April 8, 2019

WANG | On Buttigieg and the Religious Left

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Normally, Christianity and liberalism don’t blend well in this country, if at all. But in one of the oddest interviews in my recent memory, a Cornell alumnus and a green mayor from South Bend, Ind. engaged in a whole new debacle on the issue.

On one side was the casually smug Bill Maher ’78 hosting an episode of the Bill Maher Show on HBO, and on the other was the newest rising star of the Democratic party Pete Buttigieg (pronounced Boot-Edge-Edge), dressed in a toned down outfit that gave the vibe of suburban dad getting off from work more than presidential hopeful.

Buttigieg’s resume has landed him on voters’ radar — Harvard educated, Rhodes Scholar, Afghanistan veteran, speaker of seven languages and mayor of a rebounding Midwestern city — but it’s his down to earth demeanor, wide smile and most importantly, a laser-like ability to lay out his thoughts that has had him surging in recent polls. And in the face of one of Bill Maher, one of the more aggressive liberal commentators out there, he leveraged himself, and frankly, outflanked him in a silky smooth fashion.

Then they started to dance around topics. On how to sway back Midwestern voters, Buttigieg pushed for compassion instead of condescension. On how to win an election against Trump, he reasoned it was best to “run a campaign that’s not all about Trump.” On Ronald Sullivan, the esteemed law professor at Harvard who’s being protested by students for representing Harvey Weinstein, he was sympathetic to the students, despite Maher’s sneering pushbacks on safe spaces and trigger warnings.

But the best part of the 10-minute segment, the one that might cause other party hardliners to squirm, is when Buttigieg dived into religion and why the left should reclaim it. It’s not a topic you’d expect a young, Democratic mayor from the Midwest to jump on with nuance, but yet he does.

When Maher expressed confusion at how an intellectual like Buttigieg could mix faith with critical thinking, the presidential hopeful said, “I believe in reason, I believe in enlightenment values and I also believe that reason has limits.”

“The important thing is to recognize God doesn’t belong to a political party,” Buttigieg said. “I mean some of these themes: God, freedom, patriotism, right, these are not things that one party should be able to claim but that’s how it’s worked out.” Bringing religion into politics, he added, has meant using “the lens of the religious right.”

“When I go to church what I hear a lot about is protecting the downtrodden, and standing up for the immigrant and being skeptical of authority and making sure you look after the poor and the prisoner — to me, that’s the sort of thing that the religious left often, without much attention, has been arguing for my whole lifetime.”

You get the sense, listening to the exchange, that Buttigieg has left Maher spinning furiously in circles. And it’s because he made a bulletproof point of our tendency to conflate the right with religion. Conservatives don’t own religion any more than progressives. But somehow, somewhere, it became twisted in that sense, and the left simply sneered.

After the Trump election, the talking point became that the right owns the evangelical vote. They were right: four out five votes from white evangelicals went to Trump. During the early days of the administration, a nauseating parade of white evangelicals came rushing in to crow about Trump, how he was their savior, how he upheld the tenants of Christianity, despite his affairs, his putdowns of immigrants and the general unsavory nature in which he conducted himself. His actions didn’t seem to bother these Christians one bit, and it became bitter irony at one point. One pastor, Robert Jeffress, a friend of Trump no less, laid out his touched thoughts: “Let me say this as charitably as I can,” he fumed, “These Never Trump Evangelicals are morons.”

Well, the “morons” are pissed. As the country watched the Trump Administration put a stranglehold on mainstream Christianity, a liberal religious movement began to form, one that supports immigrants, LGBT rights and universal healthcare. Charity isn’t a choice; it’s a moral obligation. They echo what Buttigieg calmly laid out in his interview: These themes found in the Bible — protection of the marginalized, outreach to the poor — are pillars of the policies of the Democratic party. But instead, they’ve been warped and hijacked by a fundamentalist sect of Christianity.

The newfound liberal religious movement hasn’t begun far beyond skeleton crews. Years of backlog and apathy toward religion from the left has led to a liberal religious movement without the sway of its conservative counterpart. The left only modestly pushed for religion in its agenda, while the religious right composed ambitious campaigns with evangelical messages for its candidates. It’s why, in the face of an administration that has callously embraced religion as a selling point, it’s important a new face of the Democratic party has pushed back.

In his tour around the country, Buttigieg has taken the fight to the administration for their morally baseless interpretation of Christianity. He has criticized Trump for his hypocrisy, gluttony and shameless swaps at others as president. And to his former colleague Mike Pence, whom he worked with during Pence’s time as Governor of Indiana, Buttigieg mic dropped an uncomfortable question during a town hall session last month: “How would he allow himself to become the cheerleader for the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing Donald Trump?”

But I’m not really sure if Pence ever stopped believing in scripture. Instead, I think, he found the things he finds politically expedient in the Bible and tossed out what he deems inconvenient. It’s how we ended up with an administration like this: impulsive, ill-tempered and blasphemous. And for those who scour the Bible for words to support Trump, you’ll see what you want to see, I suppose. It’s a Rorschach test for the religiously keen, and a watershed moment for the American Christian community.

William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower runs every other Monday this semester.