Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Mayor Pete's Challenge to the Religious Right and the Secular Left

The son of an ex-seminarian, turned secular intellectual university professor, Pete Buttigieg has made himself the spokesman for an alternative to the Trump-centered Christianity that has come to define so much of American religion in this unhappy era. Hence, the recent article by Rolling Stone's Alex Morris, "The Generous Gospel of Mayor Pete." The key word in that title, I think, is "generous," but so blinkered have we become, thanks to the routine stereotyping of both religion and politics in recent decades, that the word "gospel" may be what most immediately catches one's eye.

Of course, those stereotypes remain problematic at best. As the Rolling Stone article itself reminds us, as recently as 2014 some 68% of Democrats were religiously affiliated, and some 2/3 of Iowa's Democrats identify as white Christians - ostensibly a critical component of Trump's base, "which may explain last week's announcement that Buttigieg was outpacing Biden, Warren, and Sanders there." The article sees Buttigieg's biblical fluency and willingness to reference his Christian values "as welcome correctives to both Republican religious branding and Democratic religious reticence."

Attracted to the "liturgically conservative and theologically a little more open" Episcopal Church and having found himself a spiritual home there, Buttigieg has become an articulate advocate for a willingness to acknowledge and engage the religious principles which inform his - and many Americans' - political preferences.

One alternative - all too common unfortunately among some elements in the Democratic party coalition - is marginalizing religious beliefs and values, as if they did not in fact matter to many voters. In keeping with what has surely been one of the oldest strains in American political thought, Buttigieg  asserts "the true ability of American politics to accommodate religious feeling. We’re supposed to use whatever religious convictions we have to arrive at some overlapping consensus that people could get on board with, whether they share our view or not."

But, if too many Democrats have engaged in a kind of secular triumphalism, another, comparably dangerous contemporary alternative has been the hijacking of religious language and symbols by key elements in the other political party, religion seemingly less in search of the kingdom of God than in pursuit of political power. Hence Buttigieg seems especially happy to challenge such religiously identified figures as his fellow Indianan Mike Pence.

To those who have been misled by the claims of the Religious Right, Buttigieg responds, "if you find that what you’re being told politically cuts against the idea of compassion, sooner or later that’s going to lead to a reckoning that just might invite people to reconsider their political commitments."

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