Religion

Pete Buttigieg, Moral Tactician

Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco, June 1, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
The Democratic mayor and presidential candidate is all too willing to adjudicate moral questions — until it comes to one where he knows his answer is wrong.

Pete Buttigieg isn’t always sure that he knows what it means to be a moral Christian. But he’s pretty certain you aren’t one.

The mayor of South Bend is capitalizing on having spent just shy of a decade making things just a bit worse for residents in the mid-sized, rundown Rust Belt city — I’m allowed to say that, having lived there for four years in the middle of his term — by launching a moderately successful bid to be president.

His rhetoric on the trail has been characterized by lots of consultant-speak, aided by his Harvard degree and his years at McKinsey and Company, and moderated by a healthy dose of moral preening. It’s the latter that’s of special concern this week, as the Buttigieg camp announced it had become the first Democratic team of the 2020 cycle to hire a “faith outreach director.” Reverend Shawna Foster’s first order of business? Making sure “the campaign is really reaching out to faiths that typically haven’t had much say in politics — Native American spirituality, Sikh spirituality, Bahais.”

Unfortunately for Buttigieg, these groups make up very little of the electorate. Even more unfortunate: Reverend Foster didn’t list Christians. Buttigieg’s relationship with that particular religious subgroup needs a bit of resuscitation, especially if he hopes to appeal to Christian voters disenchanted with Donald Trump who nonetheless don’t feel much allegiance to identity-politics leftism.

Thus far, the mayor’s discussion of his Christian faith — he’s a stalwart Episcopalian, in his accounting — mostly has revolved around how he understands religion a great deal better than his political opponents do.

“The left is rightly committed to a separation of church and state,” he told USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers in an April interview, “but we need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”

Did you catch that? Underneath the McKinseyesque jargon, Buttigieg is asserting that being a good Christian means you must embrace progressive ideology. This is how he’s spoken about religion for the entirety of his campaign, wielding it like a cudgel against anyone who hesitates to champion his policy prescriptions.

Christianity isn’t synonymous with progressivism, but Buttigieg seems to believe that, on dogma, it’s his way or the highway. Any politician who uses his religious beliefs to castigate those on the other side of the aisle isn’t trying to help people see the light; he’s trying to score points.

That’s precisely what Buttigieg has done. Despite, by all accounts, having enjoyed a pleasant working relationship with Mike Pence when Pence was governor of Indiana, Buttigieg suddenly insinuated that the vice president’s support for traditional marriage is an animus-driven misapplication of Christian theology.

“That’s the thing that I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg said in an April speech at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, “that if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.”

Never mind that Pence is far from the only practicing Christian to believe that marriage is, by its very nature, a union between one man and one woman. And never mind that just over a decade ago, Democrats up and down the roster — including Barack Obama — espoused the same views about marriage as does Mike Pence. Progressive dogma now demands celebration of same-sex unions, and any Christians who won’t go along must be outed as backwards bigots.

Again and again, Buttigieg has deployed this tactic. “The Republican party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion. . . . We should call out hypocrisy when we see it,” he said during June’s Democratic-primary debate in Miami.

“For a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that . . . God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again,” Buttigieg added, constructing an elaborate straw man to criticize the Trump administration’s policies at the southern border.

In last month’s debate, Buttigieg’s topic du jour was economics: “The minimum wage is just too low, and so-called conservative Christian senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage, when scripture says that whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker.”

But even though he is obviously comfortable parsing the Bible when he believes it bolsters his favored policies and shames his opponents, there’s one issue on which Buttigieg remains afraid to exercise his moral authority.

Asked on Morning Joe in late March whether he supports bills allowing women to obtain an abortion for nearly any reason up until birth, Buttigieg offered only a cop-out. “When we’re talking about some of those situations . . . the involvement of a male government official like me is not helpful,” he said.

When the question next arose, this time during his Fox News town hall in May, Buttigieg dodged again. “Do you believe, at any point in pregnancy, whether it’s at six weeks or eight weeks or 24 weeks or whenever, that there should be any limit on a woman’s right to abortion?” asked Fox News host Chris Wallace.

“I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up in when you draw the line that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of who gets to draw the line,” Buttigieg replied. “And I trust women to draw the line.”

He doubled down on his equivocation in an interview with Washington Post reporter Bob Costa a few days later. “For those who have a strong view about some of these almost unknowable questions around life,” Buttigieg said, “the best answer I can give is that, because we will never be able to settle those questions in a consensus fashion, scientifically —”

There Costa cut him off, pressing the candidate on whether this is really an “unknowable question.” The mayor had this to say: “It’s certainly unknowable in the way that scientific questions are answered. It’s a moral question. And so the question is — it’s not how do we politically decide where the line ought to be drawn. The question is: Who gets to draw the line? Who gets to decide?”

Asked once more, this time by Costa, whether there should be a line at all, Buttigieg again deflected. “That’s part of the framework of Roe v. Wade, right?” he quipped.

This “male government official” is most often all too willing to draw clear-cut lines about moral dilemmas. But when it comes to the question of whether the government has any role in protecting unborn human beings from scissors and scalpel, he demurs.

Christians have long considered abortion, which extinguishes innocent unborn children, to be a violation of the sanctity of human life. For his support of abortion on demand, it would be easy to accuse Buttigieg of being a bad Christian. It’s easier still to accuse him of moral hypocrisy.

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