In the nonstop coverage of surprisingly top-notch Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, a familiar refrain has begun: “He’s not a real Christian.”
Mayor Pete, as the gay mayor of South Bend, Ind. is often called, has made his faith a centerpiece of his candidacy. He’s a loving, married, devout Christian. But he cannot really be Christian, conservative commentators insist, because he embraces an identity that some Christians hate. Pete Buttigieg’s Episcopalian denomination is insufficiently Christian.
These blatant religious bigots don’t just delegitimize Mayor Pete’s faith, they negate the faith of millions of Christians who differ on doctrine, as if they alone determine who is or is not authentically Christian. Meanwhile, their White House hero flagrantly flaunts decades of sexual exploits, marital infidelity, craven greed, pathological dishonesty, unapologetic pride, vapid superficiality, materialism, and general meanness.
And there is moral corruption within their own ranks. Reuters recently revealed that Jerry Falwell Jr. coincidentally timed his endorsement of Republican candidate Donald Trump just after the President’s personal attorney reportedly promised to bury sexually compromising photos.
The question of who gets to be a real Christian is an old political trope. It was used against the Kennedys, Dr. King, and the abolitionists. It predates American democracy; it has been used to delegitimize millions of Christians across the centuries for political purposes.
But it’s a silly argument. Everyone’s faith is a social and personal construct with some element of flawed human perception. Religions either flourish, die out or change to reflect the societies they are in while individuals mold their faith to their own perceptions and prejudices. That’s as universal as religion itself.
But why is religion so universal within human societies across time? Like music, it seems to constantly appear in some form in all groups of people, so it must serve a vital social purpose. The names, mandates, and narratives vary, but every society constructs or embraces religion.
If it seems sacreligious to think about your own faith in this way, think of a faith you don’t practice. Think of a faith no one practices anymore. Why did the Mayans invent the gods they invented? Why did the Ancient Greeks or Egyptians bestow their deities with particular attributes?
Religion universally serves valuable functions. It bonds a society by providing a tribe with a common identity and set of principles. It encourages moral behavior in the absence of authority. It helps us deal with difficult things like natural disasters, disease, and death: things beyond our control that we hope are within someone’s realm. And perhaps most importantly, religion cultivates empathy.
The ability to assume the perspective of another appears to be uniquely human. Empathy is the universal root of morality. That’s why stories, and rules, and rituals of religions that endure include direct appeals to empathy.
It is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” in Christianity. It is “the freeing of a slave, or a needy person in misery” in Islam. It is “I am because we are” in Malawan parlance. It is “the acute ability to feel as another” in Buddhism, and it is an essential component of secular psychotherapy.
To the extent that any faith inspires stronger social bonds, it is serving its most abstract and basic purpose. To the degree that it undermines social cohesion or encourages the denial of empathy, it fails in its fundamental purpose. One does not have to be a theologian or even a practitioner of any particular religion to evaluate its contribution to human flourishing. The exact authentic adherents are probably indeterminable—but the benefit of the belief itself can be evaluated.
If your religion fosters deeper connections with your fellow humans, you’re probably doing it right. If your religion inspires division and the need to make legal distinctions based on group identities; if your religion weakens rather than strengthens familial bonds, or narrows rather than widens your capacity for empathy, well, you need to examine why religion plays that role in your life.
If your faith practice inspires you to fight to make life easier on people by better meeting their basic needs and treating them fairly so they suffer less, you’ve got a great faith practice going there. If, however, your faith practice seeks political outcomes that make life harder on people, make it harder for kids to find loving, permanent homes or make it harder to visit a loved one in the hospital, your faith practice is probably garbage.
If your understanding of God includes a being that knows more than you, understands the universe better than you, and just asks you to be kind and show as much love to your fellow humans as you can while you’re alive—that God sounds like a healthy influence in your life. If your understanding of God includes a being that is malicious, seeks retribution via politics, owns your enemies, shames your love, or deepens your embitterment, it’s healthy to reexamine that relationship.
Religion is in the species for a reason. Christianity has endured because it has served a social function. That purpose cannot be demonstrated by the hypocrites of any age. It can only be evidenced by adherents that comport with the personal, social, and evolutionary purpose of faith. Martin Luther, Dr. Kings, the abolitionists and the suffragettes fulfill that description. Televangelists do not. Maya Angelou and Harvey Milk championed better lives for fellow humans. Pete Buttigieg is trying to do that, too. Neither Jerry Falwell senior or junior ever has.
I don’t know who is and is not a real Christian. I’m not a theologian. I don’t care. If your religion is not inspiring greater empathy, you’re missing the goddamn point.