READ: Transcript of Pete Buttigieg’s exclusive interview with The Hill

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RENO, Nev. — South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg sat down with The Hill during a campaign swing through northern Nevada this weekend to discuss his faith, his appeal to religious voters and the role of religion in public life.
The Hill’s questions have been edited for clarity.
{mosads}The Hill: You’ve talked a lot about the awakening of the religious left. What do you see?
Pete Buttigieg: What I see right now is a lot of religious voters who are looking for options, because what’s happening in Washington and especially in this White House is an affront to any number of religious traditions, including somewhat conservative ones.
A second thing I think is happening is an opening within the Democratic Party and the left writ large, to embrace religious voices more than we’ve been comfortable doing in my lifetime. I don’t mean to say this is completely new.
There is obviously a powerful tradition of reform and a progressive voice that is also religious, of which the greatest modern example is the civil rights movement. But it is the case that I think a sort of estrangement between religion and the political left is maybe starting to turn the other way. And I think that could be a very healthy thing.
The Hill: Why haven’t Democrats been comfortable talking about religion or to religious voters?
Buttigieg: Well, I think for a very good reason, which is that we are very protective of the separation of church and state.
We want to make sure that when you’re in office, you’re speaking for people of any religion and of no religion equally. Because we’ve seen the ways in which religion has been used as a cudgel to hurt people, or exclude them, not to mention as a political tool to mobilize folks for the right.
But I think you can be attentive to all of those concerns and still reach out to voters motivated by faith. There’s just so many people in America who are sitting in the pews thinking, wait a minute, am I supposed to be on board with family separation, with policies that benefit the wealthiest only, with the behavior of a president like this one, and wondering who’s going to speak to them and let them know that they have a choice and that they are welcome in the coalition we’re trying to build.
The Hill: It sounds like you see religion’s use in politics in a negative light. It’s been used to divide.
Buttigieg: The simple way I’d look at it is, is it being used to help or to harm? Whether you look at the so-called religious freedom bill in Indiana in 2015, or the ways in which people have been excluded on religious grounds, you can see the ways that it can be used to harm.
But it doesn’t have to be, and it shouldn’t be. That’s certainly not the faith that I imbibe when I’m in church. Knowing how much certainly the Christian tradition but not only the Christian tradition points toward caring for your neighbor and looking after those who are marginalized and questioning power, I think that there’s a completely different approach ready to be engaged.
The Hill: How do you view Democrats’ current relationship with religious voters? The lens through which we see it is Barack Obama talking about people clinging to their guns and religion.
Buttigieg: This has always been complicated, right? You’ll remember that the president’s [Obama’s] religious community was used to attack him. There’s always been a lot of layers and a lot of pieces to this. I think that a lot of people witnessed the ways in which religion was used as a weapon by the right, and concluded that religion must mean that. And I’m trying to reach them and think about the other side.
The Hill: Used as a weapon by the right, talk about that. How have Republicans used religion, and have Democrats countered that effectively?
Buttigieg: Certainly you look at not just the political mobilization but also the mobilization of money that went on with the organized religious right, especially in the ’90s, or beginning in the ’90s, and what you see is an alliance that over time, in my view, has begun to resemble more of a deal with the devil in the current administration.
In other words, you have a president who in many ways flouts even conservative religious principles, let alone the ones that somebody like me would be drawn to, but a decision that that’s worth it in order to get certain policies.
Lincoln had that line about everybody tries to say that God’s on their side, but the important thing is to try to make sure that you’re on God’s side. And he also said that in great contests, both parties claim that, and both may be and one must be wrong. So you enter onto any of this turf carefully, and hopefully with some measure of humility and reflection. But I believe that’s what’s on the rise right now, and that’s a good thing.
What do you make of evangelical voters’ attraction to President Trump? They seem to be the foundation of his base.
Buttigieg: I think there are probably two different things happening. In some ways, the more sincere of the two is those who are holding their nose at many dimensions of this president and presidency in order to get their way on certain issues, especially choice.
The other thing that you have is those who have actually gone so far as to make excuses for this president and somehow fashion some way that this could be consistent with Christianity. The most exotic one I’ve seen is a comparison of him to King Cyrus, which is comical if you really unpack it, if only because King Cyrus was a Persian not a Jewish king.
