Does the country need an awakening of the Christian left? Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg thinks so.
Mayor Pete, as he is affectionately called, is having a moment with a first quarter fundraising haul of $7 million and a third place showing in an Iowa poll at 11%. In January, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, held last place at 0%. In the intervening months, Buttigieg has wowed Democrats with his mastery of policy issues and Midwestern charm. The 37-year-old is a military veteran who served in Afghanistan, a Rhodes scholar and speaks seven languages.
He has also stood out as a devoted Christian who is speaking against the dominance of the religious right in the public square. As Buttigieg told me in an interview Friday, “The left is rightly committed to a separation of church and state … but we need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”
Buttigieg criticized right-wing Christians for “saying so much about what Christ said so little about, and so little about what he said so much about.”
Let’s parse this insightful formulation: “Saying so much about what Christ said so little about” applies to the religious right’s treatment of abortion as a litmus test for Christian faith, when in fact Jesus never mentioned the issue. That omission has not stopped many right-wing Christians from using President Donald Trump’s anti-abortion rights judicial appointments as the president’s “get out of jail free card,” and license for them to support a leader who consistently behaves in a way that is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.
Christians are called to defend the poor
As to the religious right saying “so little about what (Jesus) said so much about,” Buttigieg made this observation: “When I think about where most of Scripture points me, it is toward defending the poor, and the immigrant, and the stranger, and the prisoner, and the outcast, and those who are left behind by the way society works. And what we have now is this exaltation of wealth and power, almost for its own sake, that in my reading of Scripture couldn't be more contrary to the message of Christianity. So I think it's really important to carry a message (to the public), knitting together a lot of groups that have already been on this path for some time, but giving them more visibility in the public sphere.”
He’s alluding to a burgeoning Christian left led by pastors and writers like Jim Wallis, the Rev. William J. Barber II, Rachel Held Evans, the Rev. James Martin, Lisa Sharon Harper, Diana Butler Bass and many others. But nonconservative Christians generally do not receive the same level of news media attention as the religious right, despite their deep understanding of Scripture and thriving faith traditions. Because most journalists are secular, they can be gullible in looking to the religious right as arbiters of biblical interpretation, especially as it relates to hot-button cultural and political issues. Because of this, many Americans aren’t even aware of the rich tradition of progressive Christianity.
When I asked Mayor Pete his favorite Bible verses, he cited a perennial favorite from the Book of Matthew: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these … you did for me.” Less frequently cited is his other choice of Matthew 6:5, in which Jesus says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”
He's reluctant to call Trump a Christian
Buttigieg didn’t explicitly apply this passage to the religious right. Nonetheless, it’s hard to overlook the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders who make a spectacle of praying publicly — in particular over President Donald Trump — as evidence of their holiness. Jesus himself warned against this kind of showy spirituality and said, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father.”
There are so many other examples of how members of the religious right, who claim allegiance to a literal interpretation of the Bible, ignore the literal words that Jesus spoke. Hypocrisy, something Jesus railed against, has become perhaps the most prominent feature of the religious right in the Trump era.
Does Buttigieg think Trump is a Christian? “I'm reluctant to comment on another person's faith, but I would say it is hard to look at this president's actions and believe that they're the actions of somebody who believes in God,” he said. “I just don't understand how you can be as worshipful of your own self as he is and be prepared to humble yourself before God. I've never seen him humble himself before anyone. And the exaltation of yourself, especially a self that's about wealth and power, could not be more at odds with at least my understanding of the teachings of the Christian faith.”
While Buttigieg is a gay man, married in the Episcopal Church he attends, he urges those who support LBGTQ rights to “beckon people onto the right side of history (rather) than … drag people there. If someone feels harassed and put upon by us, at the very moment we're demanding tolerance and acceptance, one consequence is that we can leave them with nowhere to go but the religious right.”
Preaching grace is critically countercultural
I pressed him on how he could advocate showing so much grace to those who continue to perpetrate a biblical interpretation that has caused so much harm to gay people like him.
“Well, obviously, I want them to change,” he noted. “But I also want to recognize the struggle they might be having and get them there. And in getting there, I want some kind of healing to go on, so that they can recognize ... that our marriages are just as good as theirs. Because people who are on what I would call the wrong side of this issue and of history probably don't think of themselves as hateful. So we've got to make sure that they feel good about themselves in the process of coming to a more accepting view.”
What advice does Mayor Pete have for those struggling to be graceful toward those with whom we disagree politically? “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,” he said.
In our pugilistic take-no-prisoners era, preaching grace toward those on the other side of the political fence is decidedly countercultural. Whether Mayor Pete becomes our nation’s first millennial president or not, he has already started a crucial conversation for the country.