Pete Buttigieg on Faith 'As a Source of Unity' and Its Role in the 2020 Election | Sojourners

Pete Buttigieg on Faith 'As a Source of Unity' and Its Role in the 2020 Election

In the second season of The Soul of the Nation, Jim Wallis is sitting down with some of the presidential candidates to discuss how their faith informs their work. Following is a transcript of Wallis’ interview with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, discussing Jesus, his personal faith, abortion, religious freedom debates, and more.

Listen to the audio version of this episode here.

Jim Wallis: I’ve been on this book tour and we’re having, I would say, conversations about Jesus — in very diverse places, with lots of different people. But it’s been very interesting to go deeper into what Jesus actually said, and did he mean it, and what does it mean for right now in this crisis. You have talked more about Jesus than any other candidate — Republican or Democratic, why?

Pete Buttigieg: Because I think it's important and because I fear that there's been an effort to recruit Jesus into one political party, the Republican Party. And of course, God doesn't belong to a political party in this country. And as Lincoln said, everybody's trying to get God on their side, but you're probably better off trying to make sure you're on God's side. But I think we just need to even out the conversation. And there's an allergy in my party to doing this. And the allergy comes from a very healthy place, which is that we've seen what happens when people are subjected to other people's interpretation of their own faith. It's very important to me and I think it's very important to the country that when you're in office or even when you're seeking office, that you're speaking for people of any religion and people have no religion equally. But I think that may have prompted us to feel like we can't bring it up at all because there are those with very different views of very different values who have no compunction about bringing it up. It's created the impression that if you're guided by faith, you only have one place to go. And my evolution, my political and religious evolution actually has led me to really grow from the awareness that it doesn't work that way, that there's range, there's choice.

Wallis: We believe, we both believe, in the separation of church and state, but that doesn't mean the segregation of moral values from public life. So getting over the allergy seems to be important. What's interesting to me is the Democratic Party’s core base is African-American women, the most religious population in the country. Democrats are reluctant to talk about faith.

Buttigieg: Yeah. I hadn't thought of it in exactly that way, but it's true. You know, something [I] certainly see in my community in South Bend (we're about 25 percent African American) is the role that the church plays in holding so many neighborhoods and families together. And I think we miss an opportunity if we don't raise these questions, especially now, especially at a moment when even conservative understandings of what faith means in politics have been offended by the current president, let alone progressive ones. And to me that that's all the more indication that it's appropriate to talk about these things and even to litigate them a little bit. Look, a political contest should never be the same as the theological one, but I do think it's a good moment for us to say, “OK, well what does it mean to really be true to these moral traditions and carry them with you into office?”

Wallis: So let's litigate that a bit. The good news I found in the last 10 days is apparently, mysteriously, maybe miraculously, Jesus has survived all of us Christians. And there's real interest among lots of people to look at what he said and what he did. So I’ve been looking at sort-of questions that he asked or prompted. And some of them go right to the heart of all the issues we're talking about politically. So here's a few of them: The lawyer, says to Jesus, “How do I inherit eternal life?” And he says, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” Simple as that. And the lawyer (I think he’s a Washington lawyer, just with that tone of voice), he says “Who is my neighbor?” And the Good Samaritan parable follows. So, how does that question “Who's my neighbor?” — how does that really underlie all of these issues — so many of them that are going on right now?

Buttigieg: Of course, one of the one of the radical things, one of the scandalous things that Jesus says is that these people that you are led to believe are unfit to be in contact with you, that's who I have in mind, right? That's your neighbor. That's me. He says in some ways, and we're at a moment where there's such a big question about belonging in this country, what it means to belong and in effort to tell a lot of people they don't belong perhaps because they're not citizens or even if they are citizens that you don't belong because there's something different about you. And so the radical message of the gospel includes this idea that every single person is of equal concern; it has the divine in them. And I think it mirrors something that's in our civic creed as Americans, that every single person deserves equal concern from the state, from the government, from our politics, that we owe the same thing to every single person regardless of where they're from, or ability, or at any of our other questions. So it's a healthy moment, I think, because we're so divided and pitted against each other to ask what it means to love someone who's different or even …

Wallis: … And that point you just made about the Good Samaritan parable, the Judaeans around Jesus didn't think they weren’t any good Samaritans; they were mixed race; no one wants to be with him. He chooses a Samaritan who's an ‘other,’ and what he's showing that there as your neighbor is the one, especially, who is different then you, and you just alluded, that's, and so now we're targeting the very people that Jesus calls our neighbors. “Who is my neighbor?” is pretty central.

Buttigieg: It is. And you know, what a nation can do at its best is to create a sense of belonging that reminds us all that we're neighbors. In other words, there's somebody I might encounter on the street or in life who I've gotten nothing in common with except we're both Americans, and therefore we have something that that brings us into one another's concern. That's how I believe if the idea of nations, if the idea of nationality can be morally defended, it's that it can create that spirit, but right now with the opposite, right? We have a form of kind of cheap nationalism that uses the idea of nationality to tell a lot of people that they aren’t your neighbor--even if they literally are your neighbor to say that we're not part—not part of the same country or we don't have the same values or we're not in on the same project.

Wallis: “Belonging” — or you mentioned “belonging” — this crisis; political, constitutional as you know are speaking to it. It's also a crisis about whether there will be a “we” going into an American future or whether it's always going to be “us versus them.” Now, it's the politics of “us versus them.” How do we create that “we” going forward, that sense of, as you put it well, “belonging?”

Buttigieg: This is one of the reasons why the image I'm always trying to evoke when I'm speaking is of the day after this current presidency ends, and not just as something to look forward to If “we” win, that's a different “we” — it’s a smaller “we” that we who's going to win. Uh, I'm talking about the “we the people” whose lives are going to depend at that moment, which is going to be a tough moment. We might be relieved at this president's chaos is behind us, but I'm talking about a moment when we're going to be very torn up as a country and it's going to require that the president gather up the pieces and invite everybody to be part of this very, very big “we” — the “we” of everybody who is touched by the Constitution — everybody was here, and motivate us to guide one another in the right way and … and to support one another. The bigger the “we,” the stronger the country. But right now, it’s … this presidency has brought out the worst, certainly in his supporters, but I think sometimes it calls out the worst in those of us who oppose him too, because it tends toward …

Wallis: Indeed.

Buttigieg: … this division of the world into good people and bad.

Wallis: Indeed. Lincoln called leaders to bring up the better angels of our nature. But now, we have evoking our worst demons. So “angels versus demons” — that's what the apostle Paul might call “spiritual warfare.”

Buttigieg: Right. And I think that's one thing that … one religious principle that's very important to me is that we're not “good people” and “bad people.” We’re people who are capable of very good and very bad things. And what really matters is what is being called out of us, the better or the worse. And it also means, by the way, how you voted doesn't make you a good person or a bad person. I believe there's a lot of moral questions at stake in our voting, but there's some humility … in terms of assigning some moral status to ourselves because we think we're voting in the right way.

Wallis: Micah is, you know, says, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Humility is not a trait I find much in politics.

Buttigieg: No. Well, it … politics is about you … you’re supposed to promote yourself, right? It's almost literally your job. And when you're not doing that, you're spending a lot of time pointing out the speck in your neighbor's eye because that's, that's part of how you explain why you and not somebody else should be in a given seat. And, and yet even in politics, there's gotta’ be some level of humility about what each of us has to offer and … the reality that no one alone — contra the president's, “I alone can fix it!” mantra — nobody alone can do any of this.

