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Pete Buttigieg hires the first faith outreach director of the 2020 campaign

Pete Buttigieg speaks in Miami, where several presidential candidates answered questions before the National Association of Black Journalists convention. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Seventy-seven percent of Americans identify as members of a religious tradition, and most of the rest call themselves spiritual or say they believe in God. When politicians talk about “reaching out to people of faith,” they might be talking about almost everybody.

But the Rev. Shawna Foster thinks a lot of people are being left out.

“The conversation about religion and politics has been dominated by one particular type of religion. … It can be so much more,” she said. “I want to make sure the campaign is really reaching out to faiths that typically haven’t had much say in politics — Native American spirituality, Sikh spirituality, Bahais.”

It will be Foster’s new job to bring Pete Buttigieg’s message to all of those people, as his faith outreach director.

The Democratic mayor of South Bend, Ind., is the first 2020 presidential candidate to hire someone for such a position.

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It’s an area that Hillary Clinton was criticized for underutilizing in her unsuccessful 2016 campaign for president, in the view of some religious leaders in the Democratic Party. In the 2020 campaign, many Democrats have spoken openly of their own faith and their desire to strategically connect with religious communities.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who like Buttigieg frequently quotes Scripture and talks about his own moral commitments while he’s on the campaign trail, is in the process of hiring a faith outreach director as well and has already brought on a minister in South Carolina to work specifically on connecting with churches in that state.

Buttigieg and Booker are following in the path of former president Barack Obama in focusing on faith outreach. Obama employed staff members and volunteers on both his campaigns and in the White House to focus on faith partnerships, including roles geared specifically toward communities such as Catholics and Jews.

Foster, who started work for Buttigieg’s campaign this week, has a broad imperative to talk to all religious groups. She said she thinks mainline Protestants (those who are not evangelical and tend to be more liberal, both religiously and politically) have been overlooked by political campaigns and are probably sympathetic to the religious views of Buttigieg, an Episcopalian.

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Michael Wear, who led faith outreach for Obama and has pushed Democrats to talk more to religious voters, said campaigns including Buttigieg’s should explore whether mainline denominations, which are shrinking in membership and are more politically divided than evangelical churches, can mobilize voters. “The Clinton campaign missed a major opportunity” with mainline Protestants, like those who share Clinton’s United Methodist faith, he said. “There are several candidates in this batch of candidates who have the opportunity to test whether there’s enough energy, and frankly enough people, in mainline Protestantism to be a political force.”

Conservatives have bristled at the way Buttigieg talks about his faith. For instance, some complained that he shouldn’t tell others how to interpret Scripture, after he claimed during the recent Democratic debate that the Bible should compel Christians to support a higher minimum wage. Some prominent critics include evangelist Franklin Graham, who said the Bible condemns homosexuality as sinful when he criticized the gay mayor, and writer Erick Erickson, who has condemned all Episcopalians as unserious Christians in his broadsides against Buttigieg.

Foster, a 35-year-old pastor, probably won’t assuage these critics. She has a lot in common with Buttigieg: Both are millennials, LGBT people and military veterans. “If we want to split hairs, he’s Episcopalian, and I’m Unitarian Universalist,” she says with a laugh.

Buttigieg might need more help appealing to voters who are less like him than Foster is, including voters of color and those who belong to more theologically conservative denominations. Wear, who is not working for a 2020 campaign, called Foster “clearly a primary selection.”

“Shawna comes out of a very progressive slice of the faith community. At this stage of the campaign, I don’t see that as a downside,” he said. “I think it’s going to be important for her to [possibly] bring on a deputy that has experiences in other faith communities, including potentially the black church or more branches of Christianity.”

Foster left the Episcopalian church of her childhood at age 13, when she refused to be confirmed because she didn’t believe in original sin. Six years later, while pregnant with her daughter, she realized she wanted to raise her child in a faith community; she filled out an online quiz that told her that she might be a Unitarian Universalist.

The church became a home for her. After serving in the military and getting a bachelor’s degree in political science, she decided to go to a seminary.

Her most recent job was pastoring a small church in rural Colorado, a far cry from working on a presidential campaign. But she maintained her political activist side throughout her ministry — as a national steering committee member for the Poor People’s Campaign; as leader of a group of veterans opposing the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; and at her own church, which served as a sanctuary for 10 months to a mother of a toddler seeking to avoid deportation.

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In her new job, she says her first responsibility will be sorting through all the invitations to speak and requests for statements that Buttigieg has received from religious groups; to pick priorities for the campaign. Then she’ll design a faith engagement strategy for which groups Buttigieg should be speaking with and which clergy she thinks should be aware of his candidacy. (Wear said that if she sets up an interview for the candidate with Christianity Today, it could be taken as a sign that she’s steering him toward more traditional Christians.)

Foster emphasizes that she believes there’s a time and place for religion and politics to mix. She says she worries about the government’s responsibility to preserve both “freedom of religion and freedom from religion.”

Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for Booker’s campaign, explained the job of a faith outreach coordinator, a job that Booker expects to fill soon.

“The position is there to engage with people and members of the faith community of all spectrums. It’s synagogues. It’s mosques,” she said. In South Carolina, where Booker has been visiting black churches to win key voters in the early primary that is expected to be dominated by African American voters, the campaign hired the Rev. Aaron Bishop, a pastor in Columbia.

Pastors such as Bishop and Foster can speak with core local leaders whom traditional campaign strategists might miss, Singh said. “Someone that has a Bible study group on Tuesday or Wednesday night, that might not necessarily be who we would consider politically active — those are still folks we want to reach out to,” she said. “As you’re organizing in these communities, you’re making sure they understand and know why Cory is the best candidate, why he shares the same values that you do.”

Pastors might start hearing that same pitch from quite a few campaigns, as other Democrats consider their faith outreach in the months to come.