Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., is one of the many candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. But that’s not his only long-shot bid. He also wants to claim Christianity for contemporary progressive politics.
“Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction,” he told USA Today.
Even in our largely secular press, the coverage of the Buttigieg campaign has been rapturous. A few conservatives have contested the mayor’s version of religious politics by denying that he is truly Christian, citing his support for same-sex marriage (he is in one) and legal third-trimester abortion. Some of those critics have gone so far as to dismiss the Episcopal church, of which the mayor is a member, as no longer Christian.
Buttigieg’s fans have, naturally, responded to that line of argument with outrage, having apparently missed that the mayor is fine with questioning other people’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,” he said in that USA Today interview.
Obviously people who describe themselves as “Christians” disagree with one another, generally sincerely, about what being a Christian entails. There are Protestants who don’t think that Catholics make the cut.
This type of disagreement is not distinctive to religion. The boundaries of such groupings as “conservatives” and “liberals” are also contested. The debates among Christians will probably be more fruitful if they proceed as inquiries into what followers of Jesus should do than as attempts at expulsion and counter-expulsion.
For Buttigieg, the basic mistake of conservative Christians is “saying so much about what Christ said so little about, and so little about what he said so much about.” His interviewer, journalist Kirsten Powers, calls it an “insightful formulation” and specifies that abortion is one of those topics Jesus ignored.
What He did talk about, Buttigieg says, includes “defending the poor, and the immigrant, and the stranger, and the prisoner, and the outcast, and those who are left behind by the way society works.” Hence his claim about how Christianity dovetails with progressivism.
It is a heartfelt argument. It is also partisan nonsense, a politicized distortion of both the Bible’s words and its silences.
To see what’s wrong with it, consider that the argument could just as easily be, and was, deployed against William Wilberforce and other Christian abolitionists. Notoriously, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns slavery.
It does, however, teach that God has made human beings in His image. Christian thinkers, using the power of reason they believed God gave them, reflected on that teaching over the centuries and concluded that the Christian conscience could have no truck with the institution.
Liberal Christians must necessarily engage in similar thinking to believe that higher immigration levels or looser eligibility criteria for food stamps are godly causes: Jesus doesn’t say anything direct about the federal budget or naturalization policies either.
There is of course room for argument among people of good will, whether or not they are Christian, about the judgments that liberals have reached, as there is room for argument over conservative Christians’ beliefs about abortion. But the idea that unborn children deserve legal protection seems a better fit with the Christian emphasis on mercy than Buttigieg’s cavalier dismissal of it.
Christians should in general be wary of claims that the faith points in a progressive direction, or in the direction of conservatism, libertarianism or any other political philosophy or ideology. No political party has ever fully captured the implications of Christianity, and we are not promised that one ever will. As such no earthly political party or ideology should ever command a Christian’s ultimate allegiance.
But Christians are prone to forgetting this truth and reading their politics into the faith. Buttigieg, the millennial progressive, is a political opponent of Jerry Falwell Jr. Yet in this regard, the two are brothers.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.