A wonderful irony is occurring in American politics — even in the early presidential campaign — and I wanted to make sure you all are aware of it.
For decades now, the traditional and media political wisdom is that Republicans control religion in American politics, and, with the exception of African Americans, the Democrats don’t like to talk much about faith. This assumption is embraced by Republicans, with white evangelicals in many churches telling their fellow congregants that they can’t possibly vote for Democrats. Part of the reason for this misconception is media illiteracy about religion and the personal secular bias of many journalists.
In an article in USA Today, Kirsten Powers spoke of a resurgent “progressive” faith movement as perhaps being just what the country needs right now, adding, “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.”
I would even add to that that there is a bias against religion per se among some secular journalists; they want all religion to look like the religious right does — closed, exclusive, and hardline conservative — because it fits an easy narrative. In fact, I’ve observed that the religious right and the secular left have one thing in common: They both want the world to think that all religion is right-wing.
But there are new voices on religion and politics — and they’re coming from the Democratic, and not the Republican side. For example, the first millennial candidate for president, the mayor of a midsize town in the conservative Midwestern state of Indiana, a gay, married man named Pete Buttigieg has been making the rounds talking about what his faith means to him.
While religion does not have a monopoly on morality, and there should be no religious test for public office, it’s refreshing to hear Democrats or Republicans communicate openly on the ways their faith shapes and inspires their core values, convictions, and vision for their communities and our nation. I also want to make clear that I want to lift up his and other candidates’ voices this week not to endorse one or more candidates but to endorse a fuller, better, richer, deeper, and non or bipartisan discussion about faith and politics.
So here are some of the things this young Democrat from the Midwest has to say about his personal understanding and commitment to faith.
In an interview about his faith, Buttigieg said the Democratic Party has sometimes become distant from religion, but it’s “a side effect of something healthy” because of its commitment to the separation of church and state, and the belief that it speaks for people of any faith and of no faith equally.
Mayor Pete seems to understand something I have been saying for years: One can believe in the separation of church and state, but not the segregation of morality and faith from public life.
Indeed, the mayor said in a recent interview with the Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “I think there’s an opportunity hopefully for religion to be not so much used as a cudgel but invoked as a way of calling us to higher values.”
The whole interview, “Evangelicals helped get Trump into the White House. Pete Buttigieg believes the religious left will get him out.” is a worthy read. In it, he continues:
“I think it’s unfortunate [the Democratic Party] has lost touch with a religious tradition that I think can help explain and relate our values … At least in my interpretation, it helps to root [in religion] a lot of what it is we do believe in, when it comes to protecting the sick and the stranger and the poor, as well as skepticism of the wealthy and the powerful and the established.”
In the same interview, he speaks of the “bad faith” of the current president. “I do think it’s strange, though, knowing that no matter where you are politically, the gospel is so much about inclusion and decency and humility and care for the least among us, that a wealthy, powerful, chest-thumping, self-oriented, philandering figure like this can have any credibility at all among religious people,” he said.
He also spoke on getting married in a church and how his faith and sexuality intersect: “Thankfully, it had been settled as far as our diocese was concerned by the time I got married, because I wanted to be married in the church, and I’m glad we were able to do that,” he said. Buttigieg touched on the tensions he found between faith and sexuality growing up, adding that he now understands why some people believe the Christian faith leads them to oppose same-sex marriage but hopes they can encounter scripture interpreted a different way.
“I hope that teachings about inclusion and love win out over what I personally consider to be a handful of scriptures that reflect the moral expectations of the era in which they were recorded,” he says.
In USA Today this week, Buttigieg elaborated on this theme, urging 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.”
Of course, there is an obvious omission of the secular press in covering the faith of the most dependable block of Democratic voters — African Americans, most of whom go to black churches. The mayor told the Washington Post, “As we talk of the need for a religious left, we should remember that the black church has been [putting faith into action] for quite some time,” he said.
Many of the problems with religious politics, Buttigieg said, have to do with an “inevitable putting down of the values of others.”
“To me what’s more interesting is the way in which religious or nonreligious ethical motivations can overlap,” he said. “Those are the areas I’m going to point to any time I mention a religious commitment of my own in the context of this campaign process.”
From In a recent appearance on his interview on The View, Mayor Pete said:
When I go to church, the scripture that I hear, it is about protecting the poor, it is about looking after those who are marginalized in society, there's a lot about welcoming the stranger, which to me includes welcoming the immigrant, and so much of what Christ's teachings are about have to do with the way that we take care of the least among us. And I see now in the White House this celebration of how powerful you can be, how rich you can be, as if that's the same thing as virtue, and it just doesn't land. Now, I get that different people have different interpretations of their faith, and I also get that as somebody entering a political process, it's my responsibility to be there for people from any faith or from no faith, so it's not about imposing my religious views. But for those of us who think that our morality is something that needs to be in touch with our religious faith personally, then it's really important to explain that no one party has a monopoly on faith.
