Pete Buttigieg and The Politics of American Greatness

Pete Buttigieg and The Politics of American Greatness April 18, 2019

On Sunday, Pete Buttigieg made it official. He’s running for president, because he wants “to tell a different story than ‘Make America Great Again.’”

But one way or another, his, too, will be a story of American greatness.

As an openly gay, openly Episcopalian mayor of a Rust Belt city—and a veteran who served in Afghanistan—Buttigieg is a rising star in a crowded field of Democratic contenders.

Buttigieg is making waves in part by reclaiming Christianity from the Religious Right. Not long ago, it seemed he might offer a way forward by dodging direct culture-wars engagement. When it came to Chick-fil-A, Buttigieg signaled a de-escalation strategy: “I do not approve of their politics, but I kind of approve of their chicken.” In an interview with the Washington Post, he expressed his hope that there was an opportunity “for religion to be not so much used as a cudgel but invoked as a way of calling us to higher values.” On the other hand, he hasn’t hesitated to call out conservative evangelicals for their “hypocrisy,” or to go toe-to-toe with Vice President Mike Pence. (Did he stop “believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump”? How did he “allow himself to become the cheerleader for the porn star presidency?”)

Photo credit: Edward Kimmel from Takoma Park, MD – DNC Winter Meet 0063 ‘Pick Pete’ Buttigieg Wikipedia

In offering an alternate vision of religion and politics, Buttigieg has called for a revival of the religious left. Inspired by Catholic liberation theology and the prophetic tradition of African American Christianity, Buttigieg’s is a faith that is “about lifting up the least among us and taking care of strangers, which is another word for immigrants.” It is about “making sure that you’re focusing your effort on the poor.” And, it’s about how one conducts oneself: “Not chest thumping look-at-me-ism, but humbling yourself before others. Foot washing is one of the central images in the New Testament.” All this, he adds, is diametrically opposed to what we see in the current presidency.

With Buttigieg emerging as the new poster boy for the religious left, it’s probably a good time to reflect on the fact that the religious left hasn’t had much of a track record when it comes to electoral victories in recent decades.

On the national stage, the influence of the religious left has paled in comparison to that of the Religious Right, for a variety of reasons. The left has always lacked the financial resources and the organizational prowess of the Right—at least for the past half century. Part of this problem is an ideological one. A religion that celebrates the divestment of power is at a disadvantage when it comes to claiming political power.

The religious left faces a similar conundrum when it comes to the question of American greatness.

Buttigieg has framed his campaign as an alternative to the MAGA narrative. But it’s worth noting that Buttigieg didn’t just set himself against our current president’s rhetoric on greatness. Back in January, he offered a harsh assessment of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and that critique, too, focused on the question of American greatness: “Donald Trump got elected because, in his twisted way, he pointed out huge troubles in our economy and our democracy.” He added, “At least he didn’t go around saying that America was already great, like Hillary did.”

This dig was too much for Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill, who called out Buttigieg’s comments as “indefensible.”  Hillary Clinton “ran on a belief in this country & the most progressive platform in modern political history. Trump ran on pessimism, racism, false promises, & vitriol. Interpret that how you want, but there are 66,000,000 people who disagree. Good luck.”

This tension between Buttigieg and the Clinton team reflects a deeper challenge that has plagued the religious left. Can a prophetic tradition rally Americans to go to the polls? Is prophetic Christianity compatible with American patriotism, and with a quest for political power?

Here, history offers some sobering answers.

During the 2016 campaign, I found myself thinking often about an earlier presidential campaign—the 1972 battle between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. As I listened to Clinton refute Trump’s startlingly dark and dour depiction of America, I wondered if her attempt to draw a sharp distinction between her vision and Trump’s wasn’t based on her own political history. Clinton, recall, had worked on the McGovern campaign back in 1972.

As historian Mark Lempke has written, McGovern reveals the (mis)fortunes of progressive Christianity in postwar America: “At the start of McGovern’s public career, progressive, social justice-oriented Protestant Christianity was a cornerstone of respectable civic life. Although often establishmentarian in character, it also carried a strong prophetic element that challenged the powerful and supported marginalized communities. In the 1960s and early 1970s, liberal churchmen and liberal politicians such as McGovern worked together against war and hunger and in favor of a robust, inclusive Christian humanism…”

In 1972, McGovern’s progressive and prophetic Christianity countered Cold War nationalism and militarism—the defining features of the rising Religious Right. But McGovern’s campaign marked a critical turning point in progressive Christianity, revealing “the limits of prophetic action as a tool to win elections.” From that time on, progressive Christianity has struggled to inspire voters.

As Lempke writes, McGovern’s prophetic tone “may have been acceptable in a conscientious senator,” but “it was problematic in a presidential candidate who was expected to reassure rather than remonstrate.” Here Martin Marty offers a useful distinction between a priestly civil religion, which “affirms a nation and its people by evoking common symbols”—something employed by Nixon and his evangelical supporters—and a prophetic civil religion, which could entail a ruthless critique of the nation, yet in the tradition of the Puritan jeremiad, this prophetic critique allowed for hope that “the nation could overcome its faults and sins,” that it could find redemption.

