A Generation’s Showdown with Truth: An Interview with Michael Wear

Michael Wear, 25, is a writer, speaker, and consultant who worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships during President Obama’s first term. There, he led evangelical outreach and helped manage the administration’s engagement on religious and values issues, including adoption and anti-human trafficking efforts. He also led faith outreach for Obama’s re-election campaign. He writes for The Atlantic, OnFaith, Relevant Magazine, and other outlets on faith, politics, and culture. Wear attends a nondenominational church in Washington, D.C.

Reflections: A new Pew survey says the Millennial generation (now age 18-33) is low on social trust, political affiliation, and environmentalism but high on optimism about the future. Are the signals mixed? How do you sort it out?

Michael Wear: One should be cautious about making generalizations about any group, but my general perception is that this generation is drawn to lofty aspirations but resistant to concentrated power and exclusive commitments and judgments. They’re hesitant to close off options whether on theological or lifestyle issues. This influences many facets of their life: their careers, their relationships, their faith. And these dual trends – high, global aspirations, and a hesitancy to make exclusive commitments – are in tension with one another.

Reflections: How will this affect the church world?

Wear: We’re seeing a healthy skepticism of tradition for its own sake, and a reassessment of religious assumptions that previous generations took for granted. The flip side is: At a time of sweeping reassessment, many Millennials are unsure where and how to draw the line at all.

Reflections: Should church leaders be worried?

Wear: This should be a time for rigorous thinking from church leaders. Looking to the older generation of ministers, we need their leadership to help us find out what’s essential to belief and what we should hold to. But I think they need to do some self-reflection about some of the things they held to be essential that perhaps were not essential after all. We’re in an American moment of skepticism and cynicism. Americans, including young Americans, can sniff out ulterior motives and self-serving arguments.

Yet Christians can stand upright under inquiry because the best Christian thought is only interested in what is true. Therefore, we should not be afraid of well-intentioned, vigorous examination. And when our leaders welcome those kinds of discussions, it resonates with a generation craving authenticity. The question is: Can we look to our leaders to be honest and work out their faith in the real world – a faith that seeks to be coherent?

Reflections: Is the definition of religion up for grabs?

Wear: Young people do want to make a difference in the world. They have an incredible capacity for empathy. But society’s definition of religious is no longer a given. In the old days, even if you didn’t go to church, the culture was religious, so you learned what society’s definition of religion was. The church has to realize that Americans are no longer learning by osmosis what it means to be religious. What is essential? What is orthodoxy? I think young people are absolutely forcing this question.

Reflections: You were involved in the president’s faith-based initiatives and religious engagement for four years, and you led faith outreach for his 2012 reelection campaign. What did you learn by working for the White House?

Wear: One big lesson I learned that feeds into our conversation here: In large, bureaucratic institutions, many of the important things you work on don’t necessarily have clear, immediate outcomes. Whether it’s international development, immigration, adoption, or anti-human trafficking efforts, the “wins” can take years. And the credit might go to a lot of people, not just you. That realization could be a struggle for an individualistic Millennial generation that is accustomed to celebrating its individual achievements with thousands of people instantly. The struggle for justice, for the common good, is a joint project.

Reflections: Will this generation’s values change national politics?

Wear: Yes, I believe they will. Millennials are less interested in ideological thought and less willing to subject their political views to party platforms. This means that coalitions will be more difficult to pull together, and we have the potential to see more fluid party alliances and voting patterns. We will also continue to see national politicians expand the ways they reach voters, in an attempt to meet individual voters where they are and in a way that feels directly relevant to their lives. Politics will become personal in a way we could not have imagined.