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Pete Buttigieg & The Religious Left

Is there any meaningful political difference between religious and secular progressives?
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So, it looks like the Religious Left might have found its candidate: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. (You pronounce it “boot-edge-edge”.) He’s a practicing Episcopalian, happily married to a man, and unembarrassed by his religion. He went on Meet The Press yesterday and chastised Donald Trump for failing to uphold Christian values in certain ways. From the transcript:

CHUCK TODD: You said something rather strong about the president, that you said, “It’s hard to look at his actions and believe that they are the actions of somebody who believes in God.” How do you square that assessment with the fact that the Evangelical Christian community is so devoted to his candidacy?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, it’s something that really frustrates me because the hypocrisy is unbelievable. Here, you have somebody who not only acts in a way that is not consistent with anything that I hear in scripture or in church, where it’s about lifting up the least among us and taking care of strangers, which is another word for immigrants. And making sure that you’re focusing your effort on the poor. But also personally, how you’re supposed to conduct yourself. Not chest thumping look-at-me-ism, but humbling yourself before others. Foot washing is one of the central images in the New Testament. And we see the diametric opposite of that in this presidency. I think there was perhaps a cynical process where he decided to, for example, begin to pretend to be pro-life and govern accordingly. Which was good enough to bring many Evangelicals over to his side. But even on the version of Christianity that you hear from the religious right, which is about sexual ethics, I can’t believe that somebody who was caught writing hush money checks to adult film actresses is somebody they should be lifting up as the kind of person you want to be leading this nation.

CHUCK TODD: You grew up in arguably the most famous Catholic town in the country. I’m curious on abortion. I know what your position is, but how do you have a conversation about it? You’re in a community that is extraordinarily divided on this. On this issue. You have pro-life Democrats that don’t necessarily get courted nationally anymore. How do you square that? And what is your definition? When does life begin and is there any role for government in abortion?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: So as someone who’s pro-choice but who has many friends and even supporters who view this issue very differently than I do, I think it begins by having some measure of good faith. And understanding that people arrive at their convictions on this often from a deeply felt and sincerely held place. But in my view, this is a question that is almost unknowable. This is a moral question that’s not going to be settled by science. And so the best way for it to be settled in practice is by the person who actually faces the choice. And when a woman is facing this decision in her life, I think in terms of somebody besides her who can most be useful in that, the answer to that would be a doctor. Not a male government official imposing his interpretation of his religion.

Actually, the question of the humanity of the unborn child is easy to settle by science. When the sperm fertilizes the egg, the result is a distinctly human entity that has begun a development process that will result in a baby. Whether or not the unborn human possesses moral personhood is not a question that science can answer.

Elsewhere, Buttigieg has defended the extreme abortion laws instituted recently by the state of New York and attempted by Virginia. Buttigieg is as far left on abortion as it gets among the Democrats.

Conservative commenter Erick Erickson lays into Buttigieg as a representative of progressive Christianity. He gives Buttigieg credit for pointing out the hypocrisy of Evangelicals who overlook or minimize Trump’s un-Christian behavior. But then he points out that Buttigieg’s heterodoxy on Christian sexual ethics, and on abortion, reveal him to be the same thing he criticizes in Trump-supporting Evangelicals:

As much as Buttigieg makes a valid critique on the President’s behavior and evangelicals excusing that behavior, Buttigieg wants to reject the inconvenient parts of faith he does not like. He is a gay man who got married; he does not think homosexuality is a sin despite express statements in scripture, and he thinks abortion is a moral issue and we cannot legislate our morality. Buttigieg wants to use the social obligations as Christians against the President, but wants to avoid any implication on the personal obligations of Christians in terms of clear Biblical sexual ethics and how we are to live our lives applying our faith even for “the least of these.”

He wants to have it both ways and in reality is showing he is no better a Christian than Donald Trump. What is particularly damning here is that Buttigieg claims to be governed by some moral code and he claims he will lead as a more moral President than Trump. At the same time, he claims we cannot do exactly what he is proposing.

Everyone has a moral code and we all conduct our actions by our moral code. Buttigieg just wants a pass on his moral code, which is all about not taking inconvenient stands on parts of scripture that might make his life a bit uncomfortable. He will wield it against the President and abdicate when it comes to himself.

Emma Green, who writes about religion for The Atlantic, says that Buttigieg’s open embrace of faith poses a particular challenge to Democratic voters. Excerpts:

But over the long months ahead for 2020 Democratic hopefuls, rhetoric alone won’t be enough to win votes. Candidates, including Buttigieg, must decide whether faith outreach will be a central part of their campaign strategy and a deliberate feature of their platforms. In other words: Democrats must choose whether religion is a potential asset, or something to be overcome.


