Pete Buttigieg, Democratic presidential candidate and former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has been notable among the leading Democratic candidates for putting forward his interpretation of values on the campaign trail while employing the language of Christianity.
Buttigieg has argued that the left needs “to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”
And, according to The Washington Post, “Buttigieg wants a ‘less dogmatic’ religious left to counter the religious right, an unofficial coalition of religious conservatives that for decades has helped get mostly Republicans into office.”
“I think it’s unfortunate [the Democratic Party] has lost touch with a religious tradition that I think can help explain and relate our values,” the presidential candidate told the Post.
But his record on issues like abortion and religious liberty stands in stark contrast to his frequent invocation of Scripture and references to faith — indicating that Buttigieg’s professed Christian faith is largely subordinated to his progressive political convictions, according to some Catholic and pro-life critics.
His Faith Background
Buttigieg was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana. His parents were professors at the University of Notre Dame. His father, Joseph, was originally a Catholic from Malta who had studied to become a Jesuit but later abandoned that pursuit and instead, according to his son’s description, became a “leftist intellectual immigrant” in America who advanced Marxist ideas.
His mother, Jennifer, was a Methodist who identified with the Anglican faith. Buttigieg attended a Catholic high school, but after graduating from Harvard, also identified with the Anglican faith during his time at Oxford University. He has been a member of the Episcopal Church for the past 10 years.
“I don’t know why I wound up liturgically conservative other than maybe habit, but I do feel that way,” he said in an April 2019 CNN interview with Passionist Father Edward Beck. “If there’s going to be music, I want an organ, not a guitar.”
Buttigieg’s relationship with religion came up in that same interview when he described his own same-sex “marriage” as something that moved him “closer to God,” a position directly opposed to the official teaching of the Catholic Church and the position held by many church-attending evangelical Christians. The Episcopal Church, by contrast, approved marriage between two persons of the same sex in 2015, leading to controversy within the Anglican Communion.
He told The Washington Post that he “understands why people believe the Christian faith leads them to oppose same-sex marriage, but hopes they encounter scripture interpreted a different way.”
“I hope that teachings about inclusion and love win out over what I personally consider to be a handful of scriptures that reflect the moral expectations of the era in which they were recorded,” he added.
Views on Religious Freedom
Buttigieg’s record on religious freedom has caused concern among some religious voters. He argued during an October CNN “Equality in America” town hall that when religion is used “as an excuse” to harm other people, “it makes God smaller.”
When asked how he would approach religious freedom broadly, he argued that the principle of “constraining” religious freedom, when it is allegedly used to do harm, “would move us further than we’ve moved so far, in terms of enforcing, for example, anti-discrimination expectations, even on private organizations, and I think that bar goes even higher when we’re talking about anybody seeking federal funds.”
And Buttigieg has backed the Equality Act, proposed federal legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act without religious-freedom exemptions. The bill is opposed by many religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who warned about its negative “wide-reaching impacts on health care, women and girls’ legal protections, charitable services to needful populations, schools, personal privacy, athletics, free speech, religious liberties and potentially parental rights.”
Buttigieg also criticized the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law in March 2015 by then-Gov. Mike Pence, despite intense lobbying by “LGBT” activists and their supporters. Buttigieg said Indiana’s RFRA “appeared to me to be a license to harm others in the name of religion. … It was to me a trashing not just of our sense of freedom and our sense of rights, but also, in some way, a trashing of religion. Like, is this really the biggest thing we should be doing to accommodate religion right now: making it easier to harm people in its name?”
Despite his opposition to religious-freedom accommodations like RFRA and exemptions in the Equality Act, Buttigieg has repeatedly attempted to portray himself as a religious candidate and an authoritative interpreter of Scripture.
He quoted Scripture to defend raising the minimum wage in a July Democratic debate, saying “so-called conservative Christian senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage, when scripture says ‘Whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker.’” In an August rally in Iowa, he invoked his faith to discuss climate change, referencing the biblical mandate to be stewards of creation.
In addition to claiming scriptural authority for many of his leftist policies, Buttigieg, who does not support any restrictions on abortion, even after viability, generated controversy when he quoted the Bible to defend late-term abortion in September.
“There’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath,” Buttigieg said. “Even that is something that we can interpret differently.”
“No matter where you think about the kind of cosmic question of where life begins, most Americans can get on board with the idea of, all right, I might draw the line here, you might draw the line there, but the most important thing is the person who should be drawing the line is the woman making the decision,” he added.
Alleging Christian Hypocrisy
In addition to his interpretations of Scripture, Buttigieg has repeatedly argued that Republicans are hypocritical and should not call themselves Christians.
