Buttigieg vs. Pence

Liberals have been yielding the high ground on religion for far too long. Maybe that’s going to stop.

There are two ways to seek people’s political support: You can lay out policy proposals to address the problems that concern them — like Medicare for All or a plan to cancel student debt — or you can show them that you’re on their side by taking on the people that threaten or intimidate them.

It’s not an either/or, of course. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has no trouble taking on the bankers who illegally foreclosed on your house while at the same time laying out policies that would stop them from foreclosing on someone else. Ultimately, a politician’s willingness to fight for you in the public square will come to nothing if he or she doesn’t also enact substantive changes after taking office.

But if you doubt the power of a pure I’ll-stand-up-to-your-enemies message, you need look no farther back than 2016. Candidate Trump’s policy proposals were often an incoherent mess. He said he’d replace ObamaCare something “fantastic” and “wonderful” that would take care of everybody. The government would pay for it, but it would neither raise your taxes or impinge on your freedom. (That’s not a synopsis of his program; that’s the whole program.) His foreign policy was both bellicose and promised an end to the endless wars. He was in favor of both LGBT rights and the religious right. He would simultaneously cut taxes, increase defense spending, and repay the national debt. He promised to build a wall, while his supporters argued among themselves about whether the wall would be literal or metaphorical.

But whatever he might propose, and however he might contradict that proposal the next time he opened his mouth, one part of Trump’s message was clear, and remains clear today: If you feel threatened by immigrants of color, by people who don’t speak English, by scientists who think they’re smarter than you, or by advocates of “political correctness” who tell you that you can’t say this or do that any more, then Trump has your back. If you’re sick of liberals calling you “racist” or “sexist”, well, Trump glories in being called those names, and strikes back at the accusers twice as hard.

A week ago yesterday, in his own soft-spoken way, Pete Buttigieg did something similar: At the annual champagne brunch of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, he took on Vice President Mike Pence by name, and challenged the religious right not just politically, but morally and religiously. When his words got national attention and Pence answered (dishonestly), Buttigieg did not back down.

The message was clear: He’s not intimidated by Mike Pence, so you don’t need to be either. And if the “Mike Pences of this world” think that they own religion or Christianity or words like morality and freedom, then Pete Buttigieg has news for them.

The speech. His 19-minute speech is worth listening to in its entirety, if you have the time. He is talking to a friendly audience of those who fight for LGBTQ rights, so it may not be as immediately courageous as, say, Catholic JFK’s speech to the protestant ministers of Houston. But in an era when everything is recorded, everything gets out, and your words live on forever in hard drives all over the world, it is quite striking.

We often hear the term “gay pride”. Buttigieg’s speech is a clear and simple assertion of gay pride. He’s not claiming to be better than straight people, but he’s also not apologizing for his sexuality or hoping that critics will ignore it. He is proud of his life, proud of his marriage, and proud of the spouse he married. He will not keep Chasten hidden and hope that his opponents will be gracious enough not to bring him up. Instead, Buttigieg talks about meeting Chasten, and adds:

One of the best things about these last couple months has been watching America meet him too, and start to fall for Chasten just like I did.

But he then goes on to talk about his struggle to accept his sexual orientation.

When I was younger, I would have done anything to not be gay. When I began to halfway realize what it meant that I felt the way I did about people I saw in the hallways in school or the dining halls in college, it launched in me something I can only describe as a kind of war. And if that war would have been settled on the terms that I would have wished for when I was 15, or 20, or frankly even 25, I would not be standing here. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water.

It is a hard thing to think about. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.

The room is completely silent at this point. What he is presenting is the religious right’s fantasy: that homosexuality is curable, and that 15-year-olds like Buttigieg could be offered the chance to sign up for some kind of conversion therapy (which is now illegal in 16 states, partly because it doesn’t work, and partly because forcing a child into such therapy is believed to increase the risk of suicide). The fantasy says that these men will be grateful later, when they look back on a life that includes wives and naturally-conceived children. But Buttigieg represents the polar opposite of that fantasy: Looking back on his life, he is grateful that he didn’t get that choice.

