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Mike Pence, Pete Buttigieg and God
Michael Wear, the former director of Barack Obama's 2012 faith-outreach efforts, on the two Hoosier politicians' competing views of faith and politics.
Indiana’s two most high-profile politicians—Vice President Mike Pence and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg—have tangled on a number of issues in recent months.
Each Hoosier took star turns at their party’s respective conventions. On the day of Pence's speech at the Republican National Convention, Buttigieg authored a fundraising email for the Biden campaign. (Subject line: re: Mike Pence.) “As a Hoosier myself, born and raised here in Indiana, I’m no stranger to Vice President Pence’s divisive, anti-LGBTQ politics, and I’ve certainly never hesitated to stand up to his agenda of imposing an archaic worldview, stripping countless Americans—including me—of their rights,” Buttigieg wrote.
But on no issue have they differed more than their understandings of how the Christian faith should intersect with politics and public policy. Buttigieg, the son of a Jesuit and a devout Episcopalian, deepened his understanding of God while studying at Oxford during his Rhodes Scholarship. Pence, a one-time altar boy who converted from Catholicism in college, once considered the priesthood before attending an Indianapolis megachurch.
Buttigieg, for his part, frequently critiqued Pence’s understanding of biblical teachings and scripture during the campaign, juxtaposing it with the vice president’s service to the Trump administration. “He isn’t stupid and he’s got to know that the things that this president has said and done go against not just the political or religious values that Mike Pence has professed during his political life, but also just the way he has wanted to be seen in terms of how people ought to treat each other,” Buttigieg told me recently.
Buttigieg’s criticism of Pence as a cheerleader of “the porn-star presidency” in a CNN town hall in March of 2019 helped vault him into the upper tier of the Democratic primary contest. “You know, his interpretation of scripture is pretty different from mine, to begin with,” Buttigieg said at the time. In response, Pence defended himself from Buttigieg’s attacks on CNBC. “I worked very closely with Mayor Pete when I was governor of Indiana. We had a great working relationship,” Pence said. “He’s said some things that were critical of my Christian faith, and about me personally. He knows better.”
To be certain, Pence’s faith has also been a staple of his public life. He is a regular emmisary to faith voters for the Trump administration, and his presence on the ticket played a role in 2016 of helping the president win Evangelical voters. Pence frequently cites scripture and has opened his own office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a regular Bible study.
As the presidential election nears, I interviewed Michael Wear, the former director of Barack Obama’s 2012 faith-outreach efforts, about the two Hoosiers’ approaches to faith. Wear is the chief strategist for the AND Campaign, an organization focused on organizing Christians for civic and cultural engagement, and the Founder of Public Square Strategies. He is seen as a thoughtful voice on the intersection of faith and politics by Democrats and Republicans alike. He also writes the Reclaiming Hope newsletter on the intersection of faith and politics with his wife, Melissa.
Here, we talk about the role evangelicals will play in the 2020 election, how Democrats can win over Evangelical voters in the Midwest, and whether Hoosier Democrats such as Buttigieg and former Indian Sen. Joe Donnelly could have a role in a possible Biden administration.
What role, broadly, do you expect Evangelicals will play in the 2020 Election, and how will that be different than the role they played in 2016, if at all?
I expect white evangelicals to remain the critical base of Donald Trump, though I believe Biden is currently on-track to match Democrats’ 2012 numbers, at least, as opposed to the pathetically, almost impossibly low percentage the Democratic nominee in 2016 received. Clearly, during the Republican convention, evangelicals have been a focus, and the Biden campaign will have to decide whether the faith outreach they did at the convention was their major play, or if they’ll continue contesting for faith voters broadly through November. Right now, expect to see Biden at 20%+ among white evangelicals, which would reflect a swing of 1-2 million votes nationally over 2016. One other thing to watch for is whether we see white evangelicals take up a significantly smaller portion of the overall electorate. Pair that with a Biden win, and we could see major changes in how the GOP values white evangelicals moving forward which would be a seismic shift for both the Party as well as white evangelicals’ cultural and political standing.
It’s important to also keep an eye on Black and Hispanic evangelicals. Trump is making a play here, and Democrats who believe that faith is an irrelevant factor of the identity of many Black and Hispanic voters will just miss critical frequencies in reaching, persuading, and motivating these voters. Trump’s embraced a more charismatic, Pentecostal strain of American evangelicalism more closely than any other Republican nominee, really. Just as a swing of 5-points among white evangelicals could be the end of his presidency, a 5-7 point swing among Black or Hispanic voters in critical states could save him.
Vice President Mike Pence is considered Trump's emissary to the Evangelical community. What does the Vice President get right and wrong about where the average Evangelical voter is coming from today in 2020?
Mike Pence appeals to older evangelicals well, and communicates in a very axiomatic kind of way that conservative evangelicals typically receive well. His approach though overstates the average evangelical’s concern for conservative ideology in much the same way as Ted Cruz did in 2016. He is too staid for Gen-X evangelicals and his melding of faith and nationalism, as we saw in his convention speech, is a turn-off for younger evangelicals. Despite his “I’m a Christian, American and Republican, in that order” line, he often collapses his faith into his love of country and social vision in a way that is not too dissimilar from what religious conservatives often accuse religious progressives of doing.
Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for his part, has talked up the role of the Religious Left. Does the Religious Left, as he conceives of it, stand to make some of the same mistakes the Religious Right?
