The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Evangelicals helped get Trump into the White House. Pete Buttigieg believes the religious left will get him out.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg stands outside his hotel before a fundraising event in West Hollywood on March 14. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

A gay mayor from Vice President Pence’s home state who wrote a Harvard thesis on the Puritans, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg wants his party to embrace religion but not at the expense of excluding others.

In an interview Wednesday about his faith, Buttigieg said the Democratic Party has sometimes become distant from religion, but it’s “a side effect of something healthy” because of its commitment to the separation of church and state, and the belief that it speaks for people of any faith and of no faith equally.

“I think there’s an opportunity hopefully for religion to be not so much used as a cudgel but invoked as a way of calling us to higher values,” he said.

Mayor of South Bend, Ind., Buttigieg (pronounced “Buddha-judge,” his husband says) recently went from political obscurity to matching former congressman Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Amy Klobuchar with 6 percent support in an Iowa poll released this week by the progressive group Focus on Rural America.

Mayor of the home to the University of Notre Dame, one of the most prominent Catholic schools in the country and where his parents were professors, the 37-year-old Episcopalian did not grow up in a religious home. His interest in faith emerged in Catholic high school, when he was drawn to Catholic theology, and grew while he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.

Now Buttigieg wants a “less dogmatic” religious left to counter the religious right, an unofficial coalition of religious conservatives that for decades has helped get mostly Republicans into office.

“I think it’s unfortunate [the Democratic Party] has lost touch with a religious tradition that I think can help explain and relate our values,” he said. “At least in my interpretation, it helps to root [in religion] a lot of what it is we do believe in, when it comes to protecting the sick and the stranger and the poor, as well as skepticism of the wealthy and the powerful and the established.”

He thinks President Trump has found favor among many white evangelicals and white Catholics because of his opposition to abortion, he said. But Buttigieg said he believes the president is behaving “in bad faith” and said there’s no evidence that he doesn’t favor abortion rights deep down.

“I do think it’s strange, though, knowing that no matter where you are politically, the gospel is so much about inclusion and decency and humility and care for the least among us, that a wealthy, powerful, chest-thumping, self-oriented, philandering figure like this can have any credibility at all among religious people,” he said.

The alignment of Pence, the former governor of his home state, with Trump can only be explained in one of two ways, he said.

“Either he abandoned his religious principles in order to be part of this campaign and administration,” he said. “Or he has some very strange sense of destiny, that God somehow wants this in order to get somewhere better, which I think does very little credit to God, but it’s the only other possible explanation.”

Buttigieg spoke about Pence using a story about the danger of Pharisees and hypocrites from the Bible.

“When you see someone who has such a dogmatic take on faith and bring it into public life, being willing to attach themselves to this administration for the purposes of gaining power,” he said. “It is alarmingly resonant with some New Testament themes, and not in a good way.”

The vice president’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Faith and sexuality

Buttigieg, who is married to another man, wrestled with his public identity as a gay man during a decade when his own church and state battled over same-sex marriage under the national spotlight.

Marie Griffith, a historian at Washington University in St. Louis who writes about religion and sex, said she finds it compelling that his sexuality and his politics haven’t doomed him in a conservative religious environment in Indiana.

“He clearly articulated a progressive Christian faith better than just about any other white man I can think of,” she said. She later said that she meant to describe “white male candidates.”

Buttigieg was married last year in a denomination that only in the past decade began performing same-sex marriages. The marriage debate was hovering over the Episcopal church and over his diocese, he said, around 2008, when he moved back to South Bend.

“Thankfully, it had been settled as far as our diocese was concerned by the time I got married, because I wanted to be married in the church, and I’m glad we were able to do that,” he said.

Growing up, he said, Buttigieg found tensions between faith and sexuality. “I found it difficult to reconcile with organized religion,” he said.

Now, he said, he understands why people believe the Christian faith leads them to oppose same-sex marriage, but hopes they encounter scripture interpreted a different way.

“I hope that teachings about inclusion and love win out over what I personally consider to be a handful of scriptures that reflect the moral expectations of the era in which they were recorded,” he said.

Buttigieg decided to come out to his city in a newspaper column after a controversy in Indiana over the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015, which raised questions about the right to freedom of religion and LGBT rights.

