The gospel according to Pete
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks often of his religion—but he tailors it to fit his politics, and it focuses on works over faith
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On the Saturday before New Year’s Day, Notre Dame trounced Iowa State in the annual Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla. The contest wasn’t close: The Fighting Irish pummeled the Cyclones 33-9.
The next week, Pete Buttigieg finished an eight-year run as mayor of South Bend, Ind., the midsize city adjacent to Notre Dame’s campus. And he turned his full attention to fighting a contest of his own in Iowa.
In early January, polls showed the 38-year-old leading a tight race in the Iowa caucuses—the first contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. The kickoff for Democratic votes is set for Feb. 3, the day after the Super Bowl.
Nationwide, polls show Buttigieg trailing Democratic candidates Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. But Buttigieg hopes scoring in Iowa might propel him to victory in other states.
Either way, his run is remarkable. A year ago, Buttigieg had scant name recognition and an email list of 24,000 people. By year’s end, he was leading polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his campaign had raised some $76 million.
Pundits point to several boosters: The outsider is young, smart, and articulate and appears unflappably calm. He’s also tried to position himself as the moderate alternative to Democratic opponents pitching mammoth plans some voters find unrealistic.
Instead of Medicare for All, Buttigieg proposes “Medicare for All Who Want It.”
But that’s still a mammoth order, and it’s not the only place where Buttigieg isn’t moderate. He’s also an openly gay presidential candidate and a churchgoing Episcopalian who says his same-sex marriage has moved him closer to God.
Indeed, Buttigieg doesn’t just assert Christian faith, he actively challenges Biblical orthodoxy: He says those who affirm the Biblical teaching that homosexuality is sinful have a quarrel “with my Creator.” He recently told Rolling Stone that many things in Scripture are “inconsistent internally, and you’ve got to decide what sense to make of it.”
That has policy implications. Buttigieg has touted the Equality Act—a legislative proposal with serious forebodings for the religious liberty of Christians bound by conscience to Scriptural principles they don’t see as debatable.
He’s also argued that when it comes to abortion, “there’s plenty of Scriptural basis to reach different conclusions about that.”
As the primary season unfolds, voters may come to different conclusions about Buttigieg’s rise. (He faces a steep uphill climb in the South Carolina contest on Feb. 29.) But for now, the likable politician has a large pulpit to reach millions of Americans with a faith-based message that does seem earnest but doesn’t always deliver the good news it promises.
DURING HIS LAST ELECTION, South Bend voters delivered resoundingly good news to Buttigieg: He was reelected mayor of the city in 2015 with 80 percent of the vote.
He’d won his first term in 2011 as a 29-year-old Oxford University graduate who had moved back to his hometown. He breezed to reelection in 2015, but turmoil struck six months into his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
In June 2019, a white police officer in South Bend fatally shot a black robbery suspect. Sgt. Ryan O’Neill said Eric Logan didn’t heed his warning to drop a knife during their encounter. The suspect’s family questioned that account.
Though Buttigieg faced angry citizens in South Bend, he eventually rebounded on the campaign trail. Still, the racially charged incident fueled questions about whether the presidential hopeful could win over black voters on a national scale. In November, a Quinnipiac University poll reported Buttigieg’s dismal support among black voters in South Carolina: less than 1 percent.
As Buttigieg began to regain traction in some states, another tragedy gripped South Bend. In September, police in neighboring Illinois reported they discovered the remains of 2,246 unborn children in the home of Ulrich “George” Klopfer, a retired abortionist who had died earlier that month.
Klopfer had conducted abortions in South Bend for decades.
The scene was grisly: Police say they found the aborted infants’ remains in moldy boxes and Styrofoam coolers in Klopfer’s garage and car. On Sept. 19, officers raided the abortionist’s abandoned office on Ironwood Drive in South Bend. (They also searched offices he once operated in Fort Wayne and Gary.) Klopfer closed the South Bend business in 2016 after the state suspended his medical license for multiple violations at his center.
Police said they found a trove of medical records at the site, but no human remains.
Buttigieg doesn’t just assert Christian faith, he actively challenges Biblical orthodoxy.
On the same street, workers at two pro-life organizations were fielding phone calls from distressed women: The callers said they had gone to Klopfer for abortions in the past, and now wondered if he had crammed their children’s remains into his home.
“We were bombarded with calls,” says Jackie Appleman, executive director of St. Joseph County Right to Life. “I was shocked at how many wanted to know if their child was in his garage.” Jenny Hunsberger of the Women’s Care Center, a pregnancy resource center with a location on the same street, said women called their office with similar concerns.
Appleman said most of the callers expressed regret over their abortions and wanted to find out if the children’s remains could be identified for a proper burial: Were the bodies labeled? Could police conduct DNA tests?
“It was very emotional,” Appleman says. “And it was a concrete reminder of the horror of abortion.”
For a few days, Buttigieg didn’t mention the reports publicly. When a reporter asked, the mayor said the discovery was “extremely disturbing, and I think it’s important it be fully investigated.” He added: “I also hope it doesn’t get caught up in politics at time when women need access to healthcare.”
For most of his term, Buttigieg didn’t have to confront issues related to abortion. But in 2018, the Women’s Care Center announced plans to open a new pregnancy resource center on Lincoln Way. The location was next to a site slated for a new abortion business. The residential property would have to be rezoned, but Hunsberger said the center’s leaders thought it would be a simple process.
