Religious Faith Shouldn’t Be Exploited as a Political Asset

Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is getting a lot of attention for being willing to talk about his Christian faith. After noting that he is gaining traction in polling, fundraising, and the media, Kristen Powers writes:

He has also stood out as a devoted Christian who is speaking against the dominance of the religious right in the public square. As Buttigieg told me in an interview Friday, “The left is rightly committed to a separation of church and state … but we need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction.”

I’m not sure when it started, but a narrative developed quite some time ago that Democrats don’t talk about religion. As far as I can tell, the idea has its roots in the fact that party leadership consisted mostly of white men from the northeastern part of the country where those from mainstream Protestant and Catholic traditions assumed that it was a bit gauche to talk about private matters, such as one’s personal faith.

But for anyone assuming that is still the case, I have to wonder where they’ve been hiding out for the last decade. When it comes to national leaders, I doubt that any president talked more about his Christian faith than Barack Obama. In that way, he resembled most black politicians whose roots are in the very politically engaged African American church. Obama used evangelical Christian terms to describe his conversion experience, spoke eloquently about the intersection of politics and faith at public events, regularly quoted the Bible in his speeches, and sang Amazing Grace at a memorial service.

Coming from a very different tradition, Hillary Clinton wasn’t shy about mentioning her Christian faith either. She used this Methodist quote so many times during her stump speeches that it practically became her campaign slogan.

When it comes to the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates, Jack Jenkins put together a whole Twitter thread devoted to their remarks about how faith and politics intersect in their own lives. It starts here with Cory Booker:

Frankly, I am confused as to why the old narrative about Democrats not wanting to talk about their personal faith is still alive and well. Related to that, I’m also confused about why Pete Buttigieg is being cast as unique in his willingness to talk about his faith. But some of that was clarified when I read a piece by Emma Green titled, “Democrats Have to Decide Whether Faith Is an Asset for 2020.”

[O]ver the long months ahead for 2020 Democratic hopefuls, rhetoric alone won’t be enough to win votes. Candidates, including Buttigieg, must decide whether faith outreach will be a central part of their campaign strategy and a deliberate feature of their platforms. In other words: Democrats must choose whether religion is a potential asset, or something to be overcome.

Nowhere does Green mention the fact that a decision like that is based on the assumption that the Democrat in question is a Christian. Speaking only in political terms about electability, it is obvious that being an atheist or a Muslim would never be considered an asset, but would instead be something to overcome. In other words, the question Green raises doesn’t make any sense unless Christianity is the default religion on which everything rests. That is a problem.

But when she poses the idea of someone’s faith being an “asset,” I finally understand the distinction that is being made. As I’ve shown, especially over the last decade, Democrats have not been hesitant to talk about their faith. What they’ve been unwilling to do in the way that, for example, Vice President Pence regularly does, is to exploit their faith as a political asset. I, for one, don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.