Wallis: So how do we change the religious narrative in this 2020 election? You say the Republicans act like they own religion — own God. They often claim that, and say that … I was just in Tennessee where people say to a congregation, “You can’t be a Christian and a Democrat.” And so some press said, well, maybe what, what Mayor Pete doing is creating a “religious left,” but do we want to create a “Religious Left” that mirrors our “Religious Right” where ideology and politics wraps around our faith, and now we have a progressive version of this. But do we really want … how can we go deeper than just “Religious Right” and “Left?”

Buttigieg: Yeah, I wrestled with this. I do think that if there is such a thing as a “Religious Right,” then there had better be something like a “Religious Left,” although that doesn't necessarily mean it's got to be a mirror image. I think it means that above all that, people of faith know that they do have a choice. That, that if your religious values guide you in what you do in the voting booth, then make sure that's all of your religious values, including the ones about protecting the marginalized, and being concerned for the poor, and respecting the dignity and everybody and, and feeding the hungry, and identifying with prisoners and welcoming strangers. All of the things that are in there. But it does of course, diminish religion to reduce it to a political value system. There's great peril even as I often recruit religious arguments to try to explain what I think is morally at stake in what I have to offer. You've got to be careful that we're not trying to wrestle God down into where he'll fit in a political point.

Wallis: When you talk about Jesus, you always bring up what you just did. What's the relation to marginalized people? And you got into my conversion text — the Matthew 25 — the “it was me” texts. “I was hungry,” I was thirsty,” “I was a stranger,” “I wasn't a stranger” means “immigrant,” of course, “refugee.” “I was sick,” “I was in prison,” and uh, so he says, Jesus, [that] the least of these are the most important to him. Uh, and in Washington where we are now, the “least of these” are the least important all the time, but really in both parties, are least important. So how do we … how does politics … how do we talk about the ones that Jesus calls the “least of these” being so important, really as a test, as a test of the health, the moral health of any society?

Buttigieg: First of all, we have to say so.

You know, one bit of advice you get in politics, at least as a Democrat, is, “Take care not to talk too much about the poor. Just talk about the middle class because everybody wants to be in the middle class even if they're poor.” And yet, right now one of the things we've got to talk about is poverty. We got to talk about the poor, which is more and more of us, especially if we're honest about if poverty means being unsure how you're going to get through the next month if something comes your way. We're talking about a group of people that's approaching half the country, in addition to those living in extreme poverty.

… And this is also a question of power. Who is empowered by our political system? I would like to believe that one of the virtues of the democratic system is that it's more likely to enable those who have been marginalized to acquire power and to be made better off. But needless to say that some of the twisting of our democracy that's happened, as a consequence of many things — some of which can be reversed by good policies — like the role of money in politics that has made for a government, even in this supposedly democratic nation whose very structure, it tends to, to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.

Wallis: Sometimes when I talked to my Democratic friends, I say, “Jesus didn't say, ‘as you're done to the middle-class, you've done to me …’”

(Pete Buttigieg laughs)

Buttigieg: Ah … very good.

Wallis: ‘”… as you're done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.’” And that's something that both parties … you're exactly right. They don't want to talk about poverty. Another of the questions I'm looking at is: Pilate and Jesus are having a debate about the truth, and Pilate is losing the debate, so he says, “Oh, what is truth?” So he washes his hands and crucifies Jesus. The number of times the president lies is important to talk about. This is an underneath thing about undermining the very idea of “truth.” “What is truth?“ Autocrats and strongmen say, “there is no truth, so listen to me.” So that question Jesus says, “You'll know the truth and the truth will set you free.” So “truth” and “freedom” are deeply connected here. So when we lose the idea of even the truth itself, we're in danger of losing our freedom.

Buttigieg: Very much so. And you know, this is the hazard of alternative facts. There is, I think, a general acceptance on all sides of the aisle that this president's loose with the truth. The debate is over whether it matters …

Wallis: “… Whether it matters” is exactly the issue.

