Evangelical Christians have long seen themselves as the standard-bearers for faith and family values in American politics. Buttigieg, a gay Christian, is directly challenging that, driving some evangelical leaders to try to paint his faith as an inauthentic expression of Christianity.
Franklin Graham, son of the famed evangelist Billy Graham and a supporter of President Donald Trump, criticized the faith of the South Bend, Indiana, mayor ― and progressive Christianity as a whole ― on Twitter and Facebook Thursday.
“We don’t define sin, God does in His Word,” tweeted Graham, who has long maintained that queer love is a sin. “Using new terms like ‘Progressive Christianity’ & ‘Christian Left’ may sound appealing, but God’s laws don’t change. I believe what the Bible says is truth.”
Graham was responding to Buttigieg’s criticism of Vice President Mike Pence, a former governor of Indiana, earlier this week. Buttigieg had said Sunday that “the Mike Pences of the world” should realize that “if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
Pence characterized Buttigieg’s comments as an attack on his faith. The vice president told CNN on Friday that he is a “Bible-believing Christian” who draws his truth “from God’s word.”
Buttigieg fired back by saying that he’s not critical of Pence’s faith but is concerned about his anti-LGBTQ policies.
“I don’t have a problem with religion. I’m religious, too,” Buttigieg said on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Friday. “I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people.”
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and an evangelical adviser to Trump, argued on Todd Starnes’ radio show that some liberals are serving a “God of their imagination.” The conservative columnist himself wrote that Buttigieg “wants to shove Evangelical Christians into the closet.”
Conservative evangelical writer Erick Erickson has been tweeting and blogging about Buttigieg’s faith this week, contending that the mayor “does not understand the roots of Christianity” and wants to reject parts of Christian teaching that “might make his life a bit uncomfortable.” Erickson also said that progressive Christianity is a “hypocritical farce.” He denigrated the Episcopal Church, the denomination that Buttigieg belongs to, claiming that it is “no longer a Christian institution.”
In recent years, the Episcopal Church, along with a number of other mainline Protestant denominations, has adopted affirming stances toward LGBTQ Christians, ordained LGBTQ clergy and allowed priests to perform same-sex marriages. Eleven U.S. presidents have been Episcopalian.
Erickson wrote that his major problems with Buttigieg are the mayor’s positions on abortion and the right of businesses to refuse service to queer customers. It’s fine for Christians to vote for gay people, Erickson stated, “just as they can vote for someone who is three-times divorced and cheats on his wives with porn stars.”
“Christians should go with the moral person, but in the absence of that moral person, I do not think they have to abandon politics when one of two candidates takes positions that support life and allows Christians to live their faith publicly and the other is openly hostile to the faith of orthodox, Bible believing Christians,” he wrote on Tuesday.
However, some equally devout Christians reading the same Bible have come to radically different conclusions about what orthodox Christianity demands.
For years, the loudest and most politically influential Christian voices in the U.S. have come from the religious right. The Moral Majority movement of the 1980s cemented conservative Christians’ ties to the Republican Party. Today, Trump receives counseling and advice from an unofficial cadre of evangelical Christian leaders and has repeatedly pledged that he will prioritize those leaders’ political goals.
But more and more progressive, left-leaning Christian voices are now speaking up, too. These leaders, informally known as the religious left, see their movement as rooted in the abolitionist efforts of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Progressive Christians have used the Bible as inspiration for activism that is intersectional, interfaith and protective of the rights of women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community and people of color.
And unlike the majority of white evangelical Protestants, these Christians have been highly critical of the Trump administration’s conservative agenda.
Buttigieg’s take on faith puts him firmly on the religious left. A devoted Christian, he has no difficulty citing Bible verses and talking about how his faith informs his political views. He cites progressive Christian leaders, such as civil rights activist Rev. William Barber, as his spiritual role models.
Jim Wallis, a progressive Christian and founder of the magazine Sojourners, told HuffPost that he believes the religious right is “terrified” of the conversations that Buttigieg’s comments are launching.
“They are afraid the new conversation about faith and politics, sparked by Mayor Pete Buttigieg, will get people looking and talking about the things Jesus said and did, and called us to,” Wallis wrote in an email.
Wallis said that for him, being a Christian means taking care of the poor, immigrants and other marginalized communities. He cited Matthew 25, a chapter of the Bible in which Jesus preaches about how those who care for the hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, sick and vulnerable will be welcomed into heaven. (Buttigieg has said that’s one of his favorite biblical passages.)
“That is a very dangerous conversation to let happen when you are a totally uncritical supporter of Donald Trump, a man whose life, behavior, morality, words, and policies are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Wallis said.
Buttigieg is also challenging the Democratic Party to talk seriously and respectfully about faith, according to Wallis.
“The religious right and some on the secular left have one thing in common,” Wallis said. “They want Americans to believe that all religion in this country is right-wing politically.”
But it’s not, as the mayor from South Bend is reminding his fellow Americans.