The real reason it’s so hard to think about is that if I had had the chance to do that, I would never have found my way to Chasten. The best thing in my life, my marriage, might not have happened at all. … How dark the thought, that the man that I admire and care about, and love sharing with the rest of the country, and even more importantly, can’t wait to share one day with raising children, might not have been part of my life at all. Thank God there was no pill. Thank God there was no knife.

And “thank God” is not just figure of speech. It segues Buttigieg into religion, and into the moral issue of marriage equality.

It’s a moral issue because being married to Chasten has made me a better human being, because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent. My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.

He explains exactly what “closer to God” means to him.

You may be religious and you may not. But if you are, and you are also queer, and you have come through the other side of a period of wishing that you weren’t, then you know that that message, this idea that there’s something wrong with you, is a message that puts you at war not only with yourself, but with your Maker.

And speaking only for myself, I can tell you that if me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. 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 response. This is a story and an argument that many straight Americans have never heard: Accepting your sexual orientation or gender identity or some other aspect of yourself (that you didn’t choose and can’t un-choose) can be part of a journey of coming to terms with God.

The religious right will tell you that accepting homosexuality means rejecting God. (In a Fox News piece responding to Buttigieg, Log Cabin Republican Rob Smith says precisely that: “those on the left … have been very successful at convincing a generation of young gays and lesbians to reject God in favor of their cult of intersectionality and identity politics.”) It will tell you that gays want to tear down Christianity, and that the point of same-sex marriage is to undermine marriage in general. But Buttigieg is saying the exact opposite: Accepting how you were made is part of accepting God’s creation.

Buttigieg is challenging not the politics of the religious right, but its morality and its theology. This isn’t just about the Constitution or the law, it’s about what it means to be in right relation with God.

You can tell how threatening Buttigieg’s message is to the Mike Pences of the world by how hard they try not to hear it, and to pretend that Buttigieg said something else. Pence himself responded with this non sequitur:

I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith or attacks on the President as he seeks the highest office in the land. He’d do well to reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American.

But Buttigieg didn’t “attack” anybody’s Christian faith. He challenged Pence’s interpretation of it. In particular, there was no attack on Pence’s “religious freedom”. No one, least of all Buttigieg, is preventing Pence from believing whatever he wants, from trying to convince others to agree with him, or from living his faith. [1]

But you know what prominent conservatives did next? They attacked Buttigieg’s Christian faith. Erick Erickson, for example, described progressive Christianity as “hypocritical farce”  and “corrupt and flawed”. The Episcopal Church that Buttigieg belongs to “is no longer a Christian institution“.

Buttigieg did not back down to Pence, saying:

I don’t have a problem with religion. I’m religious too. I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people. … I’m not interested in feuding with the Vice President. But if he wanted to clear this up, he could come out today and say that he’s changed his mind, that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are.

Some very old arguments. Buttigieg’s challenge brings up several longstanding theological issues that conservative Christians would prefer to sweep under the rug. Though different, they all revolve around the notion that (in spite of the purported changelessness of Christian doctrine) the image of God that was taught centuries ago is something most people just can’t believe in today. [2]

One of those issues is predestination, the idea that God’s omniscience included knowledge of the destiny of the souls He was creating. [3] From the beginning of time, a few souls were predestined for Heaven and the vast majority for Hell. This belief turns God into a monster, because He created most of humanity for no other purpose than to torture them for all eternity.

Current religious-right teachings about gender and sexuality contain echoes of this monstrosity. If LGBTQ people in their many varieties are not choosing a lifestyle, but in fact are discovering an inner nature that has been theirs from birth, and if that nature either damns them to eternal torment or permanently cuts them off from sex, children, and the kind of deep relationship that Buttigieg describes making with Chasten, then something very similar to predestination is happening. [4]

An even larger and older issue goes back to the reformulations of the Axial Age, which never quite completed its mission: Is religion fundamentally about a list of rules and the rewards and punishments that enforce those rules? Or is it about becoming (in Buttigieg’s words) “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent”. If it is about rules, do those rules have to make sense, or is their very arbitrariness a measure of God’s majesty? [5] In the Christian tradition, this issue is the heart of the New Testament arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees. But the modern religious right has forgotten Jesus and taken the Pharisee side: The rules are the rules, and if we have to be cruel to enforce them, that’s just how it is.

And finally, there is the issue that religion itself can become a kind of idol: Rather than worshiping God, you can find yourself worshiping a scripture or a church or a set or rituals.

It’s not surprising that the religious right doesn’t want to talk about any of this.

We’re not supposed to challenge them. Conservative Christians have gotten used to being able to define the playing field. When they involve themselves in political discussions, we are all supposed to accept as given that they are good, decent people who are just trying to live according to their faith. We are supposed to accept the moral and theological premises they offer, and yield to them all the powerful vocabulary and imagery of Christianity.

But they don’t deserve that kind of consideration. They are offering us a God who is monstrous, and a religion that justifies discrimination and bigotry. They need to be called on that, not just because it’s bad law and bad politics, but because it’s bad religion.

I’m still waiting for a detailed set of policies from Buttigieg, and who knows whether I’ll like it when I see it. But this part of the message he’s gotten right.

[1] I won’t go into this in detail today, because I already have here and here. What masquerades as “religious freedom” for conservative Christians is actually a demand for special rights. They want a special exemption from discrimination laws, because they’re Christians. As the cartoon below demonstrates, it’s laughable to imagine the rights that conservative Christians claim being applied generally, to issues other than their hobby horses of homosexuality, abortion, or birth control.

[2] I mean can’t in a literal sense. If you can picture such a being at all, you will feel revulsion, not awe or wonder. If this is God, then maybe Lucifer was right to rebel.

[3] I’m describing God as “He” here, because in the theologies I’m describing, God is male. That’s not something I do when I describe my own beliefs.

[4] In contrast to Buttigieg’s coming closer to God, Chris Steadman describes (in the book Faitheist) going through a period of rage at a God who created him gay and then condemned gays to Hell.

In Evolving in Monkey Town Rachel Held Evans, whose path of spiritual growth has taken her out of Evangelicalism and into the Episcopal religion that Erickson finds so objectionable, recounts one of the first cracks in her childhood faith: Going on a mission trip to China, looking out a bus window, and realizing that a billion people out there were going to Hell. What kind of God would set the world up like that?

[5] Occasionally you’ll hear the conundrum expressed like this: Do we worship God because He is good, or because He is God? In an earlier era, this question made sense, but today we are more inclined to ask: Why would we worship a God who is not good?

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  • Chris  On April 15, 2019 at 11:30 am

    ” In the Christian tradition, this issue is the heart of the New Testament arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees. But the modern religious right has forgotten Jesus and taken the Pharisee side: The rules are the rules, and if we have to be cruel to enforce them, that’s just how it is.”

    Well said! I often find myself wondering if religious conservatives have ever actually sat down and read the New Testament for themselves.

    Also, shout out to Lady Gaga!!!

  • Michael Wells  On April 15, 2019 at 11:51 am

    I hesitate to jump into this conversation about religion because the last time I did, I received an angry response. But here goes. For those of us who are non-believers, watching those who profess to be religious having a discussion about religion is a spectator sport. I find religion irrelevant except when it is used to justify hurting people. You gave away the game when you started your article by stating: “Liberals have been yielding the high ground on religion….” Why are we supposed to be fighting on this territory? Why not focus on the real and damaging effects from what some, like Pence want to impose rather than the theological justifications for it?
    Buttigieg is an impressive young man (emphasis on both adjectives). But I am not confident that taking on Pence on theological grounds is going to change the minds of any Trump evangelicals. Certainly Trump’s personal and public behavior hasn’t. We can “take on” the people who threaten or intimidate others without using religion.

    • Guest  On April 15, 2019 at 12:14 pm

      No anger here, Michael, just a disagreement on strategy.

      “We can take on the people who threaten or intimidate others without using religion.”

      Why not employ methods both with AND without using religion?

      “Why are we supposed to be fighting on this territory?”

      Fighting back against the evils of religion is an all-hands on deck situation, we need atheists and believers united on this front. Like it or not, religion is deeply tied to morality for large swaths of the population and it is a powerful space both personally and politically in America, so why cede that territory? Why shouldn’t a comprehensive response to the real and damaging effects you mention include a direct challenge to the logically and compassionately weak theology that still holds power for the religious right and thus America broadly?

    • weeklysift  On April 15, 2019 at 12:52 pm

      In Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar the Clown”, India catches herself thinking in religious terms, even though she’s not religious. She thinks: “Again with the religious imagery. New images urgently needed to be made. Images for a godless world. Until the language of irreligion caught up with the holy stuff, until there was a sufficient poetry and iconography of godlessness, these sainted echoes would never fade, would retain their problematic power, even over her.”

      The power is there, and not just for the Evangelicals in Trump’s base. Refusing to contest that ground is like refusing to run campaign ads in Spanish. You can do that, but a lot of people will either not hear you, or will hear you speaking in their second language.

  • Guest  On April 15, 2019 at 11:56 am

    Thanks for another great entry, Doug. The intersection of US politics and Christianity is a Sift strength and it shows here.

    I do think you are selling the Pence/Ericksons of the world short when you say that logical, moral challenges like Buttigieg’s are not attacks on their faith but merely on their interpretation of it. The fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible IS the faith in a meaningful sense for a lot of evangelical types.

    Easy agree on not ceding the religious moral high-ground. It’s something the left has has success with in the past (MLK) and a move that makes sense now that left has won and/or is building momentum on a number of Culture War items (marriage equality, medicinal/recreational drugs, Me Too, etc). Counter-culture seemed to have a decidedly left tilt until the Obama era, when we seemed to have started “switching cards” to an extent. Being part of an emerging moral majority, religious moral high-ground is a space that needs to be occupied. Good on Pete for making the stand.

  • LT  On April 15, 2019 at 1:26 pm

    The religious hate and bigotry of “Mayor Pete” should be rejected by all people immediately and vocally. How is it that a person attempting to run for president can be openly bigoted and attack another person’s faith and try to make it a virtual test for office? And how can you defend this? It doesn’t take much thought to see through Buttigieg’s position and it takes even less thought to see through this article.

    It’s a shame that stuff like this is still believed in this modern age. This is the stuff of the prescientific dark ages.

    • Kaci  On April 15, 2019 at 1:41 pm

      I’m really not clear on where you’re getting the idea that Buttigieg is bigoted.

    • Bill  On April 15, 2019 at 1:59 pm

      LT..can’t make heads or tails of your comments. More detail desperately needed!

    • weeklysift  On April 15, 2019 at 6:15 pm

      I’ve run into this attitude before, and didn’t understand it then either. Several years ago, I wrote a piece about my mother’s funeral. I wrote what I thought was a sad and yearning essay, full of longing for the comforting visions I just can’t believe in. One of the commenters described it as full of “hate and anger”. I never did figure out what they meant.

      • HAT  On April 15, 2019 at 6:49 pm

        LT may be a robot, programmed to give a pre-recorded response to certain constellations of key words. I’m not saying “is,” just that it’s a possibility to consider.

    • Guest  On April 17, 2019 at 4:06 pm

      Thanks for linking the funeral piece, Doug, I hadn’t seen it before. As far as not being able to figure out the “hate and anger” comments, if it’s not clearly in the essay then you have to suspect projection, right? Flip around, say, LT’s comments above, and projection starts making sense. We’ve never had an (openly) LGBT+ president, is there a unspoken virtual test for high office at play? Christianity is rooted as an Iron Age apocalyptic belief system – is it that system or those grounded in Enlightenment principles that are a shame to be held in this modern age and better suited to pre-scientific dark ages?

