would not be able to complete his or her question without crying. “I have never seen an election so unmoor people, destabilise people, fill people with anxiety,” he said. “Politics is doing great spiritual harm in the lives of people . . . taking too much emotional space in their lives.”
Mr Wear was speaking during a visit to the UK to discuss his book Reclaiming Hope, which tells the story of his time in the White House.
Reflecting on the recent US election result, he was critical of the Democrat Party’s approach to Christian voters, who now felt “unmoored” in a country where secularism was increasing. “There is a growing sense that the assumptions that provided the backdrop for American life are no longer there,” he said. Americans had witnessed a “profound case of Machiavellian politics”.
Describing how Donald Trump “went to Christians and said, ‘I know we are not cut from the same cloth. . . but I am the only one who cares about you, who will protect you against the pressures you are feeling,’” the Democrats, he went on, “had nothing to say. There was virtual silence to these voters.” This was born out of “an assumption that they were already off-limits to the Democrat nominee”, and had only reaffirmed the “isolation that many Christians were feeling”.
Although he acknowledged that there was a desire to “weep and mourn” over the election, he outlined reasons for hope. “The next four years will provide an opportunity that many of us have been looking for, which is to show that we are not beholden to a political agenda, but to the agenda of the King.” Policies such as the proposed registry for Muslims were tests to be faced, he said. “Will the Church defend religious freedom for all?”
Asked about racism, sexism, and xenophobia, he said that the US was witnessing a “tilling of the ground”, in which “things have laid dormant and festered. My hope is that the Church can start dealing with those issues instead of sweeping them under the rug.”
Some people were answering this call, including the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore, who had been “forceful in enforcing this conversation in a denomination where he faces mixed views about whether this is a conversation that needs to happen”.
Mr Wear was also encouraged by the “elevation of diverse voices within Evangelicalism”, including those of women. He mentioned the Revd Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest and author, and Nicole Cliffe, the founder of the blog The Toast, who wrote recently about her conversion from atheism in Christianity Today.
Among the challenges in the Evangelical wing of the Church — “de-institutionalised, de-liturgised, de-centralised” — was a lack of applied theology, he said. It was not enough to teach the basics of the faith on a Sunday without showing people how to apply it to their lives. Politics was regarded as “the one area that the King cannot touch, that Jesus cannot understand. . . We need to reinvest in the idea that Christianity is for all of life.”
He called for a divestment of identity from politics to faith. He cited, as an example of partisanship and division, polling that suggests that the percentage of people unhappy about their children marrying someone of a different political persuasion had risen in recent decades. “We have too many people engaging in politics with their feet planted in political outcomes,” he said.
“If you place your hope in temporal forces . . . you will be always be left without the spiritual resource you need to invest in the here and now,” he warned. “If you really care about your neighbour, you will love God. . . Hope is not about a march of progress or political programme. . . It is God crashing into [our] existence in the here and now.”