When I heard this quote from South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, I thought: Wow, I’ve been there before!:
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has made clear throughout his upstart 2020 presidential bid that he believes Democrats should embrace religion and decry those who try to suggest God belongs to one political party or another.
But in an interview with NBC’s Today Show that aired on Tuesday, Buttigieg suggested that if God did have a political affiliation, it wouldn’t “be the one that sent the current president into the White House.”
By Mayor Pete’s own logic, of course, if God had a political affiliation, God would not be God. So it’s too clever by half to play “what if” with the Almighty’s partisan preferences.
Still, it’s understandable he would “go there.” As an openly gay, married practicing Christian (not to mention Afghanistan veteran), Buttigieg is a living challenge to the self-righteous exclusivity of conservative Evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics who deny him the fellowship of believers, and for that matter, deny that Christians who do accept him are authentically Christian to begin with. Conservative political commentator and zealous Evangelical Erick Erickson is a particularly vivid example of this hateful attitude, as evidenced by a post titled “Pete Buttigieg Shows Why Progressive Christianity Is a Hypocritical Farce.” But that attitude is common in those precincts of Christendom where it’s taken as gospel that obedience to God means striving to restore the conservative white patriarchy of 1950s Middle America, even if that means enlisting in the heathen army of Donald J. Trump. So Mayor Pete is especially entitled to dispute the claim that God is a Republican who not only despises gay people and feminists and liberals but loves Fox News and wants His country, America, to be First.
It’s hard to tolerate those who won’t tolerate you, and hard to listen to those whose secular prejudices lead them to ignore the bulk of the New Testament, which is devoted to forgiveness and service to the poor and marginalized. But like other progressive Christians, Buttigieg should resist the temptation of turning the tables and competing with the Christian right on the implicit ground that his interpretation of Christianity is the True Path, countering Bible verse with Bible verse, and law with gospel, and smug “family values” rhetoric with smug “social justice” rhetoric (among Catholics, you can play the same game with competing papal encyclicals and readings from church fathers).
There’s a better way for Christian progressives to fight a losing war with the politicizers of faith, as I argued some time ago:
The alternative argument is that believing there’s any comprehensive prescription for political behavior in religious scripture or tradition betrays a confusion of the sacred and the profane, and of the Kingdom of God with mere secular culture. That’s what one prominent liberal Christian named Barack Obama maintained in his famous Notre Dame commencement speech of 2009, in which he described as essential to faith a healthy doubt about what God wants human beings to do in their social and political lives. And it leads not to a desire to replace the self-righteous Christian right with an equally self-righteous Christian left, but to a renewed commitment to church-state separation — on religious as well as political grounds. After all, church-state separation protects religion from political contamination as much as it does politics from religious contamination. And what the Christian right abetted was political contamination, not just recourse to the wrong politics.
So Mayor Pete had it right the first time: God’s not a Republican or an anti-Republican. Nor should we presume to enlist the deity in our political battles even if God’s incarnate Word is our entire reason for being engaged politically. That’s an entirely more appropriate posture for the putative leader of a Democratic Party than is a coalition of believers (of many faiths) and unbelievers alike. Perhaps Buttigieg can even provide a useful reminder to conservative Christians that the Kingdom of God is not of this Earth.