The Peripatetic Preacher Pete Buttigieg, Make Pence, and the Soul of Christianity

The Peripatetic Preacher Pete Buttigieg, Make Pence, and the Soul of Christianity April 15, 2019

At a recent rally, just before he finally announced his official run for the White House, the South Bend, IN mayor, Pete Buttigieg (his teeth snarling last name has forced many of his fans to call him Mayor Pete!) responded to a general comment attributed to Mike Pence, the Vice-President of the US, as follows: “I do not know quite how to reply to the Vice-President’s notion that my sexual orientation is problematic to him, since the answer is in fact above my pay grade. If he wants a response, he will need to ask the Creator who made me.” This response was to me astonishing, welcome, and quite telling in the world in which we currently live.

Mayor Pete is gay, is married to a man; the ceremony was held in South Bend in 2015. He reads and speaks multiple languages, is a Rhodes Scholar, and a military veteran, having served 7 months in Afghanistan, taking a leave of absence from his job as mayor to perform that service. One of the most engaging and astonishing tales about Mayor Pete is that while he was in High School he was given a book by a Norwegian writer that impressed him so much that he learned Norwegian in order to read the man in his own language. But for my purpose today, the most pertinent thing about Mayor Pete is that he is an avowed man of faith. As it has been said of him, “he wears his faith on his sleeve;” in other words, that faith is as much a part of his life as any characteristic he displays. For those of us who are similarly overtly religious, yet do not use that religion as a club against others, or as a ruse to gain votes, or as a ticket to enter certain clubs of believers closed to any who cannot “sling the jargon” of faith language, how refreshing is it to hear faith language, real, genuine faith language, from a politician who is at least in part known for his sexual orientation. As a gay man, Mayor Pete knows all too well what it means to be an outsider, an oppressed and maligned minority, and he bases much of his policy concerns on that reality. He is deeply and genuinely concerned with those on the margins, because he has been on those margins, too, despite his intellectual and military bona fides.

Let me be clear. I have no idea whether such a candidate can run the gauntlet of 20+ quality persons and gain, at age 37, the nomination of his party. Nor am I certain today that I would vote for him, but you may sure that if he is the nominee against the fool that currently occupies the White House, he will have my vote. Even if he does not go all the way, I think he has something very important that any Democratic nominee should learn from, namely his unabashed ability to speak the language of faith. Though I am nearly a life-long liberal Democrat, overcoming my early upbringing in a very conservative Republican home, as an ordained clergyman, I have for too long had to endure candidates, even presidents, who simply were not comfortable in the worlds of faith. Bill Clinton was a compassionate man to be sure, but his faith language ability to me always rang hollow. Barak Obama was far more quietly competent in the language world of faith, clearly possessing a real faith of his own, but even he somehow could not stand up squarely to the Republican evangelicals that have nearly swallowed the public expressions of faith. When CNN continues to use leaders of Focus on the Family to comment on the religious news of the day, you know that conservative Christianity has, at least for now, won the public religious war in America.

I find this tragic and lamentable. Mike Pence calls himself an evangelical Christian and refuses to meet with any woman not his wife one on one for fear of seeming impropriety. That to me is no sign of one’s Christian faith; it is rather a sign of a man insecure in his selfhood. When Donald Trump heads to Liberty University, brandishes a Bible, and speaks about his love of “Two Corinthians,” it is hardly a sign of religious depth but rather a sign of religious dilettantism and a mockery of things held sacred by millions. I was much heartened this week when Taylor University, an avowed evangelical Christian college in Indiana, upon hearing that Mike Pence had been invited to give the commencement address at this year’s graduation, both students and faculty were decidedly unimpressed by the invitation. In fact, a majority of the faculty voted to rescind the invitation, saying that Pence’s Christianity was not the one they were attempting to teach at Taylor.

Vice President Micheal Pence poses for his official portrait at The White House, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, October 24, 2017. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

I know well that the fortunes of Christianity are on the wane in America. A recent poll announced that those claiming no religious belief now equal the numbers of Americans who say they are Catholic as well as Americans who say they are evangelical Christians. What such polls mean to me is that it has now become more than acceptable to eschew public belief and practice, a reality that is fine with me; I want those who find faith in God to be a significant part of their lives to be committed and active rather than on the fringe of the church’s activity, merely pretending it has value for them. I strongly desire that they join us in loving the world through the doorway of the church, but if they cannot I have no intention of ridiculing or rejecting them.

And that leads me back to Mayor Pete and Mike Pence. The mayor has announced his deepest concerns for those on the margins of society and thus sets himself squarely in the center of what I know as the Gospel of Jesus. Mike Pence’s rejection of LGBTQIA persons, his approval of the inhumane policies of his administration, especially with respect to immigrants at our borders, apparently welcoming the abusive policy of family separation in order to lessen the number of those who seek to become our fellow citizens, his foolish rejection of the overwhelming evidence for catastrophic climate change, and a host of other issues, call into the most serious question the depth and quality of his Christian faith. What sort of faith is it that leads to such appalling policies? No genuine Christian faith that I know of! I do not question his right in a free society to hold such beliefs, but as a Christian, I object to his calling such beliefs Christian in any sense of that word.

I would suggest that the confrontation of Mayor Pete and Mike Pence is nothing less than a struggle for the soul of what it means to be Christian in America today, and frankly, I am thrilled that a gay man is making a serious run at the White House, and that that gay man is as far as I can see deeply and genuinely a Christian believer as well. I want to watch the future of Pete Buttigieg carefully, for I think our future as Americans will rely on such persons far more than on the Mike Pences of the world whose days, I can only hope and pray, are fast disappearing from our land. May the search for a genuine Christianity, one that readily and easily embraces other expressions of faith—Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc.—begin in earnest. I thank Mayor Pete for launching that search anew.


(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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