South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a town hall meeting Tuesday in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The ideological battle between liberal and conservative Christians intensified in the past week, as Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg levied blistering attacks against religious conservatives for their views on same-sex marriage. Conservative Christians should avoid the temptation to engage in calumny and instead respond as their faith commands them to: with devotion to principle, but most of all with love.

Buttigieg, who is gay, began the dispute when he took aim at religious conservatives at the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s National Champagne Brunch last week. He specifically called out Vice President Pence, whom he called “fanatical” and a “social extremist,” and invoked him in affirming that his marriage to another man “moved me closer to God.”

“That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg said. “That if you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

Pence responded plainly: “He said some things that are critical of my Christian faith and about me personally, and he knows better.” Other conservative commentators, such as Erick Erickson, instead went after Buttigieg’s faith: “[He] is an Episcopalian, so he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.”

Replies such as Erickson’s are not helpful. Christians have long debated with themselves about how to follow Christ, and today’s culture war conflicts are similar in intensity to the bitter theological disputes that have always arisen within Christianity. Combatants in this battle should nonetheless recall that from the earliest times, Christian teaching has emphasized love — even of one’s enemies — over all else.

One of the earliest known compilations of Christian orthodoxy is the Didache, a text ascribed to the 12 apostles and dated to the late 1st or early 2nd century. While the Didache spelled out where the early church stood on issues related to life and sexual morality, labeling many practices (such as fornication, which by extension included homosexual acts) as forbidden, its first commandment is not about what Christians should not do but rather what they must. And what they must do is love.

Love leads to the “way of life.” That way commands Christians to “bless those who curse you,” “pray for your enemies” and “love those who hate you.” Following Jesus’ commands from Matthew 5:39-48, it tells Christians to offer the other cheek if struck, to go the extra mile if forced to travel and to love those who persecute you. Loving those who love you is easy, the Christian is told; the Christian loves those who do not.

This way distinguishes the early Christian from the biblical depiction of the Pharisees. The New Testament paints them as taciturn and strict upholders of the law in all of its rigor, eager to cast out sin and sinners but lacking in compassion, mercy and love. Christian love is not divorced from an understanding of sin, but rather compels Christians to be compassionate and kind to those whom they believe do sin.

Some religious conservatives worry that the growing strength of political liberalism will usher in a new age of persecution. Fear of this is a significant reason for President Trump’s strong support among evangelical Christians. Other Christians place their hopes in other approaches, counseling Christians to begin to withdraw from public life and live quiet, faithful lives in the hope of renewing a future world.

Christian love ought to be a unifying feature of the traditional Christian’s life, regardless of the approach one takes to politics. It is what he or she is commanded to do, and it alone serves both an eternal and a temporal purpose. Love prepares the soul for the Kingdom of God in Christian theology, and it stands as a clear example to strangers about the essence of Christian life. “Love trumps hate,” the signs say; a Christian ought to know that as well as anyone.

Religious conservatives should practice what Jesus and the apostles preached: Instead of casting aspersions on Buttigieg’s faith, they should patiently argue with him. If Paul could debate with Stoics and Epicureans on Athens’s Mars Hill (Acts 17:21-33), then religious conservatives can debate their more liberal brethren with courage and respect.

Paul speaks of the power and dignity of love in his epistles. Christian couples often include Paul’s beautiful words about love (1 Corinthians 13) in their ceremonies, but Paul is not speaking about marital love. He is rather describing love as the common feature that all Christians within the body of Christ share, regardless of their talents or their status within the body. “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing,” he writes. So, too, it must be with all Christians. “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not love, I am nothing,” Paul says.

We are about to head into the holiest days of the Christian calendar, the commemoration of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection known in Catholicism as the Easter Triduum. During those days, Christ himself provided numerous examples of how to love one’s enemies, from restoring the ear of a servant who had come to arrest him to forgiving his executioners on the cross itself. He also provided a clear example of standing firmly for truth even in the face of death. Let all of us who are Christians contemplate Christ’s example as we ponder our future paths.

Read more:

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Jonathan Capehart: Four hurdles for Pete Buttigieg

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