Mayor Pete’s Bogus Religious Tolerance

Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
Buttigieg’s instinct is not to defend first principles but to ponder whether they can be constrained if they offend his party’s sensibilities.

Not long ago, Saint Peter Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., the media’s go-to expert on all matters of faith, was asked about Beto O’Rourke’s contention that churches that refuse to embrace progressive spiritual rites should be stripped of their tax-exempt status.

“I’m not sure he understood the implications of what he was saying,” Mayor Pete responded. “I mean, that means going to war not only with churches, but I would think with mosques and a lot of organizations that may not have the same view of various religious principles that I do, but also, because of the separation of church and state, are acknowledged as nonprofits in this country.“

Buttigieg’s implication was that while O’Rourke’s “war” against Christians might be justified, there’s also a chance that those efforts might ensnare a favored progressive group. This isn’t a defense of religious tolerance as much as a warning  — a good one — that any state empowered to target problematic Catholics or Evangelicals could one day come after Unitarians or Reform Jews, as well.

The interaction allowed the media to frame Buttigieg as a moderate on issues of church and state. Something he most certainly is not — except in relation to O’Rourke, who, as others have noted, is the id of the Democratic party. All told, O’Rourke’s real sin wasn’t the positions he took, but his abandonment of incrementalism. At root, the fundamental ideas that propelled Beto aren’t very different from those that are propelling Buttigieg, whose defense of the Constitution is contingent on progressive outcomes and the current state of identity politics, rather than on neutral principle.

Take this recent interview with Adam Wren, in which Buttigieg was asked how “he would approach religious freedom broadly.”

“The touchstone has to be the idea that religious freedom, like other freedom, is constrained when it becomes a rationale for doing harm,” Buttigieg begins. “So when we talk about freedom of speech, that does not mean you can yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”

Let’s just stop here and note for the record that you can shout “fire” in a crowded theater. This infuriating analogy — issued by Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States and subsequently repeated by untold thousands of censorship apologists — was at the heart of one of the most egregious violations of free expression in our history.

The unanimous Schenck decision allowed the Wilson administration to throw a bunch of socialists, some of whom had fled czarist oppression, into prison for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The alleged “harm” of these anti-war activists — who were, in every sense, exercising legitimate political expression — was undermining recruitment efforts for World War I.

Even if, like me, you believe that most socialists would gladly throw you in prison if they got the chance, you may also realize that a truly free society doesn’t “constrain” dissent as a matter of ideological preference.

Does Buttigieg? He wants you to know that, like freedom of speech, religious freedom is really about protecting the minorities he likes. Buttigieg went on to inform Wren that “the original doctrines and federal legislative law go back to, I think, substances in rituals among Native Americans says [sic] about freedom to undertake religious practice.”

Here, he was probably talking not about the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, but about the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which passed in reaction to a Supreme Court decision that ruled against Native Americans who had been fired by the state of Oregon for using peyote in rituals.

That bill, introduced by Chuck Schumer and Ted Kennedy, was supported by nearly all major religious organizations because of its wide-ranging reaffirmation of religious liberty. To Buttigieg, however, it is worthwhile insofar as it applies to Native Americans and hallucinogens, and dangerous insofar as it applies to those icky Christians clinging to their antiquated dogma.

Would a bill such as the RFRA even get out of a House committee today? Would Buttigieg support a bill featuring the same exact language? Given his own language, this seems highly unlikely. Asked about first principles, Buttigieg’s instinct is immediately to ponder whether they can be “constrained” should they offend his party’s sensibilities.

Supporting constitutional protections for institutions and individuals who aren’t being harassed is just posturing. So the pertinent question is this: In what real-world political debate involving faith has Buttigieg — or any Democratic-party candidate, for that matter — supported the defense of religious freedom over its “constraint?”

Does Buttigieg believe that religious establishments should be able to hire teachers who agree with their teachings, even when those teachings have long held that homosexuality is sinful? Is he concerned that nuns and other Americans with similar belief systems are being compelled by the state to participate in programs that offer abortifacients and birth control? Is he troubled by the fact that taxpayers may be forced to fund abortion on demand (apparently, the only constitutional right that Democrats believe should be unconstrained)? Is he concerned that business owners around the nation are being compelled by the government to produce artistic works that undermine long-held tenets of their faith?

If not, his prevailing concern isn’t the maintenance of the Constitution, or the free practice of faith that it protects, but the advancement of his own political ideology. And that’s no principle at all.


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