The Hill interview: Buttigieg opens up about faith

The Hill interview: Buttigieg opens up about faith
© Reid Wilson

RENO, Nev. — Democrats around the country are preparing a massive turnout operation meant to drive their base voters to the polls next year. But one of the party’s presidential candidates, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegPress: Another billionaire need not apply Saagar Enjeti dismisses Warren, Klobuchar claims of sexism Warren on winning over male voters: I was told to 'smile more' MORE, sees a new opportunity to grow that base — by cutting into the heart of the Republican electorate.

Buttigieg, a practicing Episcopalian, says Democrats have a chance to win over religious voters who have formed the core of the Republican base in recent decades, if only his party would make the case to those voters that President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE’s policies run counter to their own Christian faith.

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“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,” Buttigieg said in an exclusive interview with The Hill during a campaign swing through Nevada.

“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,” he said.

Buttigieg, 37, is a Democrat who is comfortable speaking about his faith, his Catholic upbringing and the Episcopal church he attends with his husband, Chasten. He cites Scripture often — he said he had recently been revisiting the Book of Joel, the tale of a plague of locusts that descends on the land, afflicting an unrepentant Judah.

His faith informs his political positions, he said, including his opposition to the death penalty, which he has said should be abolished.

“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,” he said.

Asked whether his opposition extended to someone like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, he said yes.

“If you mean it, you mean it,” Buttigieg said. “There are people who may deserve to die. I just don’t know anybody who deserves to kill them.”

While religion is a cornerstone of his life, he says his party has not been comfortable speaking to religious voters.

“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,” Buttigieg said. “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.”

Buttigieg spent a brisk Saturday morning in Reno — his first visit to northern Nevada as a presidential candidate — touring low-income housing with a group of religious leaders. He said religion’s place in politics can be used to help, motivating communities to serve those struggling with addiction or poverty.

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But too often, he said, religion is used as a wedge. He cited a 2015 law signed by then-Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceWhite House weighing proposal to tie aid to countries' treatment of religious minorities: report Trump NYC Veterans Day speech met with protests Giuliani associate says he sought to pressure Ukraine to investigate Bidens MORE (R), the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows businesses and individuals to cite their religious beliefs as a defense in discrimination suits.

“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,” Buttigieg said.

At times, Buttigieg sounds like he is contrasting himself with Vice President Pence more than Trump. The two used to text each other when Pence was governor; today, Buttigieg says Pence has changed, especially since the 1990s, when Pence urged Congress to impeach former President Clinton.

“The strange thing of course is that during the Clinton years [Pence] seemed very committed to the idea that the personal behavior, including the personal sexual conduct of the president, really mattered for public purposes,” Buttigieg said. “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.”

A Pence spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Appealing to religious voters will be a difficult sell for any Democrat. White born-again evangelical voters favored Trump by an 80 percent to 16 percent margin in 2016. Trump won Protestant voters by a 59 percent to 36 percent margin, and he won 55 percent among those who attend church on a weekly basis.

The last Democrat who won more than 40 percent of the vote among white Protestants was Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterJimmy Carter admitted to hospital to undergo procedure to relieve brain pressure Why Voyager 2's discoveries from interstellar space have scientists excited Presidential cooperation: History's perspective on scandal and controversy MORE in 1976.

Buttigieg sees the more recent roots of the GOP’s hold on religious voters beginning in the 1990s, with the rise of the modern religious right.

“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,” he said. “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.”

For a young liberal Democrat, a member of the generation that attends church less frequently than any of its predecessors, Buttigieg holds some conservative, traditionalist views.

“I don’t know why I wound up liturgically conservative other than maybe habit, but I do feel that way,” Buttigieg told a CNN interviewer earlier this year. “If there’s going to be music, I want an organ, not a guitar.”

“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,” Buttigieg said.

Read more from The Hill:

Transcript of Pete Buttigieg's exclusive interview with The Hill