Home / THE NEW YORK TIMES / Why Pete Buttigieg Is Courting the ‘Religious Left’

Why Pete Buttigieg Is Courting the ‘Religious Left’


The former mayor is not only trying to bridge ground within the Democratic Party, he’s also making a direct appeal to disaffected conservatives who cannot stomach President Trump.

Credit…Daniel Acker for The New York Times

DES MOINES — It was a Sunday, and Pete Buttigieg’s standard riff on the role of faith in politics went on a little longer than usual.

He castigated Republicans for using religion as a wedge to divide Americans. “Look at what they do,” he said at a campaign stop about 45 minutes outside of Des Moines, calling out Republicans for “using faith as a way to tell some people they don’t belong.”

It was “O.K.,” he added, “for us to talk about how each of us are formed, and where our faith takes us,” and he challenged the notion that religious values are the province of the G.O.P. “God does not belong to a political party in the United States of America,” he told his listeners.

More than most of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Mr. Buttigieg has put religion at the center of his presidential campaign, seeing it as an opportunity to speak to a broad swath of the electorate, both inside and outside the Democratic Party. The themes of political healing and reconciliation that are at the core of his message, he says, are guided by Scripture, which taught him: “How you voted doesn’t make you a good person or a bad person.”

He has suggested that his party could benefit from a “religious left” movement to counter the influence of the religious right, and has criticized Democrats for having “an allergy” to discussing faith.

For a candidate who has struggled at times to bond with voters who see little in his life experience they can relate to, faith is Mr. Buttigieg’s bridge across racial, socioeconomic and cultural divides.

“For all the ways in which faith and religion can divide people, it also has this unifying power,” he said in an interview backstage before a rally in West Des Moines recently. “Because you have a thing you share with somebody whose station in life or generational or racial or professional experience is so different from your own.”

Campaigning, he added, is about finding “some way of connecting at a human level with as many people as you can — especially with people who may not be obviously like you.”

The attributes that Mr. Buttigieg’s supporters say make him so appealing — gay, a Rhodes scholar, military veteran and polyglot who was the youngest person in modern times elected as mayor of South Bend, Ind. — are also what many voters say make them wary. Some see him as a precocious millennial, lacking in empathy or simply too risky a bet in a time when they crave stability.

So there are strategic reasons for Mr. Buttigieg to emphasize faith. African Americans, especially women, are among the most religious voters in the Democratic Party. And there are entire suburbs full of educated, affluent, churchgoing conservatives — the kind Mr. Buttigieg likes to call “future former Republicans” — who say they would find it difficult to vote for President Trump again.

Mr. Trump has clearly noticed Mr. Buttigieg’s overtures to a constituency that is critical to his re-election (eighty-one percent of white evangelicals supported him in 2016). At a rally in a Miami megachurch last week, the president mocked Mr. Buttigieg, claiming he had become religious just “two weeks ago.” (Mr. Buttigieg responded: “I’m pretty sure I’ve been a believer longer than he’s been a Republican.”)

Convincing Americans to vote for a 37-year-old who is openly gay is a proposition that no major presidential contender has ever tested. And there are indications some are not convinced. His poll numbers with African Americans, for example, are minuscule, not even registering 1 percent in some surveys, though many say they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. And his campaign’s focus groups have found his sexual orientation to be a hurdle with some black voters.

Without black support — a pillar of the Democratic Party base — it is virtually inconceivable that he could make it to the general election and get the opportunity to convert those wayward Republicans he talks about in such aspirational terms.

Still, Democrats who have watched their party gradually cede ground to Republicans on cultural issues believe Mr. Buttigieg fills a void on the left that is larger than many of them would like to admit.

“We made a mistake when we gave up the Bible and the flag,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, referring to the perception — encouraged by Republicans — that they are the true home for voters motivated by faith and patriotism. As a veteran who went to Afghanistan with the Navy Reserves and an Episcopalian who attends church nearly every Sunday, “Pete has both of those,” Mr. Sharpton said.

The Buttigieg campaign is investing in faith with more than just the candidate’s words. Last month it unveiled a $2 million advertising campaign in South Carolina, which prominently featured him quoting the Gospel of Matthew as an inspiration. “In our White House,” he says, as the camera cuts to a shot of a young black woman filming him with her phone, “you won’t have to shake your head and ask yourself whatever happened to ‘I was hungry and you fed me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me?’”

