The mayor of a medium-size midwestern city, Rhodes Scholar, and war veteran who is liturgically conservative and cites Saint Augustine as one of his religious influences is running for president. He’s also a Democrat. He is criticizing the current president, a Republican, for his infidelity and lack of family values. And he’s gay.
Sometimes politics unfolds differently than you might expect.
What makes Pete Buttigieg an intriguing figure isn’t his political experience, which is minimal (he became mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in 2012, at age 29); or his political philosophy, with which I disagree. (He’s a progressive, while I’m a conservative who is a critic of Donald Trump and of progressivism.) It’s that Buttigieg speaks openly and easily about his Christian faith in a party that is becoming more and more secular and religiously unaffiliated, and he does so in a manner that stands in marked contrast with the evangelical leaders who support Donald Trump.
Buttigieg is challenging the assumptions of a lot of people.
Start with those in the Democratic Party. Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who studied under Sacvan Bercovitch, the renowned scholar of Puritan America, is willing to speak about God before nonreligious audiences in a way that is natural. I don’t sense that his faith is being used cynically or inauthentically; it preceded his career in politics.
“I think it’s unfortunate [the Democratic Party] has lost touch with a religious tradition that I think can help explain and relate our values,” Buttigieg told The Washington Post. “At least in my interpretation, it helps to root [in religion] a lot of what it is we do believe in, when it comes to protecting the sick and the stranger and the poor, as well as skepticism of the wealthy and the powerful and the established.”
To be sure, the reason Buttigieg is the hottest person in Democratic politics these days is because he’s viewed as reliably progressive. Most of the Democrats who are drawn to him are embracing him not because of his faith but because of his liberalism. They’re willing to indulge the former so long as it advances the latter. For many Democrats, faith is an instrumentality. Still, Buttigieg’s rise and reasonable tone should help make some members of the Democratic Party less hostile to Christianity, which as a Christian I take to be a good thing.
The challenge Buttigieg poses to many leaders of the Trump-supporting evangelical world isn’t simply in the realm of public policy; it is in his tone, his countenance, and the way he carries himself.
Buttigieg does not radiate pent-up grievances, cultural resentments, and bitterness. He’s a person of equanimity, a calming voice in a rancorous political culture. That doesn’t mean he’s right on the stands he’s taking, of course, and those things matter. (More about that later.) But I would say that the splenetic, fear-based approach of many evangelical leaders has created an opening for Buttigieg, who is their temperamental antithesis.
It is one thing for Trump’s Christian supporters to argue that his policy agenda made him preferable to Hillary Clinton. But it is an entirely different matter to never hold Trump accountable. None of Trump’s high-profile evangelical supporters speak out against his cruelty and dehumanizing style, his pathological lying and bullying manner, or his Nietzschean ethic—and in some instances they celebrate it.
Robert Jeffress, the pastor of an influential Southern Baptist mega-church in Dallas, proudly declared that he supports Trump because he wants “the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation.” Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of one of the largest Christian universities in the world, defendsTrump on the grounds that he is “authentic, successful & down to earth.” According to Tony Perkins, the ardent Trump supporter who is president of the Family Research Council, evangelical Christians “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.” (Perkins added that conservative Christians who are Trump supporters are willing to give the president a “mulligan” on his atrocious personal behavior because he’s on their side politically.)
The mayor of South Bend, on the other hand, speaks about the need for healing, about beckoning people and trying to understand the position of those with whom he disagrees. He acknowledges how disorienting the change in sexual ethics has been, particularly for the older generation, and he says he understands why people believe that the Christian faith leads them to oppose same-sex marriage, even as he hopes they encounter scripture interpreted a different way. (The best articulation of a traditional Christian view on homosexuality I am aware of is found in Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament. Christians who agree with Buttigieg on gay marriage need to wrestle in good faith with the case presented by Hays, just as those who disagree with Buttigieg on gay marriage need to wrestle in good faith with the case laid out by Matthew Vines in God and the Gay Christian.)
When asked by USA Today’s Kirsten Powers what advice he has for those struggling to be graceful toward those with whom we disagree, Buttigieg answered this way:
Well, I think it starts with a certain amount of humility and recognizing that how you voted doesn’t make you a good person or a bad person, and we shouldn’t think of ourselves as better human beings because of how we voted.
This is a welcome sentiment from a political leader when our politics is becoming more and more venomous, when people prefer to shout at each other rather than to reason together.
And yet, precisely on the question of religion as an instrumental good, there is real cause for concern about Mayor Pete. His insistence that “Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction” is a bright-red flag, and ought to worry Christians regardless of their politics.
To say that Christianity points you in a progressive direction is in effect to say that Christianity and progressivism are synonymous. They aren’t. Neither are Christianity and conservatism. Christianity stands apart from and in judgment of all political ideologies; it doesn’t lend itself to being put in neat and tidy political categories. That doesn’t mean that at any particular moment in time a Christian ethic won’t lead people of faith to more closely align with one political and philosophical movement over another. But the temptation, always, is to politicize faith in ways that ultimately are discrediting.
What Buttigieg would undoubtedly argue is that progressivism is the political ideology that does the most to care for the poor, the vulnerable, the dispossessed, and the weak. But that depends on the issue, doesn’t it?
I agree with him when it comes to not separating migrant children from their parents and welcoming refugee families from around the world. On the other hand, Buttigieg would allow for late-term abortions, which many (including myself) would argue pose a lethal threat to the weakest members of the human community.
The Bible does not provide a governing blueprint, and it’s silly to say a close reading of the Gospels will tell us what the proper policy is on, say, school choice and the budget of the Department of Education, reforms to Medicare and Medicaid, what to do with the millions of undocumented workers in the United States, or how many immigrants who arrive legally should be allowed in. It doesn’t provide us guidance on what the top marginal tax rate should be, what policies we should pursue in the areas of trade and deregulation, how to slow the rise in college tuition and address the opioid epidemic, or what to do about the Syrian civil war and the threat posed by North Korea.
To complicate things further: Even if you believe that the Bible’s teachings are clear on certain issues, it still doesn’t tell us how and in what circumstances those beliefs should be legislated into law. If Christians believe that premarital sex and divorcing for unbiblical reasons are morally wrong, should there be civil laws against those things? Do Christians believe that laws should be passed banning idols? Where exactly do civil laws and religious commands intersect? Most of us can come up with examples for when we think they should and when we think they should not.
If we’re honest, many of these issues are complicated, there’s no obviously right “Christian” answer, and there’s no substitute for discretion, wisdom, and old-fashioned humility. That doesn’t mean Christians, in an effort to advance justice, shouldn’t think through with care what the proper stance is on certain issues.
It simply means people of faith, as they attempt to work out that faith in politics, are going to get a lot of things wrong. And if the mayor of South Bend ends up insisting that a faithful reading of the Bible will inevitably lead one to a progressive politics, he’ll be committing an error similar to the one made by the religious right during the heyday of the Moral Majority. We all need to be wary of becoming self-appointed arbiters of biblical interpretation. Even Pete Buttigieg.
Peter Wehner is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues.