In a speech at an LGBTQ Victory Fund gathering over the weekend, Pete Buttigieg made headlines by talking about his coming out and his marriage. The South Bend, Ind., mayor spoke eloquently, but this wasn’t the most intriguing part of the speech. (What’s intriguing about his sexual orientation is that it’s not such a big to-do.)
What was fascinating was that he wasn’t talking about faith as a ploy to get religious voters’ support in that setting, as USA Today reported:
Jack Jacobson, an openly-gay member of the D.C. State Board of Education who attended the Victory Fund brunch, said Buttigieg’s openness about his faith is part of what makes him an authentic candidate.“He talked about God in a room that’s probably full of atheists. That’s what I am,” Jacobson said. “He does it unabashedly and in a way that doesn’t come across as threatening, dismissive or negative.”
Buttigieg wanted not to pander but to show who he is, and that begins with faith. He told the crowd, “I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand . . . that if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
He’s not merely taking a shot at the sanctimonious vice president and reclaiming territory that Republicans have claimed under the mantle of values. Buttigieg is talking about defending policies as expressions of faith, just as civil rights leaders did in the 1960s and some environmentalists do today. When he talks about health care or immigration or criminal justice reform, he relates why he takes the stances he does. As he said at a CNN town hall, he believes “that the Scripture is about protecting the stranger, the prisoner, the poor person, and that idea of welcome. That’s what I get in the Gospel when I’m in church.”
Far from being some kind of far-out socialist who worships at the altar of big government, Buttigieg looks at government as an expression of our values. “We’ve got to have a new vocabulary — not different values, because the values of our party are the right values,” Buttigieg said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “But maybe we’ve got to find a new way to talk about some of those things.” Part and parcel of that is his assertion that “freedom” means freedom from poverty, health worries and other factors that limit your life choices.
In short, Buttigieg is telling Democrats that they should concede nothing to Republicans on the topics of faith and values, not because (or not only because) Trump is a miserable person, but because Democrats advance policies that happen to be consistent with our deepest faith traditions — the obligation to look after children (no child separation), to treat the sick (including treating addiction as a disease, not a crime), to welcome the stranger (no, we are not “all full”) and to care for the planet (e.g., fighting climate change).
Republicans right now are severely handicapped in responding to this sort of argument, both because their policies are often based on cruelty (e.g., child separation), racism (the entire immigration issue, voter suppression) and lack of empathy (e.g., threatening to leave millions without health care), and because the narcissistic president and his apologists cannot even fathom why they should be guided by these values. They operate in a soulless, faithless cult of Trumpism in which stirring up hatred and divisiveness is an end unto itself and the only “value” one applies is whether a statement or action helps or hurts Trump. Buttigieg is taking a leap of faith that voters ultimately don’t want that, but instead want government that is in sync with their basic values.
The center-right Niskanen Center has challenged Republicans for its fetishistic obsession with freedom (freedom from government) as the sole metric for measuring governments. “The benefits of economic freedom are secured only within the context of a framework of rules designed to link the pursuit of private profit to the service of the public interest,” its scholars write. Niskanen’s authors assert that there is something called the “public good” which is not solely or even primarily a function of how minimalistic one can make government. The question that should guide us is whether what we are doing improves the lives of others, especially the most vulnerable.
In a similar vein, Buttigieg argues that when capitalism (markets) come into conflict with democracy (opportunity, equal say in the political system, minimization of inequality and suffering), the latter must prevail. Why? Because his faith tells him that his obligation is to be “useful to others” (not to ignore others in the name of sparing them from dependency).
It’s an argument so fundamental to our sense of right and wrong that even a room full of atheists, as the Victory Fund member described Buttigieg’s audience, can appreciate it. For the unreligious or the religious voter, there is some reassurance in knowing that his policies are grounded in something more than whether it’s good for Pete Buttigieg. That alone makes him about as un-Trumpian as you can get.