Buttigieg: … and it matters. It certainly matters to Kurdish civilians right now who are suffering because, it turns out that the word of the United States wasn't going to be kept under this president. It matters to those of us who believe or see that the only way we can build any kind of consensus is to honestly negotiate around our differences, which is I think how good politics … look, I come out of a very on-the-ground understanding of politics and it’s because I’m a mayor. There's no alternative facts around if there's … if the sewer is busted or the road hasn't been plowed, you can't just declare that it's “fine” and create your own truth because everybody can tell. They refute it by pointing to it. And so I think we need to import a little more of that reality-based approach to Washington before it's too late. Because if people get to make their own truth, it becomes incredibly dangerous.

(music playing)

Wallis: It's a leadership issue here too. At his Last Supper, he's having a meal with his disciples. They all want to sit next to him and their parents are getting involved, and as a former Little League coach, I know how that happens, you know, and then he says, “The Gentiles lord it over the people [wealth, power, winning and losing]. But I want you to be servants. I want you to be the one who serves the others. Let me share what I mean …” and washes their feet. So foot washing becomes Jesus sort of style of leadership. And we're so far away from [it], even public service is now undermined. So how do we … that's pretty core … what it means to lead and be a servant that we've, that's a big loss here.

Buttigieg: Yeah. And, and there's a tradition of this. So one of the — it's maybe small in the grand scheme of things — but one of the military traditions I appreciate the most is that when it's chow time, the custom is that the officers eat last because being in a position of trust and leadership means, among other things, you're responsible for making sure that people who are beneath you in the pecking order are fed, and then it's your turn. And so, I think service in the sense of, in our society, kind of “civic” sense (we've talked about military or public service) is not unrelated to that ethic that that Christian ethic around the idea of service. And it's one of the reasons why I believe national service is an idea whose time has come. I would have it be voluntary, but I'd have it be paid, become a norm so that everybody, if we create a million paid service opportunities a year, then whether you're going to college or whether you're going right into the working world, the first thing you do is — you kind of emerge into adulthood — is have a year of serving. And partly because it's a way to, to create that sensibility among people, partly because of the chance to see humanity and others very different from you that you're serving alongside, which I think is another virtue of military service. But I think at a deep level it can't be separated from — especially when we think about exalted roles in service like the presidency — to think about that image of foot washing, I think about it a lot because here you have divinity on earth and I'm sure, especially in … you know, that period of human civilization, feet are pretty gross. And, and the idea of God himself taking a knee and demonstrating what it is to serve in that way. That's very powerful.

Wallis: So serving … your “mayor” piece, of the servant leader takes the crisis, the disaster, and finds what's the way out of this. And then you're saying last in line?

Buttigieg: Uh, yeah. And there are all kinds of metaphors. You know, you’re talking about a captain who goes down with the ship, if it's not, if everybody else hasn't gotten off. Or you talk about what it is when there was a success and, and to try to lift up everybody who's had a hand in it. Sometimes I think the most important part of the presidency is the part that's not written down anywhere, and I learned this about the office of mayor that, of course a lot of it has to do with setting policy, and a lot of it has to do with running an organization — running a government. But the moments I felt I most earned my paycheck as mayor were moments where I was able to invoke the symbolism of the city or the fact that I'm a walking symbol of whatever the city might have in common, and use that to draw people together or called them to their higher values. And if that's true for a mayor, it's much that much more true for a president. And I think when we miss that, it's perhaps the costliest thing of all about where we are today.

Wallis: If you become president, how would your faith determine your priorities, and then how would it affect your interaction with other people?

Buttigieg: Well, first of all, one principle that I draw from faith is that everybody is created in the image of God and that everybody has equal dignity. And so when dealing — whether it's dealing with other politicians who you really want to let them have it and to conclude that they're just despicable people and need to cool it a little bit or when you're interacting with someone who doesn't have much of a claim on power, but, you know, ought to have as much of a claim on wellbeing as anybody among us — I think, carrying that principle helps you restrain yourself in some situations and extend yourself in others and reach out to people, and really embrace that sense of humility and how we're supposed to interact with others. It's not good for your humility to be in high office. Sometimes it is when you're a punching bag, but more often it's not because of the way you're treated and people attending to you and all of the kind of … even in our messy democratic system, all of the accoutrements that go with being an office … it's not good. I mean, it's good for your ego and it's not good for your humility. And so I think faith is a good way to hold that in check.

