Barring the unforeseen, Pete Buttigieg will not be the Democratic nominee. Though he will not win the presidency, he can claim one real achievement: solidifying a consensus among educated Americans that it is wrong to oppose a candidate because he is married to someone of the same sex.
During the Iowa caucuses, a video circulated of a woman who wanted to retract her support for Buttigieg. “Are you saying that he has a same-sex partner?” the woman asks in the video, which has been viewed more than 3 million times. “Then I don’t want anybody like that in the White House.”
Buttigieg addressed the clip on The View, saying that even if he did not gain the woman’s support, he hoped to govern in a way that benefitted her. Some of his hosts were less gracious. After one pointed out that Buttigieg and his lawfully wedded husband Chasten had been featured on the cover of Time magazine, Joy Behar said, “She doesn’t read Time magazine.” Whoopi Goldberg asked, “Does she read anything?”
The consensus is so strong that Buttigieg’s campaign has been accused of exploiting it to discredit opposition to his campaign among black voters. A leaked memo prepared by his campaign said, “Being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it.” (Buttigieg’s campaign has denied responsibility for the leak.)
If Christian teaching is wrong to oppose homosexual acts, then so are those who oppose Buttigieg because he is married to a man. If the Christian view is irrational, so are political judgments based upon it. But if Christian teaching is correct to reject homosexual acts, then it is eminently reasonable to oppose a candidate whose election would normalize them.
Our president is not only head of government but head of state. He plays a quasi-sacerdotal role as the head of the American civil religion, ending many of his public utterances with a priestly benediction: God Bless America. It is impossible to put a person in that role without proposing that his manner of life is acceptable, even admirable.
Of course, one need look no further than the current occupant of the White House to see that the moral standards for holding the presidency are not very high. Nor is Trump the first president whose life has run counter to the Christian idea of marriage and sexuality. Buttigieg, happily, does not share Trump’s glaring vices. In his public manner, he is far more regular and respectable. But his way of life likewise runs counter to Christian morality. Certain evangelical writers have insisted that Trump’s sexual behavior disqualifies him from holding the highest office. Are they prepared to say the same about Buttigieg?
Perhaps a candidate's personal morality should not determine how we vote. Certainly some Christian voters have allowed a selective and exaggerated moralism to overwhelm more pressing considerations. But it is unreal to suggest that the personal conduct of a candidate should have no bearing on our willingness to support him. Personal conduct will prove to be very public every time a President Buttigieg appears at state functions or on TV beside the man to whom he is civilly married.
Progressives tend to think, wrongly, that their political opponents are uniquely prejudiced. Since the 1960s, the American National Election Studies (ANES) has regularly asked American voters how “warm” or “cool” they feel toward certain groups. As Darel Paul describes in From Tolerance To Equality, the 2008 ANES found that Americans with a bachelor’s degree are significantly warmer toward three groups—Asian-Americans, Jews, and gay men and women—than are Americans without a bachelor’s degree. But they are significantly more cool toward three other groups—the working class, the poor, and Christian fundamentalists.
Despite significant differences in class attitudes, four of these six groups are regarded warmly by Americans with and without a bachelor’s degree. The only two groups on which opinion is truly divided are Christian fundamentalists and gay men and women. Americans without a bachelor’s degree are warm to Christian fundamentalists and cool to gay men and women. Americans with a bachelor’s degree are warm to gay men and women and cool to fundamentalists.
Many people are uneasy with the fact that Mike Pence's wife teaches at a school that says wives must submit to their husbands. They are uncomfortable with the idea of a mother of seven sitting on the Supreme Court. They believe they have rational bases for these antipathies. They are sure they have nothing in common with Christians who do not want a gay couple in the White House.
The woman in Iowa who tried to withdraw her support from Buttigieg was making the same kind of decision as those who stopped supporting Trump after they heard the Access Hollywood tape, or those who do not want a president whose family practices male headship. Though one can disagree with her conclusion, it was indefensible only if the Christian view of sex is indefensible. It has no place in our politics only if that view has no place.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.