The Generous Gospel of Mayor Pete

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Since the early stages of his presidential campaign, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has made his Christian faith a cornerstone, explicitly attacking the idea that “Christian” and “Republican” are synonymous terms, and eloquently questioning the motives of religious leaders who choose policy over morality and who have become Donald Trump’s faithful apologists on the national stage. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” Buttigieg announced during the second primary debate back in July. “But we should call out hypocrisy when we see it. And for a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, [that party] has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

That pronouncement, and others like it, has gone a long way toward making Buttigieg a front-runner, despite being the only member of the field’s top tier who lacked national name recognition at the start of the race. And since becoming a household name, he has leaned into the assertion that a right-wing interpretation of the Bible is not the only interpretation available, and has used Christian Scripture and teaching to undercut the very wedge issues that define the conservative voting bloc. More specifically, he has argued that being married to his husband brings him closer to God; that one’s views of abortion should not be used by the religious right as a litmus test for one’s faith when it’s an issue that Jesus never even mentioned (though he did speak abundantly on charity and hospitality); and that the so-called “clobber” verses used to condemn homosexuality were cultural, along with so many other pronouncements the Bible makes that Christianity now disregards. “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade,” Buttigieg said this spring at a brunch for the LBGTQ Victory Fund. “And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand. That if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

For many of us on the (burgeoning) religious left, Buttigieg’s public embrace of Christianity has come as a relief, whether we agree with all of his specific arguments and policies or not. Under the auspices of the separation of church and state — and by comparison, with the overt religiosity of the Republican Party — the Democratic Party has allowed itself to be cast as not just a-religious but also anti-religious. In fact, the numbers don’t bear that out. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Democrats were religiously affiliated in 2014. Close to two-thirds of Iowa’s Democrats identify as white and Christian — the demographic that is widely cited as the reason Trump is in office today — which may explain last week’s announcement that Buttigieg was outpacing Biden, Warren, and Sanders there. The fluency with which Buttigieg references the Bible and his implication that one’s Christian values can and should intelligently inform one’s policies have served as welcome correctives to both Republican religious branding and Democratic religious reticence. Faith matters to many Americans. The Democratic Party would do well to remember that, as Buttigieg has.

Rolling Stone: Did you grow up in the church?
Pete Buttigieg:
I really didn’t. My father had been a Jesuit seminarian, and by some process I don’t completely understand that involved some years spent in France in the Sixties, wound up as a secular intellectual.

My mother is religious, but a little bit skeptical of organized religion and churches, although she’s started coming to the church that I attend sometimes in South Bend. And I grew up going to Catholic school, so I was always more comfortable with Catholic liturgy than I was Catholic theology, and it took me a while to discover that there was a place for me in the Episcopal faith, which is liturgically conservative and theologically a little more open. And that’s where I realized that I sit too.

What are your thoughts on the role that faith should play in politics?
Well, of course, a very important American principle is that when you’re in the public role or making a policy, it has to be done in a way that serves people of any religion and people with no religion equally. But I think that that doesn’t have to exclude religious reasoning or religious ethics from being part of how we form our own conscience and even what we bring into public life.

I think the most important thing is that we be transparent about our motivations. And I also think it’s fair game to appeal to others according to their religious values, even if they’re different. You never want to trick somebody about where you’re coming from, but I can say, “Here’s my religious convictions. I know yours are different, but based on my reading of my own faith, here’s why I think this is important,” or, “Based on what I understand of yours, here’s why you might want to consider this idea.”

Being a Christian myself, I feel like I come to Christianity with a little bit of the reverse of Pascal’s wager, where I’m like, if I’m wrong about Christianity, I don’t want to have made decisions based on my faith that hurt other people.
Yeah, it’s a smart way to think about it. I mean, part of it maybe has to do with if your faith has a lot to do with doubt, which I think is very rich in the Christian tradition. Obviously not everybody sees it that way, yet Scripture is full of things that I think touch our sense of doubt and call us to that kind of humility. I never thought about it that way, but I like that reasoning.

You can borrow it.
OK [laughs].

But [on the other hand], what about this charge that progressive Christians get of being cafeteria Christians, of picking and choosing the issues, disregarding what the Bible — and you and I may have different interpretations here — but what the Bible could be interpreted to say about a woman’s right to choose or marriage equality or these major hot-button issues of the religious right?
Well, I think for a lot of us — certainly for me — any encounter with Scripture includes some process of sorting out what connects you with the God versus what simply tells you about the morals of the times when it was written, right? For example, the proposition that you should execute your sister by stoning if she commits adultery. I don’t believe that that was right once upon a time, and then the New Testament came and it was gone. I believe it was always wrong, but it was considered right once, and that found its way into Scripture.