      What greater hatred than allowing humans to suffer eternal damnation? What greater bigotry than singling out an entire demographic for unending torture based on a biological trait?

      Assuming LT is not a troll, I feel for them. To be trapped in an ideology that has hate and bigotry so close to the surface that you see it wherever you look must be exhausting, physically and spiritually. Breaking free is tough, but once you’re on the other side you’ll be kicking yourself for not doing it earlier. I wish you all the best, LT.

  • James  On April 15, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    I wonder whether Pence, et al, would accept the premise that God made someone gay. It might follow from the notion of predestination, but I don’t know if Pence would be that logical. Seems more likely they would argue that a person is born to procreate in the natural fashion, then convinces themselves that God has ordained their abhorrent sexuality. Not my personal view, just imagining the counter-argument.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On April 15, 2019 at 7:36 pm

      Central to the ideology of people like Pence is the notion that sexual orientation is a choice, like smoking cigarettes or swearing. And if you challenge them on this, they’ll trot out some sad sack who claims Jesus “healed” him of his homosexuality, yada yada. Fear and hatred of LGBT is one of the core principles of the culture wars, along with opposition to abortion and “feminism,” so Pence is no more capable of admitting that homosexuality is an inherent characteristic than he is capable of admitting that the God he worships is a self-contradictory, incoherent mess.

      Buttigieg isn’t going to reach people who are like that, and it doesn’t really matter, because most of them wouldn’t vote for him even if he wasn’t gay.

      • Kaci  On April 15, 2019 at 9:15 pm

        Over the years I’ve come to realize that I don’t actually care if sexual orientation is a choice. If someone chooses to be gay or to have consensual sex with people of the same gender, that’s fine with me. I realize the evidence seems to point to it not being a choice, but if it turned out that it was, that wouldn’t actually change my views on civil rights for people of all orientations.

      • weeklysift  On April 17, 2019 at 9:39 am

        This gets back to the question of whether God’s edicts need to make sense. What we are seeing in liberal societies all over the world now is that there is no reason to care whether or not people are gay. All the energy we used to put into discriminating against them was just wasted.

      • Guest  On April 17, 2019 at 3:44 pm

        Hi again, George. Doug may have linked these years ago, but I think you and Kaci would get a kick out of the “When did you choose to be straight?” videos on YouTube. A simple, effective, and entertaining way to short-circuit the “it’s 100% a choice” ideology.

  • Kim Cooper  On April 16, 2019 at 6:43 pm

    There are actually a large number of Americans who are liberal Christians. It will probably be refreshing for them to hear the liberal Christian position at least acknowledged in public for a change. I don’t know whether it will entice any of them to vote if they wouldn’t have before. but a lot of Americans don’t know the Christian Left even exists, and they should. (There’s a FaceBook group called The Christian Left.)

  • Joyce Carlson  On April 16, 2019 at 8:55 pm

    Sure wish you all would read Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” –again. Or at least read this https://reason.com/2012/04/10/born-this-way

    • Kaci  On April 17, 2019 at 6:23 am

      What is it you’re hoping we’ll take from this article. I’ve read it but am not sure what specifically you’re getting at.

      • Joyce Carlson  On April 17, 2019 at 3:47 pm

        Thank you for asking. I’d really like you all to help me put all my messy thoughts together here. I’m thinking like I read somewhere that religions are just self-righteous moral tribes and with all that goes along with tribalism. And that would include UUs. Just like we believe that Buttigieg was born gay, evolutionary psychologists are telling us that people with conservative moral “tendencies” were born that way–they evolved that way and cannot be “cured” or “reasoned” out of it (neuroscientists would tell us that that trait is in their subconscious brain which is controls their behavior and that their reasoning/rational mind only justifies that behavior.) I’m not sure that we believe that “they” aren’t born with blank slates for brains that we can write our “reason” upon. I don’t think there’s any body more self-righteous than and UU. There is even quite an article about it on the UU website. I’ve been trying to absorb Jonathan Haidt’s work, some of David Eagleman’s work and series “The Brain” and plan to read Joshua Green’s “Moral Tribes” and get it all together, but I think I’m too old (among other issues.) And Frans deWaal’s stuff too! I’m not convinced the Doug’s article here shows a comprehesion of this stuff (Haidt says morality binds and blinds) but at the same time I’ve read enough of Doug’s writings through the years to realize that he’s way ahead of me on everything! So it just must be me.