The mayor’s interview on Morning Joe got more response, they say, that most of their interviews do. He spoke on faith there too.
I think anybody in this process needs to demonstrate how they will represent people of any faith, people of no faith, but I also think the time has come to reclaim faith as a theme. The idea that the only way a religious person could enter politics is through the prism of the religious right, I just don't think that makes sense.
[Religion] teaches us to reach out to others, to humble ourselves, to take care of others. The immigrant, the prisoner, and, frankly, the sex worker — literally! Jesus spends his time with sex workers, among others, lepers. [In American politics,] we have this warped idea of what Christianity should be like when it comes into the public sphere, and it’s mostly about exclusion, which is the last thing that I imbibe when I take in scripture in church. … When God comes among us, you see service, you see humbling, you see foot washing.
What’s so refreshing about this campaign season so far is that Mayor Pete is not the only candidate speaking compellingly about his or her faith. For example, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is very openly religious, to the point that he says: “I don’t know how many speeches of mine you can listen to and not have me bring up faith ... Before you tell me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people.”
Even more compellingly, he speaks very concretely about the impact of the life and teachings of Jesus have had on him:
The life of Jesus is very impactful to me and very important to me. He lived a life committed to dealing with issues of the poor and the sick. The folks that other folks disregard, disrespect or often oppress. He lived this life of radical love that is a standard that I fail to reach every single day but that really motivates me in what I do.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has also been very open about the importance of her Methodist faith for many years, speaking in 2012 to the need to put one’s faith into actions and the importance of Matthew 25 to her vocation:
When I was making the decision whether to get into this Senate race, one of the important touch points for me was to read my bible. And it’s Matthew 25:40…
It says three things: it says there is God in ... the hungry, the poor, the stranger, there is God in each of us. Because. Remember, it says “you did it unto me.” And that’s saying God was in, God is in, the poor, the thirsty, the stranger.
But then part two is he never asks the question of going to heaven and hell, what your intent was, the question was: Did you act? ... It stresses the importance of community, because it says, in fact, it’s about action and it’s about action together.
In going through all of the interviews and coverage as journalists are finding this common thread in Democratic field, a line in Powers’ interview with Buttigieg stood out. He criticizes right-wing Christians for “saying so much about what Christ said so little about, and so little about what he said so much about.”
It’s true: The religious right’s litmus tests for “Christian issues” of abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty (for themselves) are taken without any reference or relation to the deepest and most persistent themes of Jesus’ teachings and questions. I would put the problem this way: The American public can listen to the religious right all day long and learn literally nothing about Jesus. And many of the words and actions of the Trump administration, which the religious right supports, are completely contradictory and virtually antithetical to the teachings of Christ. And it is time to hold the religious right accountable for that.
With the scourge of white nationalist killings at worship in a black church in Charleston, S.C., a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., a mosque in New Zealand, and in many other places, white nationalism must be named as a sin against God, and specifically anti-Christ. And instead of doing that, Donald Trump has become a champion of white nationalism as a global religion with more and more violent consequences. When are we going to hear the religious right take him to account for that?
Jesus says how we treat “the stranger,” immigrants and refugees, is how we treat Christ himself. Donald Trump has made demonizing and attacking “the stranger” and making his wall the core of his agenda and legacy. This week he again threatened to shut down the Southern border and to cut aid to Central American counties. Where is the accountability to Christ here, not just on the part of a president who claims to be a Christian, but on the part of the Christians who support him?
Wealth is triumphant in the world of Trump, and unmitigated power is the ultimate goal of leadership. But how we treat the “least of these” is Jesus’ test, even for the leaders of nations, and foot-washing reflects his style of servant leadership. Why can some not see this contradiction?
The planet is in jeopardy by the growing climate crisis, which the president denies and accelerates. Where is the voice reminding his supporters that we are to be faithful stewards of God’s creation? Ironically and hopefully, a new generation of evangelicals has gotten that message.
These are not just Christians with different political views but people practicing different religions altogether. And it is time to speak more theologically than politically about these differences.
Most of us being lifted up as representatives of the “religious left” by reporters discussing the fresh words of Mayor Pete, are not really comfortable with the term “left,” as that is not how we define ourselves. We don’t believe in folding our religion around political ideology — as we see the religious right shamelessly doing every day in their uncritical support of Donald Trump — but rather want to take our commitments as followers of Jesus and as believers in the scriptures into our public life in ways that are willing to challenge all sides. Don’t go right, don’t go left; go deeper into Jesus.
But a whole new and fresh conversation about religion and politics has begun in this election season as we head toward 2020, most prominently right now by a 37-year-old millennial mayor from the conservative Midwest Rust Belt, a Democrat and married gay man, speaking the kind of language that can change old narratives and national conversations. We worship a God who is full of surprises.