Even for someone who religiously follows politics, it is difficult to keep track of who has announced a candidacy for the Democratic nomination. One candidate, however, who has clearly risen above the cacophony of contenders is South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Somehow with a nearly impossible to pronounce name, his polls and fundraising match those in the lead based on name recognition. For many reasons, Mayor Pete resonates with voters fed up and turned off by the soap opera of contemporary discourse.
Though only 37, Buttigieg sounds like a real adult compared to the tantrums and Twitter tirades to which we’ve become accustomed. His measured, nuanced responses bring legitimately fresh ideas to the table. And, strategically speaking, he appeals to demographics the Democrats need to win back in 2020. He is appealing because he challenges conventional political labels—chief among them is that he proudly identifies as a gay Christian.
Despite the rapid progress made since Barack Obama sought the nomination, the idea of a gay Christian still strikes some as an oxymoron. That’s not surprising. An entire generation of millennials grew up thinking the principal purpose of Christianity was to discriminate against LGBTQ people. If you’ve followed politically active Christians for the past 30 years, it’s hard to see how they could come to any other conclusion. So, even among the young and progressive, Buttigieg’s faith, marriage, and sexuality require some explanation.
So far, that explanation involves drawing a contrast between his faith and that of Vice President Mike Pence. But the more important distinction is not theological—it’s political.
Mike Pence has made antipathy toward gay people based on his interpretation of the Christian Bible a chief component of his political career. As governor and as vice president, he has opposed equal treatment under the law for LGBTQ citizens at every opportunity.
Pete Buttigieg, however, surgically severs political discrimination from scriptural interpretation. He repeatedly asserts that people of faith can come to differing conclusions without insisting their religion be translated into law. With that critical distinction, he obliterates the supposed conflict between religious freedom and equality that the gay rights debate has been stuck in since the marriage equality decision in Obergefell.
Pence believes the Bible condemns homosexuality. Buttigieg does not. That is a matter of personal faith. The correct interpretation of the will of God or sacred text is an intrafaith conversation best had among believers of that faith.
Pence believes it is the role of government to penalize citizens for insufficiently obeying his religion. Buttigieg emphatically does not, and THAT is the critical distinction when it comes to politics.
Buttigieg is not making his interpretation of scripture his selling point, but rather his understanding of how liberal democracy works. Sure, he calls Pence out for having a problem not with him but with the God that created him. But he always does so by drawing the distinction between personal faith and public policy.
It’s as if Buttigieg’s affably saying: “Hey buddy, you get to be wrong about God. That’s part of a free country. You just don’t get to make your beliefs about God the law for everyone else.”
Buttigieg demonstrates an understanding of the history and philosophy behind a government in which all citizens are guaranteed political equality while believing whatever they want about religion. He gets that his personal faith would mean nothing if it were the product of legal coercion. In other words, Buttigieg understands the limitations put on the government he is trying to lead.
That ability to cut through rhetorical entrenchment and express disagreement cogently and cordially is exactly what America needs. Voters of all political persuasions bemoan the divisive lack of civility that rips us apart. Along comes a sincere person of faith who believes in Jesus and democracy and it completely changes the political landscape.
For too long, the Mike Pences of the world have been the only face of public Christianity. The proverbial frog in the pot has been slow boiled to believe the only democratically appropriate posture is anti-religious. Buttigieg gives us hope, not just of another equality milestone in the White House, but of moving beyond the bigotry and divisiveness of the culture wars.
By rejecting the nakedly political hegemony of Vice President Mike Pence’s theology, Buttigieg is demonstrating how to gain popularity without relying on exclusion and discrimination. He’s showing a unifying message is still politically salient in an age when broadly disparaging whole groups of people is commonplace and advantageous.
Democracy will never be completely secular because leaders and voters will always be guided by deeply held beliefs. It’s how those beliefs get applied to policy that matters. For many voters, the most attractive candidate is the one that bellows the loudest against their chosen targeted identity. LGBTQ voters and their allies must resist that trend and be more democratic than their opponents.
Regardless of the outcome, Pete Buttigieg’s unique presence, rhetoric and candidacy pulls the discourse in the correct, unifying direction. In reframing faith, he’s restoring faith in our institutions.