But without getting into all of the history and theology of it, it is striking to see the contortions that are beginning to go on as religious right leaders try to find ways to stay on board with Trump’s project.
The Hill: I can’t help but see a contrast between you and your fellow Hoosier, Vice President Mike Pence. What do you make of the central role religion has played in his role in public life?
Buttigieg: The strange thing of course is that during the Clinton years he seemed very committed to the idea that the personal behavior, including the personal sexual conduct of the president, really mattered for public purposes. And now he’s persuaded himself that Donald Trump is fit to be not only the political but the moral leader of the American people. There are any number of explanations for how he went through that conversion. I’m guessing the answer is politics.
The Hill: The parts of Christianity that are growing in the U.S. are the evangelical denominations, rather than mainline Catholicism and protestantism. What does that tell you about America today?
Buttigieg: I think we’re just at a precarious point. On one hand, people have at many times in human history looked to faith as a solution to earthly problems. On the other hand, there’s a very powerful thread in the Christian tradition telling us to be suspicious of anyone who reduces religion to the accumulation of worldly gain.
{mossecondads}And these are theological questions that aren’t really my place to litigate in the public square, because my job is to speak to people of any faith tradition. I just think I need to speak to those who are guided by religious principles about how I see an alignment between what we have to offer and what they believe.
These currents will rise and fall as they always have. I guess that’s a mixed metaphor. These patterns will come and go, but the important thing is to be honest and reflective about the relationship between civic power and religious belief.
The Hill: You talk a lot about your personal conservatism, your liturgical conservatism, your views on the role of marriage and even sex. Do you have a personal conservatism?
Buttigieg: In some ways, yes, but that has to do with how I believe my life ought to work. It’s not a view about how anybody else’s life should go.
The Hill: Tell me about that.
Buttigieg: It’s such an important principle in this country, that my interpretation of my religion never be imposed on you. And I say that as somebody obviously who belongs to a group that has been on the raw end of people deciding that they should impose their interpretation of their religion on others.
But when it comes to how I lead my life, I am drawn to parts of the Christian tradition that might be considered conservative in a sense, although maybe not a political sense.
The Hill: Have you ever heard somebody say they are spiritual but not religious? It strikes me that you might say you’re religious but not spiritual. Especially when it comes to prayer. You’ve said you’re uncomfortable with the concept.
Buttigieg: Well I do think sometimes, observance and liturgy and even sacrament can lead to spirituality just as much as the other way around. And that has been more my experience, personally.
The Hill: How much studying have you done of other religions?
Buttigieg: Having studied Arabic, Islam is probably one religion I’ve — I’ve not really studied it in a serious theological sense, but I’ve been exposed to, and having spent time in Islamic countries.
And through engaging with a very vibrant Jewish community in South Bend, I’ve gotten to know the different forms of Judaism in America. And then through personal friendships I’ve been exposed to other faith traditions too.
The Hill: Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
Buttigieg: I don’t have a favorite verse. There are some that are on my mind more in certain seasons than others.
One I think about a lot, especially walking into interviews like these, is the one about how when you pray, be not like the hypocrites who pray in the synagogues and the corners of streets so that everybody can see them. I think about that a lot because of course a moral problem for a practicing Christian is how to be transparent about your faith without being showy about it.
I think a lot about the Beatitudes that were prayed this morning. It relates to the Sermon on the Mount. And there are these amazing nuggets in obscure places. Right now, I’ve been spending a little bit of time with the Book of Joel. You don’t hear a lot about the Book of Joel. But there’s so much in scripture that tracks with human experiences that are timeless and universal.
The Hill: Do your religious beliefs inform your view of the death penalty?
Buttigieg: I consider my view of the death penalty to be consistent with my religious beliefs. But I also think that I can defend my policy view in a way that should be convincing to people, whether they share my religious beliefs or not. But I do believe that the moral consequence of killing somebody who is defenseless for any reason goes against certainly what I’ve been taught about the way we’re supposed to treat human life.
The Hill: Does that extend to someone like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11th?
Buttigieg: If you mean it, you mean it. Although I obviously having served in the military, understand sometimes the necessity of killing, in order to prevent further killing or in order to defend a nation. There are people who may deserve to die. I just don’t know anybody who deserves to kill them.
Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Mike Pence Pete Buttigieg

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