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After Ignoring Evangelical Voters In 2016, How Democrats Can 'Reclaim Hope'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Donald Trump became our next president thanks in part to an overwhelming level of support from evangelical Christians. They voted for him not because he was the ideal candidate - he was not to them - but Trump said he would protect them. To talk more about the politics of the evangelical community, we're joined by Michael Wear. He's a political strategist who served as a faith adviser to President Obama. And he's the author of the forthcoming book "Reclaiming Hope."

Thank you for joining us today, Michael.

MICHAEL WEAR: Thank you. It's great to be here with you.

CHANG: Let's talk about some of the issues that drove that enormous support from evangelicals. For instance, how important was the Supreme Court vacancy?

WEAR: It was very important. The most - the wisest political move that Donald Trump made was to release that list of potential Supreme Court nominations, which were vetted, conservative nominees...

CHANG: All pro-life.

WEAR: All pro-life. When I'd be talking with evangelicals, they'd say - look, we know that Donald Trump is not a good man. But we have a Supreme Court vacancy right now (laughter), and we could see, potentially, three to four in the next four to eight years. And so risking a Hillary Clinton presidency for some of those folks was not an option.

CHANG: So abortion, same-sex marriage - any other issues that drove so much evangelical support?

WEAR: It's been interesting. The liberals spent a lot of time over the last several decades, particularly during the Bush years, trying to convince Christians that we were not a Christian nation. And to some extent, the election of Donald Trump and the evangelical support of Donald Trump was their embracing that we aren't a Christian nation.

It was their embracing of the fact that they weren't going to be able to get everything they wanted in a presidential candidate anymore - a sort of faithful, church-going, decent (laughter) man. It was a political sort of power move. And so yes, there were concrete issues - abortion, gay marriage, religious freedom, religious liberty - played a big role. But it was also a very culturally divisive and culturally motivated vote.

CHANG: A Columbia professor, Mark Lilla, wrote a critique of American liberalism in The New York Times. And one of the things he said is that liberalism has fostered a kind of condescension towards evangelicals. First of all, does he have a point?

WEAR: He does have a point. And it's something that the Democratic Party has always wrestled with. And as a Democrat, it seems like it's a lesson we need to keep learning every time we lose. And when we win a couple of times we think - oh, well, we don't need those voters anymore. And it takes a loss for us to ask the questions when we should just learn the lesson and keep on implementing the lesson that we can't write off large sections of the American electorate. And I think that was a large part of what Lilla was speaking to.

CHANG: Do you feel any personal responsibility, since you were in the Obama White House, for this perception that many evangelicals feel they don't fit into the Democratic Party?

WEAR: Well, I think we did a lot of work to try and reverse that notion. I mean, again, it was Senator Obama who had a vibrant, extensive faith outreach during both of his presidential campaigns. What was disheartening was to see, in 2016, the Democrats sort of reject that aspect of the president's legacy and sort of reject his willingness to reach out to not just evangelicals but Catholics. I mean, remember President Obama won Catholics in both 2008 and 2012, and Hillary Clinton lost them. And working-class Catholics used to be part of the Clinton base.

CHANG: What did her campaign do wrong that led to that rejection?

WEAR: Well, they did nothing. That's the first thing to say is that they did literally nothing. They didn't bring on a faith outreach adviser until this summer, which is political malpractice.

CHANG: So what do Democrats do to re-engage evangelical Christians who feel that they've been excluded from Democratic Party priorities?

WEAR: Yeah. Well, liberals and some Democrats get a little nervous when you talk about this 'cause they think that it's about caving on principles. And so the first level is not about caving on principles at all. It's about simply engaging these voters and not dismissing their perspective or ignoring their perspective out of hand. And so the traditional Democratic answer on an issue like life, for instance, over the last 20, 30 years has been that it should be safe, legal and rare and that Democrats support the legality of abortion but they want to seek ways to reduce it. They don't think that it's a moral good.

And in 2016, for the first time ever, the Democratic Party platform supported the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which would allow federal funding for abortion - first time in 40 years. It was amazing. Two weeks before the election, you saw House Democrats tweeting be bold, end Hyde. That was our closing message in this election campaign, was ending the Hyde Amendment, which is not exactly hitting the Rust Belt. And so...

CHANG: And what message did that send to evangelical Christians?

WEAR: Well, it didn't - it sent the message that we don't have a message for them - that we don't care and that if they lost, they had everything to lose, when we actually do have a message to these voters. We have a message on immigration reform. We have a message on poverty. We have a message on supporting international development. But when Democrats assume things about these voters and what motivates them, it's no surprise that we only get 16 percent.

CHANG: How do you see the religious outreach office changing under a President Trump?

WEAR: If Donald Trump thinks that the faith-based office is just one more platform to sort of mobilize religious voices to support whatever he happens to be doing at the time and sort of as a platform for religious hucksterism, then I have deep concerns. I've spent the last decade of my life arguing for the importance of the faith-based office. And Donald Trump is going to challenge all of my arguments. And my hope and prayer is that he keeps the office focused on serving the vulnerable, providing resources to the faith community to do what they do best.

CHANG: Michael Wear is a political strategist who specialized in religious affairs. He worked in the Obama administration, where he led evangelical outreach.

Thanks for joining us, Michael.

WEAR: It's great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.