DES MOINES — If the 2020 presidential campaign has accomplished nothing else, it has revealed the extraordinary talent of Pete Buttigieg. Sitting in a sparse meeting room in a nondescript office park near the Des Moines airport, the 37-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Ind., seems entirely comfortable on the main stage of American politics. Some have likened his political skills to Bill Clinton’s. The better comparison is Tony Blair. Instead of empathetic warmth, the mayor displays earnest intellectual engagement and remarkable self-possession. His willingness to respectfully disagree comes across as a form of civility — a graciousness displayed through genuine discourse. On the morning after the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, on a day that brought four town hall meetings, our topic was religion and politics.

Buttigieg (himself an Episcopalian) is not merely using generic “God talk” to appeal to religious voters. His intention is both more specific and more ambitious. “The biggest thing I’m trying to accomplish is to be transparent about my worldview and my motivations,” he told me. But also: “We’ve reached a period where it’s almost assumed that faith connects you to the religious right. I think it is important to puncture that.”

The puncturing of religious presumption has a distinguished history (which includes the founder of Christianity). But it is hardly normal campaign fare. “I recognize,” he told me, “there are two different levels I’m talking about. The level where I insist that God doesn’t have a political party. And then a more focused level where controversial political beliefs are connected to my faith.” And his vision of faith, he affirms, “has progressive implications.”

In one way, Buttigieg is pushing back against a rigid secularism that would confine religiously informed reasoning to a purely private sphere. But this must be paired with the framing of arguments in publicly accessible ways. “There is a moral language, or moral imperative, that comes to me partly through faith. But if I’m going to maintain any idea I think is aligned with my faith, as a public figure I have a responsibility to defend it in terms that will make sense to people of any religion and no religion.”

Does the mayor think that white evangelicals — who support President Trump in such overwhelming numbers — might be open to his message? “There must be many people in the pews hearing scripture,” he said, “where the words of Jesus are overwhelmingly about the poor, the marginalized, and wondering how this connects to what they’ve been told they have to support.” Yet the more receptive audience he identifies might be “a very strong part of American Christianity that has never felt particularly wedded to the religious right but has also not heard or seen itself much in the political debate.”

When the discussion turned to the hardest core of Trump’s religious support, Buttigieg was not conciliatory: “One way to look at it is an almost literal deal with the devil. Certain long-held conservative political objectives are being satisfied, and they are not worried about the rest. At a deeper level you have to ask whether the bottom line here is religious or whether it is political. If it is political, it doesn’t matter what I have to say about why religion might lead them to a different place.”

On policy issues of particular concern to many evangelical Christians, Buttigieg gives little ground. His conception of religious liberty is minimalistic, making no provision for religious institutions such as colleges to admit or hire according to their traditional religious standards. “If you are talking about professional organizations that have HR departments,” he told me, “then yes, it is not enough to say religion inspires me to discriminate against you and expect government to let that go.”

And Buttigieg’s view on abortion is conventionally liberal, dismissing the idea that the protection of nascent life might be a human rights issue. “To say whose rights are involved,” he said, “is to assume an answer. And it’s because the answer is in a certain sense unknowable that the American majority believes it is best left to those facing the decision.”

But it would be wrong to think that Buttigieg’s religious mission lacks ambition. He seems driven to set out a version of spirituality that might appeal to increasingly secular millennials. It assumes that society will be supportive of every sexual identity. But it affirms that human beings need moral structure, gained from family and religion. And it calls attention to the social justice priorities of a progressive reading of scripture.

It may not be politically decisive, but few presidential candidates think this big between campaign stops in the Iowa caucuses.

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