Melinda Henneberger

Pete Buttigieg isn’t afraid to talk about God. But is he a different kind of Democrat?

My friends in South Bend, Indiana, where I went to college, think highly of their mayor, Democrat Pete Buttigieg, who as you might have heard is running for president.

“He’s about as fully human as they come, meaning in touch with who he, Pete, is,” says Jane Pitz, a longtime “volunteer where needed” in their hometown. She loves that he never shouts or resorts to clichés and always takes responsibility.

Even at the volcanic recent town hall meeting after a white police officer fatally shot a black man, she saw his demeanor as “one of listening to the shouters and not being defensive about the blame that was being laid at his feet. He owns what he can’t do or hasn’t done. ... A little humility goes a long way in this age of big chests and loud voices.”

Disclaimer: I would definitely vote for Jane for president. And the idea of Pete Buttigieg checks a lot of boxes for me, too.

Who better than a gay Christian intellectual?

At least in theory, who better than an aggressively unhip, young, gay Middle American religious intellectual who served in Afghanistan to restore our degraded democracy and mend our many divides? He’s raising money, exciting Iowans, and doing surprisingly well for someone who if he won would be five years younger than JFK was when inaugurated.

Good for Buttigieg for refusing to cede Christianity in the public sphere to those who, as he has said, talk “so much about what Christ said so little about, and so little about what he said so much about.” Ahem and amen.

His Christian influences include the Jesuit priest James Martin, the writer Garry Wills, and the early church philosopher and theologian Augustine, who “is fascinating to me because of his own journey” on the edges of empire, with “something of an auto-didactic quality that mirrors a lot of American stories.” His, maybe? The saints are supposed to be role models.

But my little fantasy about Buttigieg being just the Democrat who as a gay Christian might see why we need to accommodate both religious freedom — the constitutionally guaranteed right of faith-based groups to function without government interference — and the equally important protection from discrimination that every American is entitled to? All in my head, I think.

Dragging God into Democratic politics

In a phone interview on Tuesday, ahead of two campaign events in Kansas City, Buttigieg did not seem to have thought much about the religious freedom end of that stick, and stuck to positions that in no way distinguished him from others in his party.

Of course, some in the increasingly secular Democratic Party don’t know why he has to drag God into the conversation at all. He does so anyway, he says, “because it’s an important part of who I am” and because this is a moment of hypocrisy laid undeniably bare by a shocking amount of Christian support for “policies that fly in the face of various commandments to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick” and on and on.

It’s not from out of nowhere, he says, that Democrats “have been a little bit allergic” to talking about faith, given that it’s sometimes “been used to exclude.” But you can serve the religious and non-religious equally, he says, and show there’s another, truer way to honor Christian values.

Excellent! But how, exactly, do we balance the rights of the religious and everyone else? Was Hosanna-Tabor, for instance, correctly decided? He doesn’t remember which case that is — it’s the unanimous 2012 decision, joined by even the most liberal Supreme Court justices, that found a Lutheran church in Michigan could make hiring and firing decisions free of government oversight. Or from another perspective, with complete freedom to discriminate. (In Tabor, the church fired a woman with narcolepsy.)

Did the Supreme Court get it wrong?

“I don’t want to wade into the complexities of that one,” Buttigieg said.

Then what about the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which the Supremes ruled 7-2 that the baker who wouldn’t create a wedding cake for a gay couple could not be compelled to do so, under his right to free speech and free exercise, any more than he could be compelled to bake a cake with an anti-gay message?

Buttigieg disagrees with that decision: “We’re not asking somebody to make a gay cake. Where we strike the balance is we can’t harm people.”

If only it were that easy.

Asked if there’s any matter on which his faith has led him to challenge or differ from his party, he said that on the contrary, one reason he is a Democrat is that its policies are so consonant with the practice of his faith as a member of the Episcopal Church.

Politics and faith at odds

The only limits on abortion rights, he says, should be those in the “framework we’ve lived in” since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.

Still, “politics itself can seem at odds with faith,” involving as it does so much “pointing out the speck in your neighbor’s eye, and puffing yourself up.” And “I don’t know if we can really live up to what Scripture demands” because the public would never accept it.

He’s been criticized before for mirroring the mistake the religious right has often made in thinking that if Christianity has brought them to their conservative politics, then that’s the exact place on the ideological spectrum that every other follower of Christ should land.

That’s not him, he says: “Coming from a place like South Bend,” the culturally Catholic home of the University of Notre Dame, where opposition to abortion rights is quite strong, “I do understand how people reach different conclusions. It is hard for me to grasp how a committed Christian sees anything to admire in the current president.” But “we don’t want to be doctrinaire about it.”