Jesus Is King?

Pete Buttigieg and the growing Protestant divide.

David French

Welcome to the Sunday morning, faith edition, of the French Press newsletter. The goal of the Sunday edition is quite clear and explicit—to inject faith into politics, business, culture, and—well—everything. It’s a sad fact that our great American religious divide is driving a tremendous amount of religious polarization and religious ignorance, and this is not a new phenomenon. I’ll never forget my first days at Harvard Law School—28 long years ago—when more than one student from an elite undergraduate institution told me, “I’ve never met an Evangelical Christian before.” 

Think about that for a moment. They didn’t say they had no Evangelical friends. No, they said they didn’t know a single Evangelical person—and that’s when surveys indicate that America was more religious. These same individuals went on to climb the ladder of American wealth and power, and many of them now move in circles that view especially America’s conservative and orthodox faiths with a mixture of hostility, contempt, and curiosity. 

Remember when the New York Times’s executive editor Dean Baquet said, “I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don't quite get religion. ... We don't get the role of religion in people's lives”? Well, this Sunday newsletter is one small effort to help Americans of all political and cultural backgrounds to better understand the values, beliefs, and practices that shape the lives of countless millions of their fellow citizens.

Let’s get started ... with Mayor Pete.

If Pete Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, receives the Democratic nomination for president, it’s a virtual certainty that the only churchgoing candidate—and the only candidate who speaks fluently and easily about the role of faith in his life and in his politics—will lose the churchgoing Christian vote (and lose the white Evangelical vote by a staggering margin) to a thrice-married man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, appeared in Playboy videos, and paid hush money to cover up an affair with a porn star. 

There will be easy answers for this divide. Progressive Christians will blame partisan hypocrisy (Evangelicals object to Mayor Pete’s gay marriage but overlook Trump’s serial sexual sins? What?) Conservative Christians will simply point to Buttigieg’s position on abortion and religious liberty—and to Trump’s judges. Often the explanation is as basic as stating the truism that Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats vote for Democrats, regardless of underlying theology. 

While those explanations are accurate for tens of millions of Americans, I want to dig a little deeper and explain why—when Mayor Pete talks about faith—he doesn’t truly connect with millions of American Christians. When Buttigieg speaks, Evangelicals don’t hear “one of us” and then choose to reject one of their own tosupport Donald Trump. Instead, they see a man of a related, but different, faith, where the differences are so profound that we often don’t speak the same spiritual language. 

In fact, Evangelical Protestants now connect far more with Catholics than they do Mainline Protestants like Mayor Pete. In some crucial ways (such as the high view of scripture), Evangelicals connect more with Orthodox and Conservative Jews than they do with Mainline Protestants. The more Mayor Pete speaks, the more he highlights those differences and the more he distances himself culturally and theologically from the Christians in Trump’s base. 

Before I explain the differences, let me say this about Buttigieg—it’s clear that his faith is genuine, and that it deeply informs his political choices. In fact, I like that he’s open that faith informs his policies, and I like that he rejected (in a recent Rolling Stone interview) the idea that politicians must always appeal to secular reasoning and secular motivations in crafting and defending policy:

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.

This is exactly right and it speaks to conservative and progressive people of faith. Religious ethics belong in public life. But when Mayor Pete keeps talking, many of the things he says demonstrate the profound differences between competing streams of American Christianity. Here are other excerpts from his remarkably candid Rolling Stone interview:

Well, 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: 

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 compassion is.

And there was this interesting statement during the most recent Democratic debate:

My faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and cast aside and oppressed in society.

Buttigieg isn’t a theologian, but he’s a smart and effective communicator of his beliefs, and while Mainline and Evangelicals Protestants could nod along at Buttigieg’s defense of Christian ethics in the public square, they’ll have sharply divergent responses to those three excerpts. In fact, when Evangelicals read his words, they’ll hear that internal “record scratch” that makes them say, “Wait. What did he say?”

For example, the Evangelical mind is incredulous at the notion that any scriptural command—even a command as harsh as imposing stoning as a punishment for sexual sin—was “always wrong,” and the Evangelical mind is incredulous at the notion of salvation so inexplicably tied to human compassion. 

That does not mean that Evangelicals are in favor of stoning and against compassion. The Christian church is not bound by Levitical law, and Christ himself stopped the stoning of a woman caught in adultery. Moreover, Christians are called to engage in acts of sacrificial love for their fellow man, but we don’t ever find scriptural commands to be “wrong,” nor do we find “salvation” in compassion. 

It’s not that Mainline Christians view the Bible as just another book, it’s that they view it as more culturally contingent and (in some contexts) actually flawed. It’s divinely influenced, yes, but it’s also man-damaged, with the fundamental Christian message of love and compassion sometimes quite literally lost in translation.

Many Mainline Christians simply reject the idea that God actually ordered the Israelites to wipe out entire cities in their conquest of Canaan, or that He always and forever banned same-sex sexual relationships, or that man suffers from original sin, or even that Christ’s death on the cross was necessary to atone for that sin. To them, each of these elements of scripture—to greater or lesser degrees—seems to be fundamentally incompatible with the notion of a God who personifies love. 

In this formulation, Christ is less an instrument of salvation and more a vehicle for inspiration. This statement, from