At first, they were right: The city’s common council approved the rezoning in April 2018. Buttigieg vetoed the plan. The mayor said he thought it was unhelpful to have the two groups on the same street. He also said officials from the abortion business claimed research shows violence and harassment increase when a pregnancy care center opens near an abortion business.
Hunsberger said she met with Buttigieg, and assured him the care center doesn’t mount protests or demonstrations. Instead, Hunsberger says the centers in South Bend serve the mothers of nearly two-thirds of the children born in South Bend. The organization offers pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and other forms of support and help until a child reaches five.
She said the conversation with Buttigieg was cordial, but the mayor vetoed the plan.
“It was very difficult,” she says. “We did not know what our next step would be.” A few days later, an unexpected offer surfaced. A property owner across the street from the planned abortion site said he would sell his land to the Women’s Care Center. No rezoning necessary.
Buttigieg didn’t interfere, and the center opened in July. Hunsberger said it’s bigger than what they could have opened at the other location. She’s thankful “something so good could come from something so hard.”
Meanwhile, Appleman says it was disappointing to see Buttigieg veto the original plan for a pro-life center, and to see his full-orbed support for abortion since declaring his presidential candidacy.
Buttigieg doesn’t favor restrictions on abortion, even after 24 weeks of pregnancy, and he dodged a New York Times survey question about whether pro-life Democrats have a place in the party. He favors repealing the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision that bars federal funding for abortions.
On the radio showThe Breakfast Club, as Buttigieg discussed the GOP and Christianity, he said: “Right now they hold everybody in line with this one piece of doctrine about abortion. … Then again, there are a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about life beginning with breath. And so even that is something that we can interpret differently.”
That might not be comforting for some of the women grieving their decisions to go to Klopfer for abortions. Officials with the Catholic dioceses of Fort Wayne–South Bend and Gary, Ind., have offered to bury the remains in cemeteries they operate, but Indiana’s attorney general said in December it would likely be difficult or impossible to identify the infants’ remains.
In Southlawn Cemetery in South Bend, a burial plot already exists for babies who died through miscarriage. At the site, a long marble bench is inscribed with a piece of Scripture that’s difficult to interpret differently than its plain reading: “Truly God has formed my inmost being and knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise God that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
THREE MILES FROM Klopfer’s former business in South Bend, congregants at the Cathedral of St. James read Scripture every Sunday. It’s the oldest Episcopal congregation in South Bend, and it’s also the church Buttigieg attends when he’s in town.
The candidate didn’t grow up in a religious home, but his parents both taught at Notre Dame (a Roman Catholic university), and they sent him to a Catholic high school in town. At Harvard University, Buttigieg was a research assistant to Sacvan Bercovitch, a scholar who studied the Puritans’ influence on America.
During his time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Buttigieg grew interested in Anglicanism, and he began attending St. James when he moved back to South Bend. During his first years as mayor, he didn’t speak openly about being gay. He has said there was a time when he would have changed his desires if he could.
A separate religious controversy helped spur Buttigieg to reveal his sexuality. Vice President Mike Pence was governor of Indiana in 2015 when the state passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, aimed at protecting religious liberty.
The backlash was overwhelming: Major companies threatened to pull business from the state, and Pence eventually signed an amendment to the law that displeased some conservatives.
Buttigieg was upset the law ever passed: He’s described it as an authorization to harm others as long as you use religion as an excuse.
Many religious advocates didn’t view it that way. For example, a Christian who owned a restaurant might decline to cater a gay wedding reception as a matter of conscience, but the law wasn’t intended to encourage such a business owner to refuse customers simply visiting his establishment.
Three months after the controversy peaked, Buttigieg wrote an op-ed in the South Bend newspaper saying he is gay. He said he wanted to start a family, and he later said he wanted to be married in the church.
Buttigieg doesn’t favor restrictions on abortion, even after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
St. James obliged, though its willingness was a recent move for the parish. The diocese was once one of the more conservative in the Episcopal Church: It objected to the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in 2003 and initially resisted the push for same-sex wedding ceremonies. The tide shifted with the retirement of Bishop Edward Little, and by the time Buttigieg wanted to marry in 2018, the dean of St. James conducted the wedding.
At the ceremony, the minister said, “Today we hold up their life as an icon, a window into which we can peer into the realm of God’s hope and will and intention.” Chasten Buttigieg now often accompanies candidate Buttigieg on the campaign trail.
When Buttigieg talks about salvation, he often connects it to worthy ideas: helping the poor and the oppressed, for example. But he doesn’t emphasize core Christian doctrines like repentance and saving faith in Christ.
When asked by Joe Scarborough on MSNBC whether Jesus was his Lord and Savior, Buttigieg initially skirted the question. (He said that means different things to different people.) Scarborough pressed. Buttigieg offered a fleeting “yes,” but quickly pivoted back to the idea of good works.
Buttigieg rightly points out that no political party can claim ownership of Christian faith, but that’s a separate issue from affirming the historic Christian teaching about the inerrancy of Scripture and embracing the Bible’s clear teaching on sexuality. Jeff Walton, Anglican director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, says letting go of the authority of the Bible “leads down the path to make ourselves the ultimate authority to interpret Scripture.”
Indeed, holding to historic Christianity isn’t a matter of aiming to exclude people, as Buttigieg has sometimes suggested.
“It is simply a matter of what creedal Christianity is, and therefore, what it’s not,” says Walton. Part of that creedal Christianity is the offer of salvation to any who come to Christ in repentance and faith and trust His work on the cross: “And I think that’s a very inclusive message.”
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