Something told me Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was going to be a flash in the pan. I won’t say 100% that it was seeing James Joyce’s Ulysses at the top of his “favorite books” reading list, but I do think that had something to do with it.
For a brief moment a week or so ago, pundits were touting Buttigieg hopefully as a (maybe even the) “moderate,” of-the-moment, third-way Democrat: the one the Democrats, and perhaps the general voting public, were looking for. He has a nice-guy affect. On political matters, he hasn’t been a flame-thrower. If he’s more of a “me too” type pol on those political matters, not really disavowing the Democrats’ hard swerve to the left but not jackhammering its themes either (as everyone else seems to be doing) – well, in some ways that kind of makes him more like a RINO Republican. Pasteurized, homogenized, and harmless.
Then Mayor Buttigieg started talking about religion.
Good heavens (as it were). First, as I recall (although there may have been something earlier), he said he questions whether Donald Trump really believes in God.
Next thing you know Buttigieg was saying evangelical Christians are hypocrites for voting for Trump.
Then he started in on the quality of Vice President Mike Pence’s Christian beliefs, which Buttigieg lambasted while contrasting them, most unfavorably, with his own. (Pence, it is to be noted, has said nothing at all about Buttigieg’s Christianity, his relationship with God, or his sexual orientation. Buttigieg is having this argument with himself.)
I was hoping the original “Trump doesn’t believe in God” thing was a one-off, and that Buttigieg would get some good advice and stop talking about it. Instead, he has doubled and tripled down on disparaging opinions about the faith of his fellow Christians.
I don’t want to talk about the mayor’s level or quality of faith at all, so I’m not going to. That’s between him and God. That’s where it should stay. That’s where mine is, and I’ll thank Mr. Buttigieg to remember it.
I’ve been wrong more than once in an assessment of what the American people do or don’t want to hear, and what they want to talk about. But I don’t think I’m wrong on this one. Americans don’t elect a president to harangue us about our spiritual condition, the quality of our personal faith, or correctness or error in Christian beliefs and doctrine – or Jewish beliefs and doctrine, or Muslim beliefs, or anyone else’s beliefs, for that matter. There is hardly anything less suitable as a topic of discussion in a presidential election campaign.
The whole point of the first clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – is that thrashing out the rights and wrongs of religious doctrine is not what we have government for.
America’s Founders were much closer in time to the awful, debilitating religious wars of 16th- and 17th-century Europe, and the height of the barbaric mistreatment of Jews in much of European Christendom. It wasn’t for abstract, experimental reasons that they built government restraint on religious matters into our Constitution. They built it in because they knew the terrible cost of loosing the armed state on the faith of the people.
Politicians have no business campaigning on themes that are divisive in explicitly religious terms. It’s one thing to campaign among people of your own faith and perhaps couch some public issues in familiar terms you know everyone present will understand. Politicians do that often, and it’s no big deal. But it’s another thing entirely to point fingers and proclaim your assessment that other people don’t really believe in God, that they’re hypocrites in the terms of their faith, or that they apparently have a problem with the God you believe in.
That may seem minor and shrug-off-able right now. But that is the language of religious strife. In my lifetime, I haven’t routinely heard Christians lobbing these accusations at each other in any visible, vocal way. We’ve been blessedly free, until just the last handful of years, from such interdenominational (and sometimes intradenominational) hectoring. The point isn’t that there’s been a convergence of beliefs; it’s what we do about beliefs that remain unreconciled. The ruling idea has been peaceful tolerance.
I’ve seen troubling signs that that may be changing, but if it is, it needs to be tamped down within the precincts of each religion. Electoral politics in America must not be made a vehicle for encouraging people to religious quarrels.
In fact, it’s more dangerous than not right now precisely because Pete Buttigieg doesn’t emit claps of thunder when he makes his incendiary assertions, but sort of sounds as if he’s shooting the breeze just a little more urgently than you or I might, over coffee in the common room after the service.
These sentiments are not domesticable as political footballs. In politics, they’re poison. If that’s where your head is, you don’t belong in public office in America. By all means, get on your church board and argue your point of view. Go get a degree in theology. Become a minister and preach sermons and teach Sunday school. Write books. Start a broadcast ministry. Hold conferences.
But leave it out of politics – because it seriously doesn’t belong in government.