Pete Buttigieg really doesn’t like Vice President Mike Pence. He wants the world to know that his state’s former governor is a homophobe and a bad Christian. “If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me,” the openly gay Buttigieg thundered at a recent event. “Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator!”
The whole saga has frankly been a bit embarrassing for those of us with connections to Indiana. Must we drag the whole nation through this Rust Belt food fight? In truth, though, Indiana’s Wars of Religion have raised some important questions about the “Christian Left.” Can it really exist? Do we want it to?
It’s interesting for me to reflect on this, especially since I knew Buttigieg and his family years ago as an undergraduate in South Bend. His parents (like my own father) were professors at Notre Dame, and I took a class with his mother. I met the young Buttigieg several times, mainly because he moved in social circles with one of my younger siblings. He was “Peter” in those days, which suited him. In my memory, he lingers as an intelligent, somewhat reserved young man, whose burning political ambition was apparent to all. I wasn’t shocked to see him emerging as a Democratic wunderkind. But I was surprised to hear him talking about his faith. I didn’t remember either him or his family being at all religious. I discerned no religious sensibilities in his mother, and his father (Maltese by birth) was to my recollection a committed Marxist and a cheerful and open atheist.
Apparently my memory was basically accurate. Buttigieg, who is openly gay, found God in adulthood, at an Anglican church in Oxford. For the past decade, he’s regarded a liberal Episcopalian church in South Bend as his “faith home.” He likes traditional liturgy (organ, not guitar), and says that ritual organized prayer helps him “tune [his] own heart to what is right.” There’s no indication that he’s had much difficulty squaring his religious faith with his progressive political views.
Buttigieg could be an interesting test case for multiple reasons. Naturally, religious conservatives will start with Rod Dreher’s question: is there any chance that faith might soften a liberal’s animosity against traditionalists? Thus far the answer seems to be “no,” given Buttigieg’s relentless fixation on Pence. It shouldn’t be necessary to prove to the world that he’s the better Christian just because both men are from Indiana. Buttigieg has come away looking vindictive and immature, and he’s undermined his effort to position himself as a thoughtful moderate.
It’s something of a wasted opportunity, because he had a chance to be generous here. Imagine if he’d said something like: “As a gay man I’m not going to apologize for who I love, but I do understand that faith shapes people’s worldviews in ways that have implications for how they live. I hope that Christians who don’t accept my marriage can come eventually to see it as a good thing. But in the meantime, let’s do our best to meet them where they are, understand what matters to them, and talk in positive terms about the things that we value. We don’t always have to fixate on the places where we disagree.”
A comment like that would have placed progressivism firmly on the moral high ground and relegated religious conservatives to the wrong side of history. But it also would have indicated a good-faith willingness to turn down the temperature on our raging culture wars. Religious conservatives still wouldn’t vote for someone as far left as Buttigieg, but his magnanimity might have impressed a broader range of left-leaning voters who genuinely prefer a more live-and-let-live public square. If they were nervous at all about how a gay president might ignite even more heated cultural controversies, this could serve to calm them. In a Nixon-to-China way, a gay man could in principle be the perfect person to negotiate a livable truce between warring factions.
I’m not holding my breath waiting for this to happen. I just think it’s possible, especially given Buttigieg’s youth. Maybe I’m just being naïve here, succumbing to nostalgic memories of high schoolers discoursing on their enthusiasms on my parents’ back patio. Time will tell.
But Buttigieg’s odd candidacy raises another question, which should also be of interest to religious conservatives. Do we want there to be a Christian Left?
No doubt most traditionalists would prefer to see progressivism vanish entirely. Given the unlikelihood of that happening, what form would we like the opposition to take? Is it better to face off against a proudly unmasked army of Marxists, atheists, and pagans? Or would it be better for our political rivals to offer respectful (but many times insincere) tributes to conventional morals and the Judeo-Christian tradition?
Religious conservatives seem conflicted on this point. We’re easily irritated by figures like Buttigieg, who self-identify as Christians without showing any serious concern for the distinctive moral or metaphysical claims of Christianity. That makes a certain kind of sense. I don’t suppose that Buttigieg’s faith claims are wholly insincere, but it does sound as though for him, church occupies a kind of middle ground between a volunteer job and a yoga class. It provides community and motivates him to be a good person, without challenging any pre-existing ideas about what that might imply. His autobiography certainly doesn’t make it sound as though religion has ever played a large role in shaping either his life decisions or his political views. I’m guessing the same could not be said of Pence.
Cosmetic Christianity certainly could be pernicious, especially if it persuades progressives that they can enjoy cultural Christianity at their pleasure, without having to tolerate the more uncomfortable aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If the president and his First Husband can sit around a twinkly tree on December 25 drinking eggnog, and then turn around and rail against religious exemptions for Christian wedding vendors, then why should anyone feel the need to tolerate orthodox Christians? There’s plenty of historical precedent for “tolerating” religion by demanding that it morph into something entirely non-threatening.
Having said this, there are also times when traditionalists condemn progressives for refusing to pay at least nominal lip service to Judeo-Christian virtues. The most obvious example is the ire conservatives have for elite liberals who refuse to “protect the guardrails” and “preach what they practice.” This critique recognizes that liberals have in fact developed a reasonably healthy subculture among themselves, embracing the benefits of marriage and the intact family, and teaching their kids the value of nutrition, fiscal responsibility, and a good work ethic. The rich are doing fairly well in their personal lives, but they don’t seem willing to help inculcate those salutary practices in others by giving voice to moral bromides and shaming malefactors. That kind of paternalism might actually be necessary, the argument suggests, for the preservation of a functional culture. Without it, non-elites end up floundering in a fragmented, desiccated culture that provides no direction or moral formation.
The “Guardrail Critique” suggests that we want elites to feel an obligation to uphold salutary social conventions for the sake of the common good. Even if they don’t accept Judeo-Christian sexual morals per se, they should still condemn divorce and tout the virtues of marriage. Whether or not they are personally devout, we still want them in church, because churches are a non-elite person’s best available source of both meaning and community. Performative public piety is the priority here, even if it’s insincere. If that’s really how we feel, then we probably do need to tolerate wishy-washy Episcopalians who view church as a mental health tonic.
It says in the Book of Revelation that God will spew the lukewarm from his mouth. Do American Christians want to do the same? If so, we should reconcile ourselves to the reality of a world without guardrails.
Rachel Lu is a senior contributor at The Federalist and a Robert Novak Fellow.