Last year, Buttigieg tweeted an implication that second lady Karen Pence was a Pharisee for working at a Christian school that held and required their teachers to hold the traditional belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. He wrote, “I am a product of Christian education. At no point in that (excellent) education was I taught that gay employees should be fired or gay students expelled. But we did learn a lot about Pharisees.”
He also said on the campaign trail in April, in reference to his own homosexuality and same-sex “marriage”: “That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
Pence responded to that remark by saying he was troubled by Buttigieg’s “assertion and others’ assertion that was critical of people of our religious beliefs, broadly.”
“And I remember a reference to ‘the Mike Pences of the world,’” Pence added. “And I think every American cherishes the right of each of us to really live out our faith and live out our beliefs.”
Buttigieg commented during the July Democratic debate, with respect to immigration-enforcement policies, that “for a party that associates itself with Christianity to say it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language.”
He has also publicly questioned the sincerity of President Donald Trump’s personal religious convictions.
“I’m reluctant to comment on another person’s faith,” Buttigieg told USA Today in April. “But I would say it is hard to look at this president’s actions and believe that they’re the actions of somebody who believes in God.”
Buttigieg has also repeatedly claimed that he wants to reach Trump voters and conservatives disillusioned with Trump. However, he commented of Trump voters in December, “Anyone who supported this president is, at best, looking the other way on racism.”
Buttigieg made headlines recently following an exchange during a Fox News town hall with Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life, who asked him, “Do you want the support of pro-life Democrats — pro-life Democratic voters?”
“I am pro-choice,” he responded. “And I believe that a woman ought to be able to make that decision.”
He said he understood if pro-life Democratic voters would not support him for his stance. “The best I can offer is that if we can’t agree on where to draw the line, the next best thing we can do is agree on who should draw the line,” he said. “And in my view, it’s the woman who’s faced with that decision in her own life.”
Jackie Appleman, executive director of the local Indiana pro-life group St. Joseph County Right to Life, told the Register that this exchange was unsurprising. “He has taken a very hard stance that he’s not really budging from,” Appleman said of Buttigieg on abortion.
This was apparent from an incident in April 2018, when Mayor Buttigieg vetoed his city’s approval for a pro-life Woman’s Care Center to open next to an abortion business. His rationale was that “the neighborhood would not benefit from having the zoning law changed in order to place next door to each other two organizations with deep and opposite commitments on the most divisive social issue of our time.” The Woman’s Care Center was eventually able to open across the street from the abortion facility.
Appleman explained that Buttigieg’s rationale was odd since “having that Woman’s Care Center probably would have been the safest thing to put there because they don’t allow protesters or sidewalk counselors on their property.” She added that abortion is not typically a part of city politics, and Buttigieg’s veto of the rezoning for the Woman’s Care Center “was just a very clear signal of ‘I am ready to enter national politics as a pro-choice Democrat, and this is my stance, and I’m going to prove it by this action.’”
Notre Dame law professor O. Carter Snead told the Register via email that “many of us at Notre Dame — faculty, students and staff — were deeply disappointed by Mayor Pete’s cynical veto of the Women’s Care Center zoning variance, by which he tried to block construction of a proven source of support and care for South Bend’s poorest mothers, fathers and children (born and unborn).”
Gerard Bradley, also a law professor at Notre Dame, told the Register that for those following South Bend politics, Buttigieg’s public discussion of his religion began only with his ascendance to the national stage.
“I lived in South Bend for the entire eight years that he was mayor. I followed municipal government affairs pretty closely during that time,” Bradley said. “I was surprised and nearly shocked when Pete Buttigieg began talking about his Christian faith once he decided to run for president. It was simply not the same man who had spoken countless times, and often elegantly, about government matters for the preceding eight years.”
He added that, “in any event, Pete Buttigieg’s invocation of religion in connection with his support for killing unborn children is nothing less than diabolical.”
Bradley also expressed alarm over Buttigieg’s “often-stated view that religious freedom is fine so long as exercising it does no ‘harm’ to other people. So far stated, just about everyone in America, if not in the world, would agree. All that matters is what counts in any particular person’s scale of values as ‘harm.’”
“It is clear that Buttigieg subscribes to the hard-left, LGBT scale of values,” he continued. “His actions while he was mayor, his words during that time and since, show that he thinks Christian (and other religious) professionals who respectfully refuse to convey a lie about marriage by servicing same-sex weddings ‘harm’ the two men or two women who think they are marrying.”
Bradley said, “That way of defining ‘harm’ tells you enough to judge if Pete Buttigieg can be trusted to protect your religious liberty.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of profiles of the 2020 candidates for president of the United States.