News Analysis

Buttigieg questions Trump’s Christianity – but what about his own?


The 37-year-old Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg has had a meteoric rise to national stardom in recent weeks. It began with a CNN town hall on March 10 and has led some commentators in search of a narrative to hail him as a possible presidential candidate of the religious left.

At that CNN event, Buttigieg (pictured) accused his former governor Mike Pence of compromising his values by working for President Donald Trump. “How would he allow himself to become the cheerleader for the porn star presidency?” Buttigieg asked. “Is it that he stopped believing in Scripture when he started believing Donald Trump?”

And last week Fr Edward Beck, CNN’s television priest, interviewed Buttigieg (pronounced “boot-edge-edge”) about his Catholic upbringing. Fr Beck noted that “Mayor Pete” had been baptised a Catholic, though he now describes himself as an Episcopalian. Buttigieg talked about his father, a Maltese Catholic who had a “complicated” spiritual journey. “He became or started to become a Jesuit,” he recalled. “And then somewhere on the back end of that he was a leftist intellectual immigrant living in America. His experience of the ’60s is a little murky to me. My family in Malta for the most part remains deeply religious. And I was baptised, I think more or less right away, by a theologian of science and religion at Notre Dame.”

Both of his parents were on the faculty at Notre Dame, and he told Beck that his mother “identified more with the Anglican faith”, though she was not a keen church-goer.

Fr Beck’s interview included a number of softball questions, such as “Do you see religion being weaponised sometimes as just personal agenda and to make political points?” and some curiously phrased inquiries, such as “What’s your take on why religion finds same-sex marriage so divisive?”

The priest also didn’t really press Buttigieg on his support for late-term abortion. The mayor offered some waffle about “incredibly painful, morally complex” situations, then said: “We demand that government intervene when we can all agree on what’s at stake. The problem with this issue is that we can’t all agree on what’s at stake. There was a Notre Dame law student who said that birth control, abortion and infanticide are all the same thing. To me, I cannot relate to someone who views the world that way, but I get that some people do, and they think the Creator of the universe wants them to think that way.”

Buttigieg continued to discuss religious matters when he appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday. He seemed to position himself once again as a devout Christian critic of President Trump.

“Even on the version of Christianity that you hear from the religious right, which is about sexual ethics, I can’t believe that somebody who was caught writing hush money checks to adult film actresses is somebody they should be lifting up as the kind of person you want to be leading this nation,” he said.

He went further in an interview with Kirsten Powers of USA Today saying that – while he was “reluctant to comment on another person’s faith” – “it is hard to look at this president’s actions and believe that they’re the actions of somebody who believes in God.”

Buttigieg proposes a radical restructuring of America’s constitutional order to disempower the political right. He told a Northeastern University audience this month that he backs the abolition of the electoral college and the enlargement of the Supreme Court. He supports the Equality Act, which would enshrine sexual preference and gender identity as categories of nondiscrimination law, which could jeopardise the nonprofit status of religious charities. (Buttigieg himself is married to another man.)

Other aspects of Buttigieg’s record show more of an attempt to court the middle. He is the only Democratic contender other than Amy Klobuchar to oppose free college. In an interview with Zack Beauchamp of Vox he said he believes in “democratic capitalism”. Elsewhere Beauchamp described his appeal to Democrats as that of “a competent executive whose vision directly addresses their Trump-era anxieties and partisan anger”. He has a dog named Truman, and Politico wrote recently that he “won the JFK Library’s Profile in Courage essay contest in 2000 as a sweaty-palmed high school senior. A decade later, in 2015, he won the John F Kennedy New Frontier Award from the Kennedy School at Harvard.”

His criticisms of the religious right’s hypocrisy may not have much effect on Trump-supporting Christians – who for the most part are well aware of Trump’s personal shortcomings. They have, nevertheless, calculated that supporting Trump will better advance their agenda than supporting a party that is avowedly hostile to their worldview. They aren’t going to forget about that hostility and allow themselves to be browbeaten into supporting someone who would sign laws that could shut down, say, Catholic schools or adoption agencies.

Whether Buttigieg can win the Democratic Party over to his religious left vision is another question – and one that for now remains open.