In 2015, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg voiced a moral disagreement with Mike Pence, then governor of Indiana.
Just days before Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—which would allow business owners to deny services based on religious reservations—Buttigieg told local reporters it would “create problems” for his city’s LGBTQ community. “This paves the way for discrimination,” Buttigieg said. He also claimed the bill would be unnecessary in a society in which an increasing percentage of the population supported same-sex marriage: “I’m not aware of a lot of same-sex couples in South Bend desperately trying to get homophobic bakers to supply their weddings.”
It was nothing new from Buttigieg, who had butted heads with Pence for years over the issue. But since the two both consider themselves devout Christians, and Christians are commanded to love their neighbors, they made public efforts to maintain a friendly relationship. When Buttigieg came out as gay just months after Pence passed RFRA, the governor praised the mayor’s character. “I hold Mayor Buttigieg in the highest personal regard,” Pence told a South Bend TV station. “I see him as a dedicated public servant and a patriot.”
Buttigieg, too, was always cordial, and repeatedly reached out to the governor. On one notable occasion, Buttigieg presented Pence with a local pride t-shirt reading “I (heart) SB.” And he frequently declared that his disagreements with Pence didn’t mean they couldn’t pursue a common good together.
“Politics aside, we have to be partners when it comes to creating jobs here,” Buttigieg said when Pence visited him on Easter Monday 2013. “He’s the governor of Indiana. South Bend is in Indiana, so our interests are very much aligned when it comes to South Bend’s future.”
But that partnership is ended now that Buttigieg is running for president. In the past few weeks, the previously obscure mayor has become a media darling for throwing punches at Pence because of the vice president’s opposition to same-sex marriage. While speaking at a LGBTQ fundraiser in March, Buttigieg said that his own marriage to Chasten Glezman brings him “closer to God,” then attacked Pence. “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade,” Buttigieg said. “And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
The comment made Buttigieg a star, and Mayor Pete is riding the good press as long as he can. In addition to criticizing Pence, Buttigieg has branded himself as a woke Christian—a candidate whose Christianity won’t stop him from supporting same-sex marriage and abortion at any stage in a pregnancy. He’s gained the praise of New York, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and many other media outlets for being the first presidential candidate to call himself both gay and Christian. Over on MSNBC, they’re calling him a nicer sort of Christian, the “new PR” for Jesus.
But despite his niceness, Buttigieg doesn't balk at condemning those whom he views as bad Christians. During a CNN town hall in March, he voiced doubts about the vice president’s faith, stating that Pence stopped “believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump.” And Trump, Buttigieg believes, is probably an atheist: “I would say it is hard to look at this president’s actions and believe that they’re the actions of somebody who believes in God.”
When outlining his own way of living the Christian faith, Buttigieg calls Christianity a faith of niceties, and argues that a person’s strong convictions should never be wielded against another human being. “I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people and especially in the LGBTQ community,” he said during the CNN town hall, after calling out Pence. “So many people, even today, feel like they don’t belong. You can get fired in so many parts of this country just for who you are, and that’s got to change.”
In an April interview with CNN, he expanded on that vision, saying that Christianity is essentially synonymous with the virtue of tolerance. “It is one thing to practice one’s faith as one sees fit. It is another to harm somebody else in the name of that faith,” Buttigieg said, in reference to questions about the dangers of politicizing Christianity. He then pointed the question at Pence: “Is this really the biggest thing we should be doing to accommodate religion right now: making it easier to harm people in its name?”
Yet Buttigieg never appeals to authority to explain his own interpretation of Christianity. Yes, he attends an Episcopalian church. But unlike the scores of evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox whose beliefs Buttigieg so often condemns, he does not claim that Scripture or a Magisterium gives his own beliefs validity.
Instead, Buttigieg lives by the dictum that Christianity means tolerance. Yet when asked if his repeated attacks on the vice president are their own sort of political weapons, Buttigieg becomes slippery: “I’m not a master fisherman, but I know bait when I see it, and I’m not gonna take it,” he told CNN host Anderson Cooper last week, to thunderous applause from his audience. “God does not have a political party,” he continued, before outlining how his own view of Scripture trumps the “chest-thumping and self-aggrandizing, not to mention abusive behavior” that marks the current administration’s view of Christianity.
Buttigieg preaches a limited vision of the Christian life. The least he could do is live by it.
Nic Rowan writes from Washington, DC.