The emergence of Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as a seemingly viable presidential candidate is a hot topic among progressives these days. By all accounts, Buttigieg, the first openly gay major presidential candidate, is intelligent, articulate, and unapologetically liberal. With impressive credentials as a Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan war veteran, “Mayor Pete” is also, intriguingly, not only a devout Christian, but a vocal one as well. In posturing his candidacy in recent weeks, he has questioned Donald Trump’s faith, moralistically scolded Mike Pence for serving a “porn-star presidency,” and used direct religious references to justify his own positions.
Major press outlets are convinced that Buttigieg’s public and liberal religiosity is a game-changer. The New York Times gave the subject enthusiastic editorial-page coverage with a headline: “How to Break the Republican Lock on God.” Similar coverage was seen in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other outlets. It seems the pundits are convinced that a gay liberal who also happens to be an outspoken Christian is the Religious Right’s worst nightmare.
But it isn’t. Not even close.
Take, for example, this statement he made during a recent Town Hall for CNN:
Buttigieg told the audience that his feeling “is that Scripture is about protecting the stranger, and the prisoner, and the poor person, and that idea of welcome. That’s what I get in the Gospel when I’m in church.” He said that the vice president’s perspective “has a lot more to do with sexuality, and, I don’t know, a certain view or rectitude.”
By wearing his religion on his sleeve, and implying that his theology informs his policy positions, Buttigieg ultimately plays directly into the hand of the Christian Right and those who would define the United States as a “Christian nation.” Perhaps unwittingly, he validates the dead-wrong argument that religion should be considered at all when making public policy decisions and that, among religions, Christianity is the one that really counts. Regardless of what you think of Mayor Pete’s solidly progressive policy positions and otherwise good intentions, all roads lead to Hell when we have both major parties, left and right, debating policy on Christian terms.
Don’t get me wrong — even atheists enjoy seeing a gay man deliver a theological-political one-two punch to the hypocritical thugs who currently sit atop the executive branch. We all wanted to high-five Mayor Pete when he suggested that Pence stopped “believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump.” Wham! Perfect!
But once the satisfying adrenalin rush subsides, we need to ask ourselves if this is really where we want to take the American political dialogue. Arguing over how to define a “real” Christian might have its place — in churches and homes — but not at the top level of policy-making. Such debates taking place in the highest echelons of politics and government — even when it occurs at the prompting of journalists — only serve to marginalize everything that is not Christian.
He could just as easily make evidence-based arguments for the same positions without suggesting he’s taking the proper biblical approach to these matters.
When Buttigieg questions Trump’s faith or accuses Pence of being a “Pharisee” for serving the administration, he’s basically arguing about whose interpretation of Christianity is “right.” Pence, Trump, and the Religious Right worship a wrathful Jesus whose love for all doesn’t actually extend to the poor or beyond national borders, a Jesus who is obsessed with abortion and homosexuality despite having said nothing about either subject in the Gospels. Buttigieg, meanwhile, would presumably be classified as closer to the love-everyone Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount.
There are plenty of good reasons to condemn this administration’s actions without pretending their supposed misinterpretations of Christianity are the real problems.
It’s easy to see why this rhetoric might be exciting to liberals, but it would be erroneous to believe that liberal God-talk could somehow upend the dynamics of American politics. Moderate and liberal Christians have been trying to “out-religion” conservatives for over two centuries but, despite occasional victories, have only failed at greater and greater levels over time. It is now to the point that when one hears the term “Christian” in any political context, one assumes the reference is conservative and, most likely, focused on the topic of sex or abortion. Occasional surprising exceptions, such as Mayor Pete, only prove the general rule.
There is a reason that progressives have toned down the religion in their ranks over time — and that reason is called progress. Science and empiricism, together with values recognizing the dignity and worth of all individuals, are understood to be the legitimate grounds for progressive policy dialogue. There is room for vigorous debate within that framework, but nobody gets much traction in the progressive community if they abandon that framework for one that claims their policy positions are right “because God says so.”
The emergence of Mayor Pete and his God-talk threatens that admirable standard, just as it threatens Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists who have little to say on the subject of the “correct” application of Christianity to contemporary social and political issues. Buttigieg should realize, as most progressives do, that these non-Christians (and even many Christians) don’t want bibles as part of policy debates.
This is true today, almost two full decades into the twenty-first century, more than ever. As the globe heats up and technology sends us racing into the future, it is preposterous to suggest that we should justify public policy using our interpretations of ambiguous writings of ancient men who knew nothing about the universe. In a religious context, liberals and conservatives alike have every right to accept or reject those writings or the writings of any claimed prophets or seers, but society is endangered when any such scriptures become the framework for politics.
And as long as we’re on the subject, if Jesus were indeed the standard, I would argue that Buttigieg would be almost as far off the mark as his GOP opponents. Jesus was, after all, supposedly a pacifist first and foremost. (Turn the other cheek, remember?) The good mayor calls himself a Christian, yet he still found it within himself to voluntarily serve in the military — and not just any military, but that of a nation that has historically utilized armed forces in a hostile and unprovoked manner against relatively weak nations and innocent populations. (Real Jesus-like, Pete.) That’s not a denunciation of his service, but rather an example of how everyone picks and chooses which aspects of their faith they want to follow.
Such religious judgments aside, any progressive should appreciate how groundbreaking it is to have a well-qualified openly gay man emerge as a viable candidate for high office. But let’s hope that such a candidate can remember that policy positions and political rhetoric do not benefit from God-talk.
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