About six months out from the first Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses, the hot commodity in the race is Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete is young, exciting, gay, thoughtful and seemingly the front-runner for the nomination, whatever that means in May the year before the election year. He is also, notably, very open about his Christian faith and his home in the Episcopal Church. His theology, much like his politics, is vaguely center-left, full of a lot of catchphrases and platitudes, and appears not overly substantive.
Mayor Pete, who is drawing extra attention for his appearance on Fox News on Sunday, has certainly been getting plenty of media attention about his faith, all of it mainly focused on him being the “religious left” candidate, in contrast with the long-dominant “Christian right.” Buttigieg’s unapologetic harnessing of Christian rhetoric in defense of liberal political principles has caused a sensation (although, as Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig has pointed out, this isn’t exactly as new as some seem to say).
All this makes me wonder:
Do we really need Buttigieg to lead the rise of the religious left?
So many of us on the left have long lamented the power of the religious right in America over the past several decades. Criticism has centered not only on the bad political and policy positions it has advocated, but also on the very concept of religion being overly entwined in politics. In a pluralist society, why should one small reading of one particular faith tradition have its way in decision-making?
If we don’t want religious people on the right employing explicitly religious arguments for wielding power because of the separation of church and state, then why should we want someone on the left doing the same thing?
The establishment clause of the First Amendment should not set the terms of this debate for Christians. Rather, the test of Scripture and the example of Christ should drive our engagement with and in the world and should be the primary influencing factor in mediating these kinds of situations. When Buttigieg or any progressive candidate centers the Gospel message as the rationale for their policy choices, and then wins and implements said policy agenda, then that becomes a form of Christian witness, albeit a perverted one. In short, the use of the Christian faith to justify political choices conflates Christianity with those choices. This is no more desirable, from a Christian viewpoint, if it’s Buttigieg or if it is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), no matter the content of the policy prescriptions.
American progressivism, for all that is good about it, is no more Christian than political conservatism. Both are worldly ideologies, both of which may share some priorities or affinities with various aspects of Christian faith, but which are both ultimately something other than faith in the Crucified God. Tying the Christian faith to power politics is a fatal distortion. Christianity is all about the creation of an alternative polis, a colony (in the words of theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon), showing the power of self-sacrificing love and the potential of communal salvation for the world. Christianity should not be baptizing passing political winds; it should always be a critical voice, whether our friends are in power. To associate the faith with a political agenda is to fall into the same old Constantinian trap the Christian Church has been liable to since the 4th century.
Buttigieg is undoubtedly a smart, inspiring and constructive candidate for president, one who would no doubt show the impact of his faith on his thinking and decision-making in a more authentic and positive way than the present occupant of the Oval Office. None of this should make us want to crown him or anyone else as the “Christian left candidate.”
Let us not allow the Christian right to continue to define political engagement for Christians in America. Let us instead have imaginations more moved by the Holy Spirit and better able to engage the needs of the nation and the world.
Justin DaMetz is a recent graduate in theology and ethics from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he studied the impact of faith and politics on rural white working-class communities. He resides in Evanston, Ill., with his wife, Tabitha, and two dogs, and he blogs at justindametz.wordpress.com.