Some of the Democratic candidates seem to see religion as an obstacle rather than an advantage, or at least peripheral to a winning campaign strategy. As my colleague Peter Beinart recently wrote, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have spoken about religion as a source of division, especially in the face of rising bigotry, and have ditched “God bless America!” niceties.

This is an important point:

The real evidence of Democrats’ approach to faith will come in campaign dollars and infrastructure, which will likely be developed slightly later in the election cycle; on their handling of contested issues like abortion, which is crucially important to many religious voters; and their ability to tap religious networks for volunteers. It’s not enough to have a religious identity, Casey says. Democrats’ “first temptation” on the campaign trail is to convene “Noah’s ark, where we’re going to have 50 religious leaders and we’re going to talk about how dang moral the Democrats are versus the Republicans,” he says. “Everybody there knows that they’re a prop.”

Read the whole thing. 

Lots to think about here. Somebody on Twitter, I forget who, said the other day that when it comes to politics, the Religious Left suffers from a serious case of envy of the Religious Right. There are no Religious Left organizations and networks with the same kind of presence and power within the Democratic Party ecosystem that the Religious Right exercises among Republicans.

It is true that the Democratic Party has become far more secular over the past 30 years. But I’m hard-pressed to see why progressive Christians should be particularly bothered by their relative weakness within the Democratic Party, compared to religious conservatives in the GOP. The Democrats already give them what they want on immigration, abortion, LGBT issues, and economic policies. By contrast, religious conservatives within the GOP have to struggle against the party’s libertarian and business factions. I’m just not seeing that there’s any meaningful difference between what progressive Christians and progressive seculars want politically. That’s not the case among conservatives (and for that matter, not all religious conservatives share the same point of view on both immigration and economics; I would love to see a Religious Right that pushed back on capitalism’s excesses.)

It is absurd for conservative Christians to believe that Donald Trump is one of them (us) in any meaningful sense. Erick Erickson, who is a Protestant, eviscerated the very silly book The Faith of Donald J. Trump, which, if it had been true to its title, could have been written on a Post-it note. But it is not at all absurd for clear-eyed conservative Christians to vote for Trump, given that any conceivable Democratic alternative — including Pete Buttigieg — is going to be very bad on abortion and religious liberty when it conflicts with LGBT rights.

Seriously, how would Buttigieg’s Christianity set him apart politically from any other Democratic presidential contender? My guess is that unlike Trump, Buttigieg could sit down with a serious conservative Christian and have a serious discussion about faith and politics … but in the end, as president, he would push for policies no different from O’Rourke, Sanders, Harris, and all the others. Trump, on the other hand, would probably feel more at home playing golf in Gomorrah than worshiping with the Galatian church, but he doesn’t see conservative Christians as wicked people who need to be punished.  I have yet to meet a single religious progressive who does not believe that “religious liberty” is anything but an excuse for bigotry.

I spent last weekend in Boston, talking to conservative Catholics, who face very, very difficult challenges, politically and culturally, on the religious liberty front. For example, the Massachusetts legislature just overwhelmingly passed a ban on mental-health counseling that fails to endorse a child’s stated gender preference. There is no religious exemption:

If Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signs the bill into law, mental health counselors and therapists would be required to immediately affirm a child’s self-proclaimed gender identity.

According to the legislation, therapist and counselors would be required to solely “provide acceptance, support, and understanding of an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

“Any health care provider who violates this section shall be such subject to discipline by the appropriate licensing board, which may include suspension or revocation of license,” the legislation reads.

Again: no religious exemption. In fact, this law is so extreme that even if a progressive therapist believes a child might be gay, not transgender, he cannot attempt to lead the child to accept that, or even to explore the possibility. If he does, the therapist could lose his license.

Is there any chance at all that President Buttigieg, or any other Democratic presidential possibility, would oppose a national version of this law? Of course not. Again, as a purely political matter, what is the difference between religious progressives and plain old progressives? Showing up at church on Sunday morning is not a moral disinfectant.

I hope some journalist asks Buttigieg (and any other Democrat who might make an issue of their religious identity) to talk about an instance in which his faith caused him to break with the progressive consensus in a meaningful way.

UPDATE: Reader Ron Chandonia:

What I find most fascinating about Mayor Pete is his ability to speak the language of post-Vatican II Catholicism better than most of our progressive priests and bishops. He is James Martin SJ in a sportcoat-and-tie: unctuous and self-righteous, of course, but also charmingly mellifluous. If he and his spouse had persisted in the faith in which they were baptized, they would no doubt be among Martin’s acolytes.

Pete was valedictorian (and class president) of the Catholic high school I attended, right on the outskirts of Notre Dame, where both his parents taught. I am convinced that the liberal Catholicism he absorbed in that environment (COMMONWEAL Catholicism, I’d call it) is morally as well as politically bankrupt, and I am hopeful Pete’s campaign will crash and burn so completely that potential progressive candidates in the future will openly acknowledge atheistic secularism as their one and only creed.