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In Pete Buttigieg, echoes of FDR

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a fund-raising fish fry for U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Iowa on Nov. 2, 2019 at Hawkeye Downs Expo Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

When my late mother was a little girl, she rode her horse, Television, in a Dutchess County equestrian competition.

The atmosphere was heightened — saddles polished to a deep luster, manes meticulously braided, red, white and blue bunting adorning the grandstand just so. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in attendance.

My mother rode the course skillfully. But when she and Television trotted past the president in the viewing stand at its conclusion, the irrepressible 7-year-old did something wildly unexpected: She turned her back to him, explaining afterward to my conservative, Catholic and suddenly red-faced grandfather, “I thought we didn’t like him.”

We still don’t — conservatives, that is. To us, FDR’s federal expansion broke America’s covenant of limited government. It was the beginning of the end of the more decentralized America we envision.

So when my friend Arthur Woolverton kindly sent me a copy of a recently published book on FDR written by his late father, acclaimed Anglican academic and historian John F. Woolverton, I felt a tad unworthy of receiving it. But I couldn’t turn my back on it, either.

I’m glad I didn’t. “A Christian and a Democrat, A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt” provides fascinating insight into our 32nd president’s intellectual and spiritual journey and how they drove many of his policy decisions. But more than that, the biography rekindles the classic debate over whether religious convictions should inform governing actions or whether acts of mercy should come mostly from individuals. If Jesus told his Christian followers to clothe the naked, for example, does that responsibility fall upon us individually or do we create a government that meets the need?

Roosevelt fell into the latter camp, as Woolverton’s book title cites: While being questioned by reporters about his political philosophy — the word “socialism” was being thrown around a lot then, too — Roosevelt simply answered, “I am a Christian and a Democrat.” (Notably in that order.)

Most Democrats today eschew mention of religion. It is anathema to the near-puritanical secularism that has taken root in that party. Government should provide for the needy not out of obligation, progressive Democrats will argue, but because the poor are victims of a rigged system that needs to be supplanted. In other words, it’s not about morality, it’s about “justice.” In doing so, Democrats have largely ceded God to the political right, at least talk of Him.

Not so, though, with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Indeed, in Buttigieg we are hearing distinct echoes of FDR. Buttigieg unabashedly talks on the campaign trail about his Catholic upbringing, his ongoing participation in the Episcopal Church, and, like Roosevelt, how his faith would inform his presidency.

“ . . . we need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction,” Buttigieg told USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers. He also uses his view of government and Christianity to push back on Republicans: “So-called conservative Christian senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage, when Scripture says that whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker,” he controversially said in July.

Agree with Buttigieg’s argument or not, it is a powerful and easily transmissible message in a country that’s 74 percent Christian. Buttigieg’s ascendancy in several recent Iowa Democratic primary polls may very well be reflecting that.

If Buttigieg’s candidacy truly catches fire — it’s hard to predict in this frenetic political environment — expect to hear a lot about Jesus’ teachings in the coming months. Woolverton’s book could not have come at a more interesting time.

William F.B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.