Wallis: But Obama used to actually tell me how that this office brought him, really did bring him to his knees time and time again because he just didn't know what to do or how to do it. And so there was a humility that came and not acting like you’re knowing that you'll always know what to do.

Buttigieg: Yeah.

Wallis: And I think, in his case, it really did bring him to prayer more than before.

Buttigieg: Well it makes sense. I mean prayer is the active, engaging with what's greater and more powerful than you are when you're trying to get somewhere.

Wallis: You once said that liturgical prayer, organized liturgical prayer, "It tunes my heart to the right.”

Buttigieg: Yeah. Something about the rhythm and the fact that it's collective, or often collective when we pray, certainly in the Episcopal tradition, [it] helps me get around the philosophical problem that I have with prayer, which is the idea of telling God what to do, which I always thought it was strange. The fact that, it's always in the imperative mood grammatically, right? It's as though we're offering …

Wallis: And God didn’t know Aunt Susie was sick.

Buttigieg: Yeah. And I think that's a challenge in order to bring your whole heart to prayer. If you're wondering what's up with that. But then the extent to which doing it with your whole heart has an effect on you, it’s very important. And for whatever reason, and this may not be a profound theological position, it may be as simple as a matter of something you might almost describe as “taste” or “habit.” But for whatever reason, for me, I find that experience of finding my heart tuned in the right way happens most when I'm in a fairly liturgically conservative environment where I'm with people who are different from me — we're gathered for the purpose of uttering these prayers.

Wallis: But people have very strong views. So often the tag for you is the, “first gay married man running for president of the United States” and yet you have talked about … you used a word I really am drawn to, you want to “beckon” people — beckon people who aren’t there yet on same-sex marriage from their religious traditions.

Buttigieg: So much of someone's ability to open their mind to something new or different depends on how they feel about themselves. And so if somebody is … if I'm trying to move somebody and the first thing I say is that they're “wrong” and “backwards” and “hateful,” and they don't think of themselves as wrong or backwards or certainly hateful, unlikely that I'm going to put them in a place where they're even capable of seeing their way to where I'm coming from. And so we've got to remember that seeing the humanity in everybody means everybody, especially the people who are having a problem with. Right? “Love your friend and hate your enemy” — that's easy enough. And on an issue like LGBTQ equality, I really believe this is also a battle within people. I think it is sometimes a battle between what they have been told and how they have been brought up, and something very good inside them, which is compassion. … Most of the experiences that I hear about of people coming to, especially when it comes to coming to accept someone they love who turns out to be gay or turns out to be different, is that it's love that's winning. You have to do your part to create the conditions that allow love to win. And that means that if we want somebody to move, it's better to call them over to where you're trying to get them to go than to try to drag them there.

Wallis: I was reading where you were saying that, “why is it same-sex marriage? Marriage is about love, right?” And you went on and talked about sex should be about love too, and why is this the area where people are going after when in fact, as you just said, this is where we are learning? You said your marriage has made you a better person and brought your closer to God. Right? So in this whole area of love and, and you said, “Well I think marriage or sex ought to be about love, right? Well these are very conservative things you're saying.

Buttigieg: I suppose so. And I shouldn't say this is a personal understanding and I want — I’m out to impose on anybody else — but it's an understanding that's rooted in my beliefs and, I suppose, also just rooted in my experience. Again, I don't want to insist that everybody else may be see it that way, but in that particular sense, I suppose, those are conservative views.