        So BTW Doug–have you written anything that would clarify any or all of this kind of thing on morals to me? Am I the only one that doesn’t get it?

      • Kaci  On April 17, 2019 at 3:53 pm

        Hmm…as I said above, I don’t much care if homosexuality is a choice. If it’s consensual, it’s not hurting anyone and isn’t my business. My problem with a lot of conservatives isn’t necessarily the traits described in the article as much as the policies that do harm. In some ways, I think my brain might be wired towards being conservative even though I’m politically very liberal – I like stability and structure and order and don’t like unexpected changes. I score relatively low on openess to experience and am not particularly novelty-seeking.

      • weeklysift  On April 19, 2019 at 7:23 am

        My review of Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” is here.

        Haidt’s model doesn’t make me as forgiving of conservatives as Joyce Carlson, because while there may be inborn tendencies, there are no inborn conclusions. My basic wiring may make me want to resist scientists’ models of climate change, worry about immigrants corrupting my community, feel sick when I see two men kissing, and want to believe that the leader of my party is telling the truth. But at some point, inborn tendencies have to meet facts.

        Maturity means that at some point you have to believe things you don’t want to believe, because they’re true; and recognize that if you just get over some of your feelings of suspicion or disgust, nothing bad happens.

      • Joyce Carlson  On April 22, 2019 at 12:15 pm

        Still haven’t read your review of “The Righteous Mind” Doug, but I have read that neuroscientists are telling us that the subconscious mind rules our behavior and the “rational” mind is a servant to the subconscious mind–mostly/usually just justifies/rationalizes the decision that the subconscious made “without” us. Buddha got this right too!

      • Joyce Carlson  On April 22, 2019 at 12:32 pm

        Terrific review Doug, but somehow you don’t get that folks just can’t “believe things they don’t want to believe” or “just get over their feelings”. I’m fixing to read Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” for some ideas on how a person can change their mind. I think it’s hard to change our minds because we’re so self-righteous–a bunch of hypocrites!

      • Joyce Carlson  On April 22, 2019 at 12:35 pm

        I’ve done a lot of meditating since I’ve been on chemotherapy for 6 months and I think that has helped me see from my self-righteous progressive moral tribe perspective a little bit.

  • Joyce Carlson  On April 16, 2019 at 8:56 pm

    https://reason.com/2012/04/10/born-this-way Born This Way!

  • Joyce Carlson  On April 16, 2019 at 10:55 pm

    “God” made him gay just like he made Conservatives have Conservative Morals. They were born that way! Innate traits.

  • Kelly Schoenhofen  On April 20, 2019 at 10:03 am

    “In the Christian tradition, this issue is the heart of the New Testament arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees. But the modern religious right has forgotten Jesus and taken the Pharisee side: The rules are the rules, and if we have to be cruel to enforce them, that’s just how it is.”

    Doug, could you expound on that in a future writing, or if you already have, link to something you’ve already written?

    • weeklysift  On April 22, 2019 at 6:56 am

      I probably should say more about that at some point. It’s a theme that shows up here once in a while, but never as a complete essay. It’s also just a little too narrowly political for my religious blog.

    • Joyce Carlson  On April 22, 2019 at 12:08 pm

      Hoping here that someone has a copy of Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis : Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom”. I’m sick and not up to rephrasing, but beginning on page 75 he talks of how moral idealism is one of the 2 biggest causes of evil. Idealism leads to the belief that the end justifies the means. You gotta get this book.


  • By Renewal | The Weekly Sift on April 15, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    […] week’s featured post is “Buttigieg vs. Pence“. You also might want to look at the church service the quote above is from. I’ve never […]

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