Why Democratic candidates like Buttigieg keep failing to usher in the “Christian left”

Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to the media after meeting with the Rev. Al Sharpton on April 29, 2019, in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
First-person essays and interviews with unique perspectives on complicated issues.

For some Democratic voters, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg ticks all the boxes for the kind of progressive who could unite our divided nation: He’s young, educated, gay, and a former member of the military, and has experience in both the private and public sector.

He also speaks openly about his Christian faith. While noting his commitment to the separation of church and state, Buttigieg has said progressives and Democrats “need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”

Having a progressive presidential candidate place their faith so squarely at the fore offers many liberal and Democrat-voting Christians the opportunity to more openly embrace their beliefs and progressive politics. It saves them from the embarrassment that such a significant number of white Christians voted for Donald Trump’s presidency. It also allows them to use their faith to highlight the hypocrisy of the religious right.

Buttigieg invoked these ideas in a Washington Post interview:

I do think it’s strange, though, knowing that no matter where you are politically, the gospel is so much about inclusion and decency and humility and care for the least among us, that a wealthy, powerful, chest-thumping, self-oriented, philandering figure like this can have any credibility at all among religious people.

The early attention Buttigieg has garnered has pundits and analysts wondering if we’re witnessing a rise in the “religious left,” a religiously motivated political bloc analogous to the religious right.

Does Buttigieg’s candidacy signal that progressive Christians are forming a political coalition capable of wielding power like their conservative counterparts? If so, it’d be the reversal of a two-decade-long trend.

A recent Gallup poll documenting the overall decline in US church membership over the past 20 years reveals that membership among Democrats dropped sharply from 71 percent to 48 percent, while among Republicans it only declined from 77 percent to 69 percent. Perhaps a candidate like Buttigieg could reinvigorate Christian Democrats. As a Baptist pastor who considers myself a religious leftist, I’m fascinated by this possibility. But I have my doubts.

In fact, thus far in Buttigieg’s campaign, I’m having a hard time determining what actually constitute his religious beliefs, in much the same way that I struggle to understand his stances on issues like health care, student debt, or income inequality. On both, he provides just enough by way of vague platitudes to find something to agree with, but few details on what he actually wants to implement.

Last week, Buttigieg finally unveiled a more fully fleshed-out issues page with a slate of policy recommendations that help clarify his views. Some, like a Medicare buy-in as a way toward universal coverage, are concrete suggestions, but much of it remains frustratingly hazy. One policy description simply states “confront student debt.”

Similarly, regarding religion, he told the Post, “I think there’s an opportunity hopefully for religion to be not so much used as a cudgel but invoked as a way of calling us to higher values.” He also said that “the gospel is so much about inclusion and decency and humility and care for the least among us.” What Buttigieg often says about his religious convictions certainly sounds true, but it also leaves a good deal to the imagination as to what those convictions look like when translated into action. I definitely have a hard time imagining them exciting left-leaning Christians or pulling others from the right to a more progressive political agenda.

What worries me is the way Buttigieg’s brand of Christian leftism plays into the hands of the religious right. For decades, their pastors, theologians, and politicians have preached and organized around a theology that connects the everyday, moral struggles of millions of believers with a larger political struggle — one that proclaims that God wants to transform and save not only their souls but the soul of a nation.

The language of spiritual and moral strife animates the religious right

I recently attended a local Southern Baptist megachurch worship service one Sunday morning. Knowing the overwhelming support for Trump among white evangelicals, those on the outside might expect patriotism and right-wing political propaganda to saturate the morning’s sermon.

Instead, I was surprised at how so much of the messaging dealt with personal and moral struggle and emotions like anger, guilt, desire, jealousy, worry, and sadness. The pastor handled these not merely as slight personal defects, but as the real ways that people experience suffering and destruction in their lives. He wanted people to think about how to live as a better person, partner, friend, and worker and told them that God gave them the power to do it. He used a language of moral striving and struggle that I rarely hear in more theologically and politically liberal churches.

The pastor I heard that morning was J.D. Greear, the recently elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, their youngest in 40 years. Knowing that so many white evangelicals voted for Trump, I looked up what he had to say prior to the 2016 election.

In two blog posts, Greear carefully avoids explicit partisanship, instead claiming Christians have a moral duty to vote and that particular issues ought to inform who they vote for: abortion, religious liberty, individual responsibility, and recognition of marriage as between a man and a woman, to name a few. While he says neither party has a lock on these policy positions, he makes specific mention of ways Democrats have sought to undermine many of them; his criticism of Donald Trump rests primarily on his character. I didn’t have a hard time seeing which critique white evangelicals prioritized when they voted in 2016.