“Our right to practice our faith freely is respected up to the point where doing so involves harming others,” he said. “One of the problems with RFRA was it authorized harming others so long as you remembered to use your religion as an excuse.”

Buttigieg stands out in the Democratic field because, in most ways, he doesn’t actually stand out, said Kristin Du Mez, a historian at Calvin College who studies religion and politics.

“He’s white, he’s Christian, he’s clean-cut, he’s a Midwesterner, a mayor of a Rust Belt city. But then he’s also gay,” she said. “He’s just talking in a matter-of-fact way about his husband, his family, his values. So it seems less radical in some ways, and more ‘normal.’ Which is probably exactly what the Democratic Party needs right now.”

The path to church

Buttigieg didn’t have a “Road to Damascus” moment, he said, referring to the Apostle Paul’s sudden conversion in the Bible. Growing up, Buttigieg’s parents were always interested in Christianity but not regular churchgoers.

His father was in seminary to become a Jesuit in the 1960s, but he eventually emerged as a secular intellectual, and his mother was “attached to the Episcopal faith” but didn’t go to many services.

At Harvard, Buttigieg studied under Sacvan Bercovitch, a prominent scholar who traced American “exceptionalism” to the Puritans of New England. Under his professor’s influence, Buttigieg wrote a thesis about a Puritan sermon by Samuel Danforth, who excoriated the faithful for forgetting why they had come to America (to make other lands more like the image of heaven and earth).

“You can’t understand America without understanding the Puritans,” he said. “In many ways, we’re still living out their legacy in ways that are good and bad.

When he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he “became more drawn to the church,” eventually deciding to join the Cathedral of St. James in South Bend. The beauty of religious observance, he said, made him more aware of the limits of human knowledge, power and reason.

Now he calls himself “liturgically more conservative,” preferring to be in a group setting with a set liturgy. He tries to attend services weekly and spends time reading scripture when he can. He said he looks for religious inspiration from people who have put faith into action, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and “modern-day heirs to that tradition,” including the Rev. William Barber, a North Carolina minister.

“As we talk of the need for a religious left, we should remember that the black church has been [putting faith into action] for quite some time,” he said.

Darren Dochuk, a historian at Notre Dame who writes about religion and politics, said Buttigieg clearly endorses a progressive faith rooted in Christian social gospel teachings, a movement that tied faith to action, which many young people in both Protestant and Catholic churches will find appealing.

“I have doubts that his talk about God and social Christianity and his desire to shift the religious politics of our day to the left will gain much traction among a majority of white evangelicals and conservative Catholics,” he said, citing opposition to Buttigieg’s abortion rights stance and the anti-LGBTQ sentiments in those communities. “Whatever the case, I think he rightly senses the need for Democrats to quit avoiding or dodging or minimizing the God factor in American politics.”

An increasingly loud religious left

Buttigieg’s hope for a revived religious left is not new. Religious liberals have been voicing similar sentiments for years. But in 2019 with Trump in office, many see an opportunity to give Democratic policies moral language.

Buttigieg points to Catholic thinkers as influential in forming his idea of the role of faith in politics. In a government class at his Catholic high school, he was shown the 1989 film “Romero,” about Salvadoran bishop Óscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 after challenging the ruling elites, a story that helped form his understanding of human rights.

He also said he has been influenced by Catholic liberation theology, which was practiced and preached in Latin America beginning in the 1960s as a call to action against unjust societies that oppressed the poor and has found the spotlight again under Pope Francis.

He especially respects the work of early Christian theologian St. Augustine, Catholic historian Garry Wills and Jesuits like popular priest James Martin. On Saturday, Buttigieg and Martin will get awards from a gay and lesbian alumni organization from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College.

Martin noted that several of the other Democratic candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring have been quick to highlight their faith, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker.

“Frankly, it’s a refreshing change and should remind us that no one political party, and neither the right nor the left, has a lock on the Christian faith,” Martin said.

Many of the problems with religious politics, Buttigieg said, have to do with an “inevitable putting down of the values of others.”

“To me what’s more interesting is the way in which religious or nonreligious ethical motivations can overlap,” he said. “Those are the areas I’m going to point to any time I mention a religious commitment of my own in the context of this campaign process.”

This piece has been updated to include a different poll from Iowa.

This year and next, The Post plans to interview 2020 presidential candidates about their views on faith.