Wallis: And does faith open us up to maybe, “Don't go left, don’t go right; go deeper.” Does it open us up to kind of new ways forward on some things like … how do we get past this sort of politicizing of same-sex marriage or abortion when you got women who are often low income and alone getting abortions, meaning they're vulnerable, and then the life that's growing be becoming as vulnerable — two vulnerable populations. So why are we “pro-life,” “pro choice?” How do we deal with two vulnerable populations here in a different way than just politicizing this personal thing?

Buttigieg: Well, the way I come at it is that precisely because we're dealing with a question that in some way is unknowable, at least in the ways that certain things are knowable, we'll do better trying to come to an agreement about “who gets to make these decisions” than “what the decision ought to be.” And I think more broadly when I think about faith, when I think about how I came to faith, it's much less about what I'm certain that I believe then what I've come to realize, I can't know. I was … really as a graduate student realizing the limits of my own reason, and that's really what led me to the church. And you might say, I came to the church before I came to the faith, but so much of it is about realizing what you don't understand … well … you can't understand and it's the throwing of yourself onto something bigger that I think could filter into a lot of our most hostile and divisive questions in politics today.

Wallis: And you surprise people sometimes by doing that. So one of your [former] fellow candidates came out with a “taxing churches” or “taking their tax exemptions away if they don't accept same-sex marriage.” And you said to Beto, “I don't think that's the way to approach this.”

Buttigieg: Right. And look, nobody's more in favor of same-sex marriage than me. I'm in one and it's the most important thing in my life. But to me, that doesn't mean that we get to use the mechanisms of the state in that particular way. Because when you're going after tax exemption of a church, what you're really saying is this church isn't a church. We've decided it's not. It's one thing to enforce anti-discrimination law [in] organizations, even religious ones in many cases we ought to do. Yeah, it's another to say that you don't get to be in whatever protections we've created for religion as a whole because you have a position that … certainly a position obviously that I very much don't like.

Wallis: I often notice you’re good in what they call “lightening rounds.” You know, people want to ask you a quick question, so when debates happen, they'll raise an issue and the issue isn't “faith.” “What do you think about your faith?” — it's about an issue, “climate change,” and you'll talk about “God” and “stewardship.” So it's almost like the lightning round; it evokes faith when the question wasn't about faith — you're applying faith.

Buttigieg: Well, isn't every question about faith in some way?

Wallis: That's exactly … I think it is, which you apply it when it isn't the topic.

Buttigieg: Yeah. Look, faith can be very divisive, obviously. For as long as there've been religions, people have been fighting over it. But imagine if we (we who are involved in politics) look every time — every chance we can to faith as a source of unity. And here you have climate. It's an issue that, in my view, that the urgency of dealing with climate change is just manifestly beyond anything we can allow to remain a partisan issue. It's just … it's too … it'd be as if cancer were a partisan issue and, some people said it wasn't real. We've got to move beyond that. And so, I'm looking for ways to reach people where they are, and faith is one of them, especially if you believe that we are entrusted with power over something that we certainly didn't create and had better treat it well, and I think that's a big part of what's at stake in the question of ensuring that we do right by creation.

Wallis: Last thing I'll say is just … when people ask me, “Why do you think this candidate is talking about faith so much, Just brings it up?” Having taught Faith in Politics a lot at Harvard and Georgetown (where you’ve been), I don't think it's from polling that this might work. “This might be effective,” “This might bring gems back to some people,” it has to come from inside of you. If you just bring it up when you're on the debate stage, something happened. So, somehow what's inside of you is changing your perspective on what are called “politicalize” because it becomes a faith issue too.

Buttigieg: It's not the sort of thing anybody can tell you how to think about. It's a chance to explain who you are. I've heard a campaign's described as an “MRI of the soul,” and if the intensity of politics is such that it does on some level, give everybody X-ray vision into who you are, you might as well do everything you can to bring it out sooner rather than later.

Wallis: So how does faith hold us accountable? Has it opened up new possibilities for bringing people together, not just dividing us? Thanks for helping us do that.

Buttigieg: We'll do our best.

Wallis: Alright, thank you.

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