His campaign has hired a director of faith outreach, and Mr. Buttigieg recently hired a director of African-American outreach, who visits black churches on his behalf.

Mr. Buttigieg was baptized Catholic, though he has said he never strongly identified with the faith. His upbringing was not especially religious, despite attending a Catholic high school and having two parents who taught at the University of Notre Dame.

But when he was in England during his Rhodes scholarship, he began attending Anglican services and grew intrigued. He said in an interview with CNN that this was the period in his life when he first started feeling truly religious because he came to realize “that there were forms of truth that I was not going to be accessing through reason” alone.

Every Sunday when he is not traveling the country campaigning, he attends the Episcopal Cathedral of St. James in South Bend, where he married his husband, Chasten, in 2018.

His discussions of faith can enrage social conservatives, especially when he needles Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. He has called Mr. Pence, an evangelical Christian and opponent of same-sex marriage, “the cheerleader of the porn star presidency” and challenged the vice president’s belief that homosexuality is wrong. “Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator,” he said in a speech in April.

Most recently, he drew conservatives’ ire on Christmas Day when he invoked Jesus in a swipe at the administration’s policies toward immigrants and the poor. “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,” he wrote on Twitter.

“When did you come up with THAT load of crap?” replied a prominent conservative pastor — a response that was typical of the hostile and dismissive tone of his critics that day, or any other day when he accuses the religious right of hypocrisy for its unbreakable devotion to Mr. Trump.

Conservatives have also challenged him for his unambiguous support for abortion rights, asking how someone who scolds them for supposedly ignoring Jesus’s teachings about caring for the less fortunate can support terminating a pregnancy. Mr. Buttigieg’s response has been to say that the Bible makes a lot of contradictory claims, none of which left him with the clear understanding that abortion is wrong.

In less overtly religious way, Mr. Buttigieg also talks frequently about values on the campaign trail. He asks his supporters to commit themselves on his website by signing a code of 10 “Rules of the Road” — respect, discipline, joy, among others — that he says center his campaign. For $27, the campaign also sells T-shirts listing all 10.

“I don’t think being a person of faith creates, on its own, a distinct advantage,” said Joel Benenson, a top Democratic strategist who worked on the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns and whose firm is advising the Buttigieg campaign. “But I think being able to talk about faith helps you with all voters because it shows you’re a person rooted in a set of values that speak to treating people with respect.”

Faith, Mr. Benenson added, “can be a potent force for communicating with voters who value that. And I think in some states where Democrats have to work harder to compete and win, it can be particularly valuable.”

Still, evangelicals have long complained that they are mocked by the left based on stereotypes of their faith, and there is a risk, Democrats said, in talking about faith if it comes across as preachy and self-righteous. Ever since the religious right became a foundational element of the Republican Party’s base in the 1970s and ’80s, Democrats have accused Republicans of selling voters on a false choice: that only their party represents Christian values.

Democrats should not then turn around and lecture Republicans about their beliefs and values in the same way they believe Republicans have lectured them, said Michael Wear, who led President Barack Obama’s faith outreach efforts in 2012.

“We don’t want to see a mirror image of the religious right in the sense that you have progressives who are saying that being a progressive is the only way to be a Christian or is the only faithful way to be in politics,” Mr. Wear said. “There’s the line Obama used about the way the religious right would use faith as a weapon to bludgeon people, as opposed to lift them up. And, as people of faith, we need to be careful.”

Mr. Buttigieg’s faith outreach probably won’t do much good with skeptical voters, especially African Americans in the Democratic primary, unless he is able to forge deeper connections. “It gets you a second look,” Mr. Sharpton said of Mr. Buttigieg’s embrace of religion. “But that’s it.”

At a recent event in downtown Des Moines, Meskerem Mamo, 26, wore a red, white and blue button that said “African Americans for Pete” and nodded along as Mr. Buttigieg spoke. Afterward, she said in an interview that his spiritual message was one of the main reasons she would support him in the Iowa caucuses.

“I think it’s really important to talk about,” she said. “My father is Christian, my mother is Muslim. So if you talk about God, I’m listening.”

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