One need not agree with their particular moral framework or vision (I certainly do not) to appreciate the force of their message: one of individuals and the larger nation striving for moral redemption. That’s a compelling narrative that often goes unnoticed by Christians of the left. It’s not a holy war battle but a collective struggle to be better according to a particular moral framework.

Buttigieg is correct when he says religion gives us higher ideal values that we might attain, but he seems to have no grasp that the acquisition of values entails struggle against the forces, institutions, and people that threaten to impede their acquisition. The religious right understands this. His lack of clarity around policy leaves Christians with little understanding of how a political movement matters to the transformation of their lives. It’s this language of struggle for power, both individual and collective, that anything worthy of the “religious left” moniker will have to adopt if it’s to gain a foothold in people’s lives.

Progressive Christians have taken a stand before

Several articles about Buttigieg’s religious left bona fides have made mention of his affinity to the “Social Gospel,” with Temple University professor David Maslin making the connection explicit by claiming Buttigieg is bringing values from this early-20th-century movement into the early 21st. The Social Gospel was a theological viewpoint that developed during the Gilded Age — amid the drastic inequality of the early 1900s, ministers had to find a way to speak to the working people of their congregation.

In his book Union Made, historian Heath Carter tells the story of the Social Gospel’s development in Chicago at the height of the conflicts between working people and their capitalist bosses. With both sides regularly clashing, Chicago ministers found themselves in a difficult spot: how to walk the delicate balance between the owners and captains of industry that financed their churches, and the working people they hoped to reach. Each group wanted to know what side the ministers stood on.

Many ministers sided with the owners, resulting in the loss of workers in their pews. Those workers did not, however, leave the religion for good, but instead joined other churches where they could work out the ways that their faith empowered collective movement against their bosses. Theologians at the time, like the Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch, then gave a theological understanding to the ongoing struggles of these working Christians against the Gilded Age robber barons. That perspective became known as the Social Gospel.

In his now-classic text Christianity and the Social Crisis, Rauschenbusch identifies the roots of the crisis as the clash between two distinct social strata, a working class and an owning class. Inequality between those two classes poses an imminent threat to democracy and equality. The wealthy class attempts to use their unequal power to shape legislation to further their own interests; the working class can only struggle together to overcome them. He writes, “These are two distinct classes, and no rhetoric can make them equal.” For Rauschenbusch and others in the Social Gospel movement, the problem of inequality animates a struggle, informed by their faith, for equality.

Which side are you on?

Buttigieg seems to recognize this incompatibility between the antagonisms of capitalism and a more cooperative spirit of Christianity. In an interview with Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, he said, “there’s tension between capitalism and democracy, and negotiating that tension is probably the biggest challenge for America right now.”

However, unlike the Chicago workers and Rauchenbusch, Buttigieg’s religion compels him only to identify a tension, not an incompatibility, and to say that a healthy capitalism remains possible so long as it’s one that operates within the rule of law. For Buttigieg, the antagonisms of class need to be not overcome through struggle, but contained and managed by sound leadership.

Buttigieg has said that his Christian faith encourages a “skepticism of the wealthy and the powerful and the established.” But one might rightly suspect the strength of his commitment to that skepticism. Based on a recent Vox report, it wasn’t nearly strong enough to keep him from bouncing around to a number of fundraisers hosted by wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. It wasn’t strong enough to prevent him from ushering in gentrification in South Bend in the name of “revitalization.”

Buttigieg’s invocation of his faith might enliven a small number of progressive Christians in the party, but his politics remains standard fare for Democratic politicians courting the whims of the wealthy while attempting to appeal to the masses’ religious values. His political religious vision elides struggle and, in turn, victory.

When I look at my congregation, I see families struggling not just with their devotion to God but devotion to paying their bills. I see older people on the brink of economic collapse because of rising health care costs. I see teachers going on strike to earn a raise. They each, in their own ways, live as victims of a capitalist system.

They don’t want to talk about values so much as they want to know that their religion has something to say about the struggle for health care, housing, a good wage, and a little more control over their lives. More often than not, they know what class they are a part of and who benefits from their misery, and they can tell which side a politician falls on no matter what their religious rhetoric says.

In 1910, during the clashes between working people and their bosses, Rev. Austin Hunter made this observation about the decline in church attendance: “The reason why workingmen are not found in larger numbers in the church is not due to the coldness of the church, nor to the dress parade, but primarily to the fact that the church has more often been on the side of capital than upon the side of labor.” Roughly a century later, with inequality higher than it’s been since Hunter’s words, his statement feels particularly pertinent for Christians, pastors, and politicians.

If there is to be a religious left, it will not be founded by answering the question, “Are you skeptical of the rich?” But: “Which side are you on?”

John Thornton Jr. is a Baptist pastor living in Durham, North Carolina.

First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

Back to top ↑