In 1972, Americans voted for a priestly civil religion. In Lempke’s words, McGovern’s failure pointed to “uncomfortable truths”—“prophetic action and presidential elections do not mix well; even erudite, incisive criticism of the US will seem discordant amid the pageantry and patriotism that characterizes those events.” McGovern had asked Americans to remember “the poor and the neglected,” to think of the Vietnamese victims of the war. Instead, Americans preferred to think of busing, the draft, and their own well-being. “There is a role for such remonstration in civic life, but it is probably outside of electoral politics,” Lempke concludes.

If Clinton learned the limits of prophetic civil religion from the McGovern campaign, that lesson would have been reinforced eight years later. Clinton, it should be recalled, also worked on Carter’s successful 1976 presidential campaign, when he promised to restore hope to America after the Watergate debacle. But she also watched Carter go down in humiliating defeat four years later.

The 1980 election, too, was a referendum on priestly versus prophetic civil religion. Americans were tired of Carter’s recounting of America’s problems and deepening crisis of confidence, and of his calls for sacrifice and scarcity. They wanted a leader who saw the darkness, who knew their fear, but one who promised bold (if imprecise) leadership out of that darkness and into a glorious morning, a return to a mythical American greatness.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Clinton decided to paint a rosier picture of America. Yet it is important to recognize that American voters weren’t responding to Reagan’s optimism—at least not as far as present conditions were concerned. They were responding to a dire view of the present, and to a promise of change—change that would require not sacrifice, but rather the assertion of power.

The same was true of Trump’s supporters in 2016. The darker Trump’s vision became, the more he tapped into a longstanding tradition; the Religious Right had long thrived on tales of woe and national decline. And the more Trump tapped into that tradition, the more Clinton sought to appeal to voters’ better angels. In the end, the allure of a priestly civil religion, of self-affirming talk of greatness, won out.

Even if she had wanted to, Clinton wasn’t in a position to benefit from a darker vision. She was running as a Democrat seeking to follow a two-term Democratic president. Hope and change make a compelling pitch, but this rhetoric works best when one can distance oneself and one’s campaign from the current administration. Right now, Buttigieg has that going for him.

However, as a revivalist for the religious left, it will be critical for Buttigieg to craft a compelling vision for Americans who have long preferred the priestly to the prophetic civil religion—at least when it comes to electoral politics.

Fortunately for him, he wrote his Harvard thesis under the direction of Sacvan Bercovitch, a scholar whose work traced the history of American “exceptionalism” to the New England Puritans. “You can’t understand America without understanding the Puritans,” Buttigieg insisted. “In many ways, we’re still living out their legacy in ways that are good and bad.”

The task ahead of Buttigieg will be to fashion the perfect jeremiad for this historical moment—a call to national repentance and renewal, but one that appeals to myths of American greatness. Clinton tried and ultimately failed to do so. But Buttigieg won’t be facing the same obstacles. In the midst of the devastation of the Trump presidency, there is no better time for the religious left to cast a different vision of American greatness. And if the religious left can’t inspire voters in 2020, perhaps it’s time to retire talk of any revival indefinitely.




Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Salvatore Luiso

    It is telling that the author writes “Religious Right” with capital letters and “religious left” without them. It reflects the difference in societal significant between the two. Many Americans have an idea of what the term “Religious Right” means. Has there ever been a time in American history in which a movement comparable to it could be called the “Religious Left”?

    Regarding “A religion that celebrates the divestment of power is at a disadvantage when it comes to claiming political power”: Which religion? And is not the Left, in general, in favor of centralizing and increasing the power of the state–albeit for reasons which they believe to be for the common good?

    I would like to know what the author means by “prophetic tradition”. Is it any different from a tradition of social criticism?

    Regarding “The 1980 election, too, was a referendum on priestly versus prophetic civil religion”: If it was a referendum, it was on the presidency of Jimmy Carter. After a promising and hopeful start, many Americans had become bitterly disappointed and discontent with it. In 1980, the economy was in recession, the unemployment rate was over 7%, the inflation rate was over 12%, there were long lines as gasoline stations, and 52 Americans were being held hostage in Iran. Even people who liked Carter thought that he was not a strong leader. To many, he appeared to be a good man who was out of his depth.

    In answer to “Is prophetic Christianity compatible with American patriotism, and with a quest for political power”: Yes: although there are temptations to prefer a perverted patriotism to prophetic integrity and to lose that integrity in the pursuit and maintenance of political power. Too many members of the Religious Right do both. Many of them do not see, as Buttigieg does, that the virtues of Christians are “diametrically opposed to what we see in the current presidency”.

    Lastly, regarding “The task ahead of Buttigieg will be to fashion the perfect jeremiad for this historical moment—a call to national repentance and renewal, but one that appeals to myths of American greatness”: I do not expect to hear jeremiads from political candidates. Jeremiads should not appeals to “myths”. Rather than Buttigieg or any other political candidate issuing such a jeremiad, we need Christian preachers of integrity and impartiality to issue jeremiads which appeal to and proclaim the word of God.