Internally, yes. In terms of our politics, the Religious Left as an independent force is just never going to exist in the same way the Religious Right does, and so it will never be viewed as culpable for their actions and posture. On the left, due to its ecumenism, the religious progressives are often quite comfortable folding into the progressive movement overall. I’m not necessarily making a value judgment there, but just stating a reality. Anytime you mix faith and politics, you risk over-identifying faith with a set of policy prescriptions or political outcomes, and that is typically a mistake from a theological standpoint. The problem, of course, is that it’s often more effective politically to make that very over-identification, which is a form of religious manipulation.
What did Buttigieg get right and wrong about faith and politics during the 2020 Democratic primary?
What was clear about Buttigieg is that he did not just start thinking about faith when he decided to run for president. Due to his personal background, it was clear that this was a man who had spent considerable time thinking about faith outside of his own political future, but for intellectual, spiritual, familial and communal reasons.
The only way, really, in which Buttigieg reminded me of Obama was that these are two men who present as integrated individuals, people who had done some real internal work. Unlike other candidates, Buttigieg wasn’t just drawing from a verse in James or the parable of the Good Samaritan, his sources ranged pretty widely. At one point during the campaign, he just remarked off-hand that he was reading [Frederick] Buechner, and that really struck me. (Buechner is an American writer and theologian).
That being said, and not to discount the genuine place I think much of his faith rhetoric and engagement was coming from, I also think he was keenly strategic about it and had an understanding that the first major gay candidate for president claiming the moral and religious high ground against Republicans would both drive free media and attention, while also insulate him from a range of attacks that would come as his star rose, and certainly if he won the nomination. Unfortunately, in my view, while he had and continues to have the opportunity to cross divides in our politics, he never was really willing to take a substantive risk on faith and religious issues. He did an interview with [former George W. Bush speechwriter] Mike Gerson at the Washington Post, and Mike gave him several opportunities to express some kind of nuance on religious freedom, for instance, and his responses were so milquetoast, so unexceptional. He diagnosed in a mainstream way so many of the legitimate problems with the Religious Right, but he failed to distinguish how faith colored and influenced his political views in any kind of surprising way counter to the Democratic status quo. I hope he continues to develop in this way.
He was one of the few candidates to have a national faith outreach staffer during the primary, and he certainly got that right and he benefitted from it. I saw his rhetoric on faith improve a great deal from the beginning of the campaign when he sort of vacillated between asking for room for progressive Christians in public discourse and suggesting Christianity inherently made a person progressive.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has all but promised Buttigieg a role in his administration, should he win the presidential election. He's been bandied about as everything from Secretary of State to Chief of Staff to U.N. Ambassador to Labor Secretary. Based on your experience in the Obama administration, where would you see him fit into a hypothetical Biden administration—if at all?
Oh, I think it’s an interesting question. I would love to see him at the Office of Social Innovation or running the Corporation for National Community Service, though those roles wouldn’t inevitably set him up for higher office. I’d wonder how he would fit in The West Wing as Chief of Staff or a senior advisor. I tend to think that would just not be a healthy situation for him or for Biden, but I could be wrong. Another option would be for Pete to run Intergovernmental Affairs out of The White House, and that could be a great fit as well.
What does Buttigieg's faculty appointment at Notre Dame mean for his future, especially given all the ways he comes into tension with the Catholic church’s stances on issues like abortion?
I don’t think the Notre Dame position harms him in any way. The question with Pete is whether he allows these kinds of experiences to inform his politics in a substantive, nuanced way that is usually disincentivized in party politics. He certainly has the intellectual and political ability to pull it off, if that’s where he wanted to go. Does he believe religious conservatives must be defeated in some kind of maximalist way, or does he believe there’s hope and reason to pursue some kind of conciliation on these kinds of issues.
Former Sen. Joe Donnelly has played a role in defending Biden’s Catholic faith in the Midwest. Do you see a role for Donnelly in a potential Biden administration? If so, what might that look like?
I’m a big fan of Sen. Donnelly and would love to see him back in a prominent public service role. I think our politics has suffered losing people like him and Sen. Heitkamp from the U.S. Senate. He’ll certainly be in the running for Ag Sec. Whether it’s in the Administration or out, I do think Donnelly is the kind of person you want close at hand, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take on a more prominent role on the outside if he doesn’t actually join the administration.
The Biden campaign has done a wonderful job inviting former electeds support in all kinds of ways, including on faith. Former Sen. Mark Pryor has also been really helpful to the campaign on faith and in other ways. Contrary to some of my former colleagues, I think those kinds of relationships do matter and will be of real help to Biden’s campaign, and to a Biden Administration should he be elected.
What do Democrats need to do to win in the Midwestern state likes Indiana again, especially among so-called value voters?
Well, the faith-forward focus of the convention was a good start. An emphasis on economic fairness motivated by religious ideas like the dignity of work has salience with evangelicals that Democrats do not appreciate enough. Pro-family policies--like addressing child care, paid family leaves, and as President Obama would often point out, mitigating the effect student loan debt has on young people delaying marriage—would help quite a bit as well. They need to avoid dumb, careless mistakes that empower Republicans. The DNC needs to operate as a national party on faith, rather than allow a narrow set of consultants and activists to determine how the party addresses faith. The convention reflected a much, much healthier approach to faith. Candidates in these states need to distinguish themselves on issues like religious freedom and abortion—there’s plenty of room between the far-left of the Democratic Party and where the Republicans are on these issues. They ought to own the center, and the Democratic Party brand can’t be so toxic that it’s impossible to do so.
I will say that [Indiana Democratic Party Chairman] John Zody, a former colleague of mine, is one of the most decent people and best political strategists in the country, so I think Indiana’s in good hands.