Buttigieg talks with ‘Rolling Stone’ about faith, the religious left, and what the Mike Pences of the world get wrong
by Alex Morris – Nov 19, 2019 (RollingStone.com, abridged)
Rolling Stone: Did you grow up in the church?
Pete Buttigieg: I really didn’t. My father had been a Jesuit seminarian, and by some process I don’t completely understand that involved some years spent in France in the Sixties, wound up as a secular intellectual.
My mother is religious, but a little bit skeptical of organized
religion and churches, although she’s started coming to the church that I
attend sometimes in South Bend. And I grew up going to Catholic school,
so I was always more comfortable with Catholic liturgy than I was
Catholic theology, and it took me a while to discover that there was a
place for me in the Episcopal faith, which is liturgically conservative
and theologically a little more open. And that’s where I realized that I
What are your thoughts on the role that faith should play in politics?
Well, of course, a very important American principle is that when you’re
in the public role or making a policy, it has to be done in a way that
serves people of any religion and people with no religion equally. But I
think that that doesn’t have to exclude religious reasoning or
religious ethics from being part of how we form our own conscience and
even what we bring into public life.
I think the most important thing is that we be transparent about our
motivations. And I also think it’s fair game to appeal to others
according to their religious values, even if they’re different. You
never want to trick somebody about where you’re coming from, but I can
say, “Here’s my religious convictions. I know yours are different, but
based on my reading of my own faith, here’s why I think this is
important,” or, “Based on what I understand of yours, here’s why you
might want to consider this idea.”
Being a Christian myself, I feel like I come to Christianity
with a little bit of the reverse of Pascal’s wager, where I’m like, if
I’m wrong about Christianity, I don’t want to have made decisions based
on my faith that hurt other people.
Yeah, it’s a smart way to think about it. I mean, part of it maybe has
to do with if your faith has a lot to do with doubt, which I think is
very rich in the Christian tradition. Obviously not everybody sees it
that way, yet Scripture is full of things that I think touch our sense
of doubt and call us to that kind of humility. I never thought about it
that way, but I like that reasoning.
You can borrow it.
But [on the other hand], what about this charge that
progressive Christians get of being cafeteria Christians, of picking and
choosing the issues, disregarding what the Bible — and you and I may
have different interpretations here — but what the Bible could be
interpreted to say about a woman’s right to choose or marriage equality
or these major hot-button issues of the religious right?
I think for a lot of us — certainly for me — any encounter with
Scripture includes some process of sorting out what connects you with
the God versus what simply tells you about the morals of the times when
it was written, right? For example, the proposition that you should
execute your sister by stoning if she commits adultery. I don’t believe
that that was right once upon a time, and then the New Testament came
and it was gone. I believe it was always wrong, but it was considered
right once, and that found its way into Scripture.
And to me that’s not so much cherry-picking as just being serious,
because of course there’s so many things in Scripture that are
inconsistent internally, and you’ve got to decide what sense to make of
it. Jesus speaks so often in hyperbole and parable, in mysterious code,
that in my experience, there’s simply no way that a literal
understanding of Scripture can fit into the Bible that I find in my
Now, I actually think that if you look at an issue like choice,
there’s so many parts of the Bible that associate the beginning of life
with breath that there’s plenty of scriptural basis to reach different
conclusions about that. But only if you believe that the government must
legislate these metaphysical questions does the debate about choice
have to be about the government deciding where life begins.
I think the rest of us believe that, no matter what you think on
where life begins, the question is who gets to decide how to handle this
situation. And that’s how we accommodate a bunch of differently formed
consciences at once. It’s the framework of Roe v. Wade, and
that’s why there’s a strong American majority for choice, even while
there’s very different opinions about deep questions around life.
What do you think about this idea that Trump has been a
stumbling block to people who might potentially be interested in
Christianity? They see the way that most the vocal members of the
Christian faith have aligned themselves with Trump and the hypocrisy
there, and it turns them away from religion?
I think it does
run the risk of generationally harming the credibility of Christianity
in our country, because if people who are avowedly Christian can get
themselves into bed with a president like this, it raises the question
of what ethical content at all Christianity even has. And it’s not so
much Trump himself. I think there’s an extent to which he’s always
winking when he pretends to have any religious conviction whatsoever,
and the only question is who’s in on the joke. But it’s certainly an
issue when you think about the Mike Pences and Falwells of the world.
What about this idea that Trump is a King Cyrus, that he may
not be a good guy, but he’s fighting the good fight, and he’s carving
out these freedoms for persecuted Christians?
Well, first of all, King Cyrus wasn’t leading the Jews. He was leading
the Persians. It is kind of an important twist there. But, yeah, I think
the bigger issue is, what about integrity? What about the idea that
when you support somebody as a moral as well as a political leader,
they’re supposed to be good? I’ll give them this, it’s creative, the
whole King Cyrus thing.
Well, that brings us back to the Pences and Falwells of the
world. What about [the allegiance of] these people who are, for some,
religious leaders and moral leaders?
I think their
legitimacy, such as it ever was, is going to collapse as a result of
this alliance that they’ve made. And I always think about it on two
levels. There’s the fact that I don’t have the same interpretation as
they do about Christian ethics. As Reverend Barber says, “They seem to
think and talk so much about what Christ says so little about, and so
little about what he says so much about,” right?
I mean, to me, obviously as a progressive, it has more to do with the
stranger and weakest among us and the poor and so on. But the shocking
thing is that they have betrayed not only my understanding, but as
recently as when I was growing up in the Clinton years, they seemed to
think that it was important that a president be a moral leader and
subscribe to certain concepts of family and decency and rectitude. And
it turns out that when power comes into the equation, they don’t care so
One of the themes that keeps coming up when I talk to people
is this belief that the End Times are coming soon. And it’s almost like
it ends the conversation if someone is saying, “Well, the environment
doesn’t really matter. We shouldn’t be trying to have peace in the
Middle East, we should be trying to expand the borders of Israel,
because all of these things are going to usher in the Second Coming.”
From your perspective, do you see that sort of belief system playing out
Well, there must be something unconvincing
about it, or else more people in politics who were subscribing to that
would actually say so. But I do think it lurks certainly beneath the
surface of a lot of voters in adherence to this look at the world. But
to me, so much of Christian tradition centers itself around what we are
supposed to do in this world, that it matters what kind of world we’re
creating. I just think it’s a cop-out to suppose that we should allow
there to be suffering in the name of that kind of eschatology.
But, I mean, this is where we also break down the true ability of
American politics to accommodate religious feeling. We’re supposed to
use whatever religious convictions we have to arrive at some overlapping
consensus that people could get on board with, whether they share our
view or not. And if it’s just apocalyptic, then obviously it’s not going
to work that way.
What can progressives do to wrest the branding that’s
happened of the Republican Party being the party of the Christian faith?
I mean, when I was growing up, I was told explicitly that if you don’t
vote Republican, you’re not Christian.
Yeah, I think there’s
a lot of conditioning we’ve got to overcome. I guess I would say that,
frankly, I think we’ll find salvation in Scripture itself, and in the
idea of human compassion too, because even if you have a different view
of Scripture than I do, we have the same, I think, understanding of what
And if you find that what you’re being told politically cuts against the idea of compassion, sooner or later that’s going to lead to a reckoning that just might invite people to reconsider their political commitments. It’s just that you have to invite people there rather than drag them there, and that can be the hard part, I think, for us on the left. But we all are, I think, really on the eve of a reckoning that could lead to something really good in this country.
[read in full at RollingStone.com]