The Buttigieg-Evangelical Pincer Move

I grew up in an evangelical world that constantly said that character™ mattered, especially for public officials. The character qualities in mind were always Christian and almost always about sexual activity. The world I inhabited also wrote off most Democratic politicians as lacking character™, either due to their stance on abortion, openness on sexual and cultural revolutions, or being theologically liberal or sterile. You needed to vote GOP, either because the Democrats were godless, or because the Republicans were faithful to God.

Then came 2012. Something odd happened in that election. See, it’s quite possible to be a Christian and hold repugnant political and ethical views, or have sinful blindspots in your life. Christianity is defined by its confession of Jesus as Lord, and faithfulness in following him. The diversity of the catholic church means that sometimes good Christians do not look or act like evangelicals, and sometimes that difference in action includes things that I believe are sinful. On the other hand, you can practice good morals that match many Christian virtues while simultaneously rejecting the historic Christian faith. And the two candidates for president fit these areas.

Barack Obama is a Christian who comes from a non-evangelical background. His position on abortion is something I find evil, but evil political positions do not on their own disqualify someone from being a Christian. Mitt Romney is a Mormon, decidedly not a Christian, though he holds many political positions that are very consistent with the Christian faith.

And I watched something fascinating unfold.

Now, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to vote for non-Christians if they would do a better job of running the country. Nor do I think someone is obligated to vote for a Christian if that politician’s political positions are horrid. But I had heard for decades that Christians needed to vote for other Christians for public office in order to support government leaders with the right kind of character™. I wrote something on another blog I once had where I said that Obama would one day be worshipping God before his throne alongside the rest of the church while Romney burned in hell. Christian voters, I argued, were caught between a Mormon and a hard place.

Many conservatives were unhappy with me. I was told that because Romney supported the right kind of policies he was a Christian (nevermind his actual religion) and Obama was probably a Muslim/atheist because he didn’t. People were trying to reconcile the pre-2012 belief that conservative Christians needed to vote for conservative Christians to the fact that there was no conservative Christian nominated for president. And conservative trumped Christian at the evangelical polls.

Again, I don’t think there is anything wrong with voting for non-Christians. But what was fascinating was the forcing of the 2012 election into a framework for a reality that was unavailable. “I need to vote for the right kind of policies, and I hold these policies so dear, that the people who support them are the right kind of people at basic level, and those who don’t are not.” Politics has become the new area of fundamental importance for Christians, not their faith.

Then of course 2016 came along. Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, the serial adulterer, the porn star president, the man who brags about the sort of sexual action that would have ended any career on grounds of character™ back before 2012. The reasons why were not new because they were the same as the reasons why evangelicals voted for Romney in 2012: he had the right policies, he was actually a Christian!, his opponent has the wrong policies and really lacks character™ (ignore that she stayed faithful to her adulterous husband and once taught Sunday School). But what was different from previous elections was the number of voters who acknowledged that Trump wasn’t a very good person, but that things were so bad that the country needed someone strong enough to protect Christians from the godless progressivism coming for us all.

My interest is not in evaluating whether people were right or wrong in voting for Trump or Hillary Clinton. My interest is in how this affected the church. My generation grew up constantly hearing that character™ mattered to the church, and the church went all in on it. But when the chips were down the church (at least appeared) to vote for Trump. There could be good reasons to vote for him apart from his character, but that principle was not was preached to us for decades. Character™ was. With the central place politics plays in the American psyche, is it any wonder than now people with no religion (mostly under 35) now outnumber Catholics and Evangelicals? Evangelical credibility has been massively harmed by Trump, not necessarily because evangelicals voted for him, but because they voted for him after decades of preaching that someone like him was not fit for president under any circumstance.

And Pete Buttigieg is going to finish the job of ending evangelical credibility. The 2020 Democratic candidate for president is the openly gay and married mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He is a millennial, a Harvard graduate, a combat veteran, and a faithful Episcopalian. He is being hailed as a transformational candidate and is already using his faith in a way that seems genuine to criticize the Trump administration. How will Buttigieg destroy evangelical credibility?

While evangelicals could suspect that Clinton really didn’t have the right kind of character™, no such opportunity exists in a Buttigieg-Trump match up. Trump-supporting evangelicals will find themselves with a few tempting options that reveal how Buttigieg’s nomination would finish off evangelical credibility:

  • Criticize Buttigieg for being gay and refuse to vote for him on those grounds. This, of course, would appear hypocritical since Trump’s sexual immorality is egregious. It would come off a double-standard: the monogamous, faithful, married gay man is too sinful, but the multiple-divorced, philandering, foul-mouthed Republican is fine. No one would take claims of evangelical morality seriously again.
  • Embrace Buttigieg and praise his expression of homosexuality. This would be an overcorrection driven by the vulgarity of Trump and the blandness of Buttigieg. “He is loving and stable; how can this be wrong? This is love and we support it!” And evangelical claims of transcendent and uncompromising truth would be torpedoed.
  • Admit that Trump has lived a despicable life and that Buttigieg is nice, but personal character doesn’t really matter, only your actual governance does. I don’t think this will happen, but if it does, it will come off as opportunistic. Character™ will appear valuable when it’s advantageous, but when the GOP candidate lacks integrity it no longer matters. That, or the pre-2012 era of preaching the importance of public character™ will undermine the credibility of the preachers and I don’t see evangelicals apologizing for denouncing Bill Clinton’s affairs anytime soon.

So what’s to be done? If Buttigieg doesn’t get the Democratic nomination this scenario can be avoided for a few more years. But the problem lies in how much evangelicals identify their faith with their politics. Evangelicals need to repent, not necessarily for who they supported, but for making politics an idol. Christian energy needs to be refocused into the life of the church, and there needs to be a cessation of their identity being tied up with their preferred political party. Vote if you will, but don’t make it an issue of heaven and hell, life and death. If character really is valued by you as a voter, vote for the candidate with personal integrity, and don’t define integrity by its alignment with your policy positions.