Can Pete Buttigieg rally the religious left?
(COMMENTARY) Our Jan. 31 memo ho-hummed National Public Radio’s latest example of perennial wishful thinking in U.S. media about a substantial religious left (still lower-case) emerging to counter America’s familiar Religious Right (upper-case for years now). However, the memo observed that, “President Trump remains unusually vulnerable to resistance on religious and moral grounds,” so journalists were advised to be “alert for surprises.”
Surprise! South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has since soared from obscurity. And his substantive interview for a Mar. 29 Washington Post article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey raises the prospect that the religious left could achieve new impact by rallying behind his persona. Such a 2020 scenario could replicate 1980, when triumphant Ronald Reagan boosted the early Religious Right – and vice versa.
Buttigieg has never run statewide and is merely the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city (South Bend of Notre Dame fame). But the Harvard alum, a boyish 37, has already been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, businessman and Navy intelligence officer serving in Afghanistan. His golden tongue in rallies and TV appearances is inspiring early success.
The mayor could aid Democratic designs in the Big Ten states that are likely to (again) determine whether Donald Trump wins. The amiable Midwesterner ranks third behind East Coasters Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in Emerson’s latest Iowa poll and well outpaces Amy Klobuchar from neighboring Minnesota. Focus on Rural America’s polling of Democrats who plan to attend the Iowa caucus puts him at 6 percent, tied with Klobuchar and another fresh face, “Beto” O’Rourke.
Journalists take note: Buttigieg is a religiously significant figure who underwent a spiritual turn at a Catholic high school and at Oxford. He became a devoted and articulate Episcopalian, came out in 2015, and married his gay partner in church last year. That, and his social-gospel outlook, mesh with leaders and thinkers in “mainline” Protestantism’s liberal wing, alongside Catholics of similar mind.
Among Buttigieg’s numerous religious comments in the opening phase of his campaign, the most remarkable came April 7 before a packed LGBTQ Victory Fund rally. He admitted that as a youth “I would have done anything to not be gay,” said his same-sex marriage ‘has moved me closer to God,” and challenged “the Mike Pences of the world” with this: “If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.” (Notably, some media lower-cased his C.)
The argument that gays are born that way as creations of God and do not choose their orientation is fundamental for gay-friendly theology.
Religiously generated liberal politicking is nothing new on the American scene, but its clout and visibility have waned. White Protestants in particular are crucial for success. What happened? Here I summarize his past writing about the factors involved.
(1) Crucially, the liberal and “mainline” Protestant denominations have suffered steady and striking shrinkage in membership and vitality across a half-century.
(2) There’s little enthusiastic promotion from nationally-known religious and political figures.
(3) Activists lack a religiously distinct message with impact beyond echoing the usual liberal Democratic line. (Ditto for evangelical Republicans.)
(4) “Mainline” members are split on politics and belief, while evangelicals demonstrate impressive cohesion on both.
(5) Politicians perceive that liberal church officials don’t necessarily reflect local parishioners.
One final factor is the clincher. Candidates who might want to express respect and solidarity through appeals to religious voters must consider that today’s biggest Democratic bloc in religious terms consists of those without any religious identity (“nones”), including an ardently anti-religious faction. In numbers, they balance out those loyally Republican evangelicals.
African-American Protestants are already heavily politicized behind the liberal Democratic cause. The Catholic situation is considerably more complicated, since church leaders and active parishioners blend “liberal” and “conservative” ideas. Leaving aside strongly Democratic Latinos, whites who identify as Catholic are swing voters who usually decide who wins the White House. Despite church teaching on gay marriage, will large numbers of them enlist in a Buttigieg boom?
Green, a key analyst, framed matters starkly: “Democrats must choose whether religion is a potential asset, or something to be overcome.”