Pete Buttigieg and the Mercenary Religious Left
If progressives think they can enlist Christianity just to win politically, they’re in for a rude awakening.
Thanksgiving is now over, which means the grinches and scrooges among us can no longer complain about malls playing Christmas music. I avoid malls as a rule, but during the holiday season especially. As a boy, I developed a serious case of PTSD (Post-Thanksgiving Stress Disorder). My mother would drag me to Macy’s when she did her Christmas shopping and, as a bashful young Presbyterian, I’d cover my eyes whenever we passed through the ladies’ underwear section. Without fail, this would end with my knocking over some scantily clad mannequin or banging my head on a table covered with lacy underwear.
I’ve since become a Catholic, though I’m still as bashful as the most prudish of my Puritan forebears. I still do my best to avert my gaze from all such lewd and wanton stuff—the 2020 election, for instance. This is especially difficult, since my profession requires me to read newspapers. Every time I open The Wall Street Journal, I feel as though I’m eight years old again, only the entire mall has been converted into a giant Victoria’s Secret.
Even though I can’t completely shield my own innocence from the Democratic primary, I do my best to retain as little information as possible. In this instance, ignorance really is bliss. Politics is like childbirth: I thank God someone is willing to endure it, and I thank Him, too, that it won’t be me.
In those moments of boyish curiosity when I steal a glimpse of the lecherous display beyond my shuttered fingers, I’m given to understand that there’s a revival of something called the “Christian Left”—and that, moreover, it centers around Mayor Pete Buttigieg. I don’t know what Mr. Buttigieg has done to inspire this new Great Awokening. I presume he hasn’t, for instance, sold all of his possessions and given his fortune to the poor. It doesn’t seem he’s quitting politics so he can devote himself to clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned. I’ve heard nothing to suggest he’s separating from his “husband” and taking a vow of perpetual chastity so he can spend the rest of his life in contemplative prayer.
No: most likely, he’s simply said something. I’m sure it had to do with the alleged hypocrisy of the “Christian Right.” Jesus wouldn’t care whom we go to bed with, Mr. Buttigieg would argue; whether a woman carries her baby to term or kills it in the womb is a matter of perfect indifference to Our Blessed Lord. All He really asks of us is that we be nice to gay people and immigrants.
I did read, with no little interest, an op-ed published in The New YorkTimes late last month by Bianca Vivion Brooks called “To Take On the Religious Right, We Need a Religious Left.” Ms. Brooks asks her readers:
What do we relinquish as a society when a cooperative faith dissipates? Beyond spiritual guidance, the church was my earliest exposure to effective social organization, people rallying around collective belief to create lasting material change in the lives of those who needed it most. Collective belief demands social cooperation and interdependence bound to a principled obligation with expectations of self-sacrifice.
The flaw in this thinking is obvious right from the title. Progressives will never be able to engineer an effective rival to the Religious Right, if only because spirituality itself can’t be engineered. No doubt most Democrats would see the usefulness of such a “Religious Left,” but faith isn’t a matter of utility. The Religious Right—whatever its faults—is so effective because it draws from the earnest beliefs of traditional Christians. Yet as Ms. Brooks herself admits, progressives simply aren’t very interested in organized religion.
Which is why previous attempts by Democratic elites to concoct a Religious Left have always been purely mercenary. I think of senior Clinton aide John Podesta, who, in certain leaked emails, called the Catholic Church “a Middle Ages dictatorship.” Mr. Podesta admitted that he’d created two activist groups—Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United—to bring “a little democracy and respect for gender equality” into the Church.
This wasn’t always the case. Christians were once at the forefront of progressive politics. Many leading abolitionists, like John Greenleaf Whittier, were Quakers. Unitarian theologians like William Ellery Channing were the brain trust of social liberalism. Catholic immigrants formed the backbone of the early labor movement. But progressives threw off the mantle of organized religion in the 1970s, embracing the hedonistic secularism of that era. Do they really expect they’ll be able to win back Christian voters simply by peppering their campaign speeches with vapid references to the Sermon on the Mount?
Really the argument is almost comical. Calling for a religious revival in order to one-up your political opponents is like trying to find a girlfriend because you’re sick of showing up to your brother Gary’s Christmas party alone. He’s got that beautiful wife of his; they’re always holding hands and laughing and snuggling up under the mistletoe in their matching sweaters. If only you could show up with an even prettier woman, and if you could be even more in love than Gary and Judith…well, that’d show them.
Again, the Religious Right came by its beliefs the old fashioned way: by believing in God. If progressives think they can find some shortcut—if they think they can enlist Christianity to their cause just to “own the cons”—they’re in for a rude awakening.
But the Left, having been cut off from the fount of true faith for half a century, can’t possibly understand that. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Ms. Brooks’ personal convictions, but even she can only frame this would-be revival in terms of “lasting material change.” Not only is the reason for this Religious Left political; its aims are political. By her own admission, it’s not a matter of allowing one’s politics to be informed by authentic belief in ancient creeds; it’s about baptizing the same old Democratic agenda. Imagine Hillary Clinton, but in a black preaching robe rather than a white pantsuit, and you’re most of the way there.
Now, I’m no Religious Rightist myself. They’re too beholden to the gospel of laissez-faire capitalism, to the dogmata of market fundamentalism. I’m a distributist: given the choice between Big Business and Big Government, I choose “C”: none of the above. A tyrant is a tyrant, whatever kind of suit he wears—pinstriped or Mao.
But at least they understand that charity isn’t merely a matter of achieving “lasting material change.” It’s not a matter of how we can most efficiently redistribute goods from the haves to the have-nots, or even the have-littles.
If that was the case, then surely Our Lord would’ve praised the rich men who gave large sums out of their abundance—not the widow, who gave two small coins out of her poverty. Surely, when he said, “The poor you will always have with you,” he would have added, “until you can work out a more just economic system that more evenly distributes goods and services across social strata.” And surely He would have joined His disciples in criticizing Mary Magdalene for anointing His head with that upmarket perfume. “Why this waste?” Judas cried. “For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” “Right you are, Judas,” Our Lord might’ve tutted. “And do I even dare ask if that alabaster jar is ethically sourced?”
The truth is that charity is principally for our own good. To give of oneself is good in itself, regardless of its social impact. If I give $10 to a homeless man, I may very well earn more merit than a billionaire who bankrolls an entire homeless shelter.
This is just one example, and perhaps it’s a small one. But it goes some way towards explaining why the idea of a “Religious Left” will never take off. Mayor Pete, John Podesta, and their comrades want to remake Christianity in their own image, yet Christians have always believed that our purpose in life is to remake ourselves in the image of Christ. We’re the Imago Dei—the “image of God,” made in His own likeness.
That’s where all the old-fangled moralizing comes in. In the Scriptures and Traditions of the Church, we find that God has left us clear guidelines on how to better imitate His Son. That means being chaste as well as charitable. It means respecting the dignity of minorities, including that most vulnerable minority, children in the womb. It means standing up for the victims of consumer capitalism, even if they’re white—not calling them “deplorable” and dismissing their grievances as mere racism.
The Christian agenda isn’t “progressive” in the modern sense of the term. It isn’t even conservative; it’s positively reactionary. If the would-be Religious Left are too beholden to these paltry labels to embrace the faith in its fullness, then so much the worse for them. Our Lord had strong words for the lukewarm.
Michael Warren Davis is the editor of Crisis Magazine. Read more at www.michaelwarrendavis.com