Paul Prather

Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg brings progressive Christianity to the race

Potential presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37, is returning left-leaning faith to the political forefront.

He’s a millennial Democrat — and an unapologetic Christian.

I’m not endorsing Buttigieg’s views. I’m not singing his praises. I’d hardly heard of him until friends emailed me articles about him from CNN and USA Today.

But I congratulate both news organizations for recognizing this as an important story.

For too long, Americans have been fed the idea that Christianity — especially as it relates to politics — consists exclusively of conservative white evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Both the right and left have made much of the fact that 80-plus percent of white evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.

As a former religion reporter, I’ve been disheartened by the news media’s one-dimensional coverage of the interaction between faith and the voting booth.

In truth, the white, conservative, pro-Trump faction of Christianity is just part of a broader, more complex story.

American Christianity is diverse. And it includes a big strain of liberalism.

South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg rediscovered his Christian faith while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. A member of the Episcopalian church, he served in the military in Afghanistan, is gay and married. Charles Krupa AP

Christian progressives particularly are found among mainline Protestants, including many Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ and members of the United Churches of Christ. (Some adherent of these churches aren’t progressives.)

Progressivism also runs through portions of the Roman Catholic Church and, on issues such as racial justice, historically black denominations.

For much of American history, white Protestants led the left wing on nearly every social issue: abolition of slavery, fair treatment for American Indians, prison reform, child labor laws, universal public education — you name it.

Other Christians opposed these reforms, I’d add. Several mainline denominations split over slavery. Yet the progressives arguably were more influential than conservatives until about the 1950s.

Buttigieg’s liberalism might sound today like a radical departure from the Christian mainstream. But in a way, even though the specific issues have changed, his attitude is a throwback to what long was the mainstream.

Baptized as a baby in the Catholic church, he rediscovered Christian faith while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Later, he joined an Episcopal Cathedral in South Bend. He also served in the military in Afghanistan. He’s gay and married.

He criticizes the religious right for “saying so much about what Christ said so little about, and so little about what he said so much about,” according to journalist Kirsten Powers, who wrote the USA Today piece.

“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,” Buttigieg said. “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.”

On abortion, he’s pro-choice.

In the CNN story, he tells the Rev. Edward Beck, a Catholic priest, that abortions — specifically, late-term abortions — “are these incredibly painful, morally complex, but often also medically complex situations.”

Buttigieg doesn’t think politicians are best positioned to decide whether a woman should end a pregnancy.

“We demand that government intervene when we can all agree on what’s at stake,” he said. “The problem with this issue is that we can’t all agree on what’s at stake. There was a Notre Dame law student who said that birth control, abortion and infanticide are all the same thing. To me, I cannot relate to someone who views the world that way, but I get that some people do, and they think the creator of the universe wants them to think that way.”

He describes his marriage to another man as “one of the most conservative things about my life, very conventional. It is morally one of the best things in my life. Being married to Chasten makes me a better person. I would even say it moves me closer to God.”

Buttigieg realizes his views will strike some fellow Christians as startling, if not heretical.

He advocates patience toward his theological opponents.

On gay marriage, he told Powers that those who champion LGBTQ rights should “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.”

He said it’s important for progressives to recognize those on the other side might be going through struggles themselves, trying to remain faithful to deeply held doctrines while wrestling with conflicting information.

Progressives need to show grace, he said.

“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.”

On that last statement, I agree wholeheartedly. We need humility and grace across the theological spectrum. None of us has a corner on virtue. None of us has a corner on truth.

It’s going to be interesting to see how, or whether, Buttigieg’s brand of Christianity spices up the religious discourse as the 2020 presidential race evolves. Maybe he’ll expand the public’s preconceptions of who Christians are.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at
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