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Opinion Pete Buttigieg, please don’t equate religion with morality

Pete Buttigieg in Harlem on Monday.
Pete Buttigieg in Harlem on Monday. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Kate Cohen is an Albany, N.Y., writer.

“I’m not necessarily going to vote for him,” I told my husband a week ago when he found me furtively watching yet another interview with presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. “I just like listening to him.” It was like any YouTube obsession: One video naturally led to the next. I kept clicking, and Buttigieg kept calmly answering questions exactly the way I would if I were a more hopeful, smarter person, which suddenly I wanted to be.

There was just one thing that bothered me: the religion.

I’m an atheist. I have bemoaned the fact that my country’s motto is “In God We Trust,” that elected officials are sworn in on holy books, legislative sessions begin in prayer, and big political speeches seem predestined to end with the phrase “God Bless America.” I think religion and government should be kept far apart. But if I ruled out all the self-proclaimed Christians in the race, I would lose a lot of great candidates. Cory Booker told a CNN town hall that “Christ is the center of my life”; Kamala D. Harris announced her candidacy “with faith in God”; Elizabeth Warren taught Sunday school and quotes the Gospel of Matthew.

That Buttigieg is a Christian doesn’t concern me. But he’s not just a Christian; he also publicly advocates a reemergence of a “religious left.” He argues that Democrats should not be afraid to use religious traditions “as a way of calling us to higher values.” As he told Bill Maher, “When I go to church, what I hear a lot about is protecting the downtrodden, and standing up for the immigrant and being skeptical of authority sometimes and making sure you look after the poor and the prisoner.”

He told The Post that he wants to “remind people of faith why the same things that are being preached on Sunday apply to the policies that we’re making on Monday morning.” In other words, use religion as a tool for political persuasion.

I can appreciate the power of that tool.

In June, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to justify separating refugee families at the border with a quotation from Romans 13:1 (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established”), I was thrilled when people shot back with their Bible quotations. Stephen Colbert quoted Romans 13:10, “Love thy neighbor as thyself. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” When right-wingers weaponize the Bible, it’s hard not to cheer when that weapon is turned back on them. It’s just like they say: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a god is a good guy with a god.

But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re still picking and choosing among Bible verses. I just happen to believe one is wrong and the other is right.

You can read the Bible and fixate on the rules dividing the sexes, submitting to authorities, elevating the male and policing sexual ethics. Or you can read the very same book, accept the same personal savior and focus on verses concerned with “teachings about inclusion and love” (as Buttigieg told The Post). Obviously, much better values!

And yet — “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” is in there, too. Buttigieg may dismiss objectionable verses as no more than reflections of “the moral expectations of the era in which they were recorded,” but that’s because it suits his value system to do so.

Here’s the thing: People bring their morality to their religious texts; they don’t get their morality from them. After all, how does Buttigieg decide what’s important in the Bible and what should be ignored, underplayed or dismissed as vestiges from another era? What does he measure each message against? His own innate sense of morality.

When Buttigieg argues that Democrats should be able to use religious traditions “as a way of calling us to higher values,” he means “higher” as in lofty. He’s not saying those values — compassion, justice, humility — are higher than the traditions themselves. But they are. Because those religious traditions also include the “values” of exclusion, patriarchy and tribalism. And, yes, even the “value” of homophobia.

The higher values that Buttigieg embraces — values I, an atheist, share — exist not because of religion but independent of it. Can he find Christian tenets to express those values? Sure. Could that help him urge “people of faith” to move their politics “in a certain direction”? Maybe.

Does he risk equating religion with morality in the process? Definitely. Buttigieg told Ellen DeGeneres, “I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people.” Me, too. I also have a problem with using religion as a justification to help people, though. It’s better, of course, but it still validates the idea that religion can be used to justify government action.

So far, Buttigieg hasn’t done that — at least not in the interviews I’ve heard. As long as he continues to make it clear that morality and religion aren’t one and the same, I’ll keep listening.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Pete Buttigieg has broken through the noise on community and religion

Jennifer Rubin: Faith, not sexual orientation, is what’s most interesting about Buttigieg

Rev. William J. Barber II: Franklin Graham is a hypocrite about Pete Buttigieg, and he’s using that hypocrisy to do harm

Elizabeth Bruenig: Talk of a rising religious left is unfounded. It already exists.

Jennifer Rubin: The ‘faith and freedom’ party is Democrats’ for the taking