  • Win Mott

    This is a thoughtful analysis. But keep in mind that Barack Obama is a product of the Christian left (United Church of Christ in his Chicago days), so it isn’t quite accurate to say the religious left is without electoral success in recent years. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Christian-left candidates don’t identify as such very often, whereas the Religious Right candidates give that identity and its signature issues a very high profile.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    I don’t know if it was your intention, but this history does make clear the reality of what we face. It isn’t the case that the bulk of the American people are essentially good on balance and have just suffered under a series of bad leaders. That is the lie that they have been flattered with – or more truthfully, that they have told themselves. The truth is that the problem is with the bulk of the American people themselves. They really are not very good at all. Any politician that they have elected or are likely to elect will be incapable of making a change for the better – in no small part because the ones that might make such a change could never be elected by these people. They won’t vote for what they don’t want to hear, even if that is exactly what they need.

    There is a reason why the faithful prophets had to retreat into the wilderness – if they managed to avoid being killed outright.

    There needs to be a massive change of hearts and minds. That is unlikely to happen until we have been brought down very low – something I dread, but which I know is both inevitable and necessary.

  • Kristin Du Mez

    Yes, I should have considered Obama in this post. He complicates things in interesting ways, and I explore this more in my current book project. I’ll suggest a couple things. First, race matters. While it’s correct to state that we don’t have a religious left without the African American prophetic tradition, that doesn’t mean that they are one and the same. I think race makes a difference in how progressive religion is articulated and how it is received. Obama’s prophetic view was framed by the Af Am experience–not much Christian nationalism to speak of there to contend with, but rather an obvious history to lament. Yet he needn’t dwell there (and didn’t–his speech on the Wright controvery was a master study in this)–because as an Af Am contender he embodied hope and the fulfillment of the Am promise. I think Buttigieg can follow that script, though it won’t resonate as widely. It was interesting how he tried out the “hope” motif in his announcement speech, though that part to me seemed a bit stilted. What’s really interesting to me as well is that HRC wasn’t able to do the same with gender. She tried when she first launched her campaign, but was quickly called out for playing the gender card. But yes, much to ponder here.

  • Victor Salvo

    Pete Buttigieg’s message would not have the resonance it has if Christianatics’ embrace of a godless heathen hadn’t revealed their hypocrisy. Thanks to their craven lust for power, Christianity – as it has presented itself – has lost its moral authority. Fortunately, the vast majority of Christians in the United States are not Fundamentalists. That heretofore silent majority – along with reasonable people of every faith – have looked on with horror at what Christianatic Religionists have elected to shrug off. This has set the stage for the ascension of a New Christian Left that, unlike past iterations, doesn’t just embrace traditional charitable pursuits, but now also articulates a universal ecumenical vision that accepts everyone – even a gay Episcopalian running for president. Given that over 65% of the American public has no problem with gay people – and, undoubtedly has gay family, friends, and/or colleagues – the time is right for an enlightened vision of religion’s healing and welcoming role in a reborn, new America. Which is as it should be. Humanity’s future rests on decoupling our collective fate from what weaponized religion has allowed itself to become in the pursuit of political power. The very fact that Evangelical Christians support Donald Trump is the Divine Sign that something has gone seriously wrong. A Great Correction is Coming. Pete Buttigieg is a remarkable illustration of what that correction will look like.

  • Suzan Mesik

    I don’t like Mayor Pete. I believe he believes something like what the New Testament says, but he destroyed 1,000 homes of low-income people, mostly people of color, to gentrify his city. This in itself is, for me, just more of the same that we can expect from this man. He is a privileged white male who happens to be gay. There is nothing in anything he has said that suggests he would be anything else in the terrible event that he becomes Prez. Notice how all his best ideas are taken almost entirely from other candidates? And Trump will crush him. He will not crush Trump. Pete, the Bland Boy from South Bend, will not bring the “Christian Left” “together” simply because he is not of the Left and doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all for the least of us.

  • Obscurely

    The post states (speaking of the 2016 election), “In the end, the allure of a priestly civil religion, of self-affirming talk of greatness, won out.” For the record, 3 million more Americans voted against ‘priestly civil religion’, and it was only because of the oddity of the Electoral College the will of the majority was thwarted.

  • Kristin Du Mez

    You know, I thought about adding an asterisk to this effect. And maybe Russia, too. But I thought that might prove a distraction. If we look at the white Christian vote, for whom the priestly/prophetic tension is most relevant, I think this argument bears out.

  • Obscurely

    We could have also added an asterisk that Trump only won with Russian help his campaign fully embraced (as fully documented in the Mueller report).

  • Obscurely

    Amen brother! thanks to their idolatry in bowing down before Trump, their cult-like zeal for a corrupt and amoral President has made the word “evangelical” synonymous in the wider culture with ‘religious hypocrite.’