Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who often discusses his faith on the campaign trail, sought to tie the Nativity story to some of the issues dominating political discourse. He tweeted:
“Today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee. No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas."
Since the earliest days of his campaign, a key plank in Buttigieg’s appeal to voters has been that conservative evangelicals and Catholics — and the party that they overwhelmingly support — have gotten some major components of Christianity and morality wrong.
During a March CNN town hall, Buttigieg wondered aloud how Vice President Pence, a conservative Christian who built a national profile by supporting legislation critics said would discriminate against gay people, could support Trump, who used to be a staple of New York tabloids for his playboy lifestyle.
“How could he allow himself to become the cheerleader of the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?” Buttigieg said. “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
And during an April speech at a fundraiser for an LGBT rights group, Buttigieg pushed back on those who believed that being a gay Christian was an oxymoron. “My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man and yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God,” Buttigieg said.
Criticism of Buttigieg and other candidates on the left who discuss their faith, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former vice president Joe Biden, has simmered for a while among those who find left-leaning interpretations of Christianity problematic. But the response to Buttigieg’s depiction of Christ on Christmas magnifies how the war over Christianity could be a prominent battle in 2020 as voters try to shape the moral future of America through policy.
Some wondered whether Buttigieg’s decision not to say the name Jesus — something he rarely does when discussing his Christian values — was a way to minimize the centrality of Christ in Christmas.
And others disagreed with Buttigieg that Jesus, who the Bible teaches was born in a manger to Mary, the wife of a carpenter, was impoverished.
But it was perhaps Buttigieg’s classification of Jesus as a refugee — a common line among the Christian left — that received almost immediate pushback from evangelicals.
The citizenship status of Jesus is of such debate because it has real implications for how Christians on both sides of the aisle conduct policy moving forward.
The State Department announced in September that the Trump administration would accept significantly fewer refugees over the next 12 months. The limit at the time was 30,000, but the president lowered that number to 18,000. The president has also made headlines for his attitude toward refugees, ranging from his administration’s decision to detain and separate migrant families from Central America, many of whom were fleeing violence, to regularly attacking a Democratic lawmaker who came to the United States as a refugee, telling her to “go back” to her birth country.
Liberal Christians like Buttigieg argue that Trump supporters would reject Jesus, who according to some interpretations of scripture fled Bethlehem for Egypt as a toddler to escape death, from seeking refuge in the United States. But many conservative Christians reject the belief that Jesus was a refugee since both his birthplace and Egypt were a part of the Roman Empire. This difference in understanding appears to shape how different Christians view refugees. Only 25 percent of white evangelicals — a group that overwhelmingly backs Republican politicians — believe that America has a responsibility to welcome refugees, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. More than 60 percent of black protestant Christians — a group that overwhelmingly supports Democratic politicians — believe that the United States has a responsibility to admit refugees.
One of the most prominent economic — and morality — debates in 2020 will be about income inequality and the quality of life of Americans in low-income households. Questions about the globally disadvantaged fleeing war and violence or government persecution due to their identities are not likely to die down, either. And while the issue of same-sex marriage appears to be settled law, questions about the rights and freedoms of LGBT Americans are not yet settled.
For all the talk about how the 2020 election could shape the future of health care, education and the economy in America, Christians in politics and policy are debating how interpretations of their faith will shape policy and people’s understanding of Christianity for generations to come.