And to me that’s not so much cherry-picking as just being serious, because of course there’s so many things in Scripture that are inconsistent internally, and you’ve got to decide what sense to make of it. Jesus speaks so often in hyperbole and parable, in mysterious code, that in my experience, there’s simply no way that a literal understanding of Scripture can fit into the Bible that I find in my hands.

Now, I actually think that if you look at an issue like choice, there’s so many parts of the Bible that associate the beginning of life with breath that there’s plenty of scriptural basis to reach different conclusions about that. But only if you believe that the government must legislate these metaphysical questions does the debate about choice have to be about the government deciding where life begins.

I think the rest of us believe that, no matter what you think on where life begins, the question is who gets to decide how to handle this situation. And that’s how we accommodate a bunch of differently formed consciences at once. It’s the framework of Roe v. Wade, and that’s why there’s a strong American majority for choice, even while there’s very different opinions about deep questions around life.

What do you think about this idea that Trump has been a stumbling block to people who might potentially be interested in Christianity? They see the way that most the vocal members of the Christian faith have aligned themselves with Trump and the hypocrisy there, and it turns them away from religion?
I think it does run the risk of generationally harming the credibility of Christianity in our country, because if people who are avowedly Christian can get themselves into bed with a president like this, it raises the question of what ethical content at all Christianity even has. And it’s not so much Trump himself. I think there’s an extent to which he’s always winking when he pretends to have any religious conviction whatsoever, and the only question is who’s in on the joke. But it’s certainly an issue when you think about the Mike Pences and Falwells of the world.

What about this idea that Trump is a King Cyrus, that he may not be a good guy, but he’s fighting the good fight, and he’s carving out these freedoms for persecuted Christians?
Well, first of all, King Cyrus wasn’t leading the Jews. He was leading the Persians. It is kind of an important twist there. But, yeah, I think the bigger issue is, what about integrity? What about the idea that when you support somebody as a moral as well as a political leader, they’re supposed to be good? I’ll give them this, it’s creative, the whole King Cyrus thing.

Well, that brings us back to the Pences and Falwells of the world. What about [the allegiance of] these people who are, for some, religious leaders and moral leaders?
I think their legitimacy, such as it ever was, is going to collapse as a result of this alliance that they’ve made. And I always think about it on two levels. There’s the fact that I don’t have the same interpretation as they do about Christian ethics. As Reverend Barber says, “They seem to think and talk so much about what Christ says so little about, and so little about what he says so much about,” right?

I mean, to me, obviously as a progressive, it has more to do with the stranger and weakest among us and the poor and so on. But the shocking thing is that they have betrayed not only my understanding, but as recently as when I was growing up in the Clinton years, they seemed to think that it was important that a president be a moral leader and subscribe to certain concepts of family and decency and rectitude. And it turns out that when power comes into the equation, they don’t care so much.

One of the themes that keeps coming up when I talk to people is this belief that the End Times are coming soon. And it’s almost like it ends the conversation if someone is saying, “Well, the environment doesn’t really matter. We shouldn’t be trying to have peace in the Middle East, we should be trying to expand the borders of Israel, because all of these things are going to usher in the Second Coming.” From your perspective, do you see that sort of belief system playing out in politics?
Well, there must be something unconvincing about it, or else more people in politics who were subscribing to that would actually say so. But I do think it lurks certainly beneath the surface of a lot of voters in adherence to this look at the world. But to me, so much of Christian tradition centers itself around what we are supposed to do in this world, that it matters what kind of world we’re creating. I just think it’s a cop-out to suppose that we should allow there to be suffering in the name of that kind of eschatology.

But, I mean, this is where we also break down the true ability of American politics to accommodate religious feeling. We’re supposed to use whatever religious convictions we have to arrive at some overlapping consensus that people could get on board with, whether they share our view or not. And if it’s just apocalyptic, then obviously it’s not going to work that way.

What can progressives do to wrest the branding that’s happened of the Republican Party being the party of the Christian faith? I mean, when I was growing up, I was told explicitly that if you don’t vote Republican, you’re not Christian.
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of conditioning we’ve got to overcome. I guess I would say that, frankly, I think we’ll find salvation in Scripture itself, and in the idea of human compassion too, because even if you have a different view of Scripture than I do, we have the same, I think, understanding of what compassion is.

And if you find that what you’re being told politically cuts against the idea of compassion, sooner or later that’s going to lead to a reckoning that just might invite people to reconsider their political commitments. It’s just that you have to invite people there rather than drag them there, and that can be the hard part, I think, for us on the left. But we all are, I think, really on the eve of a reckoning that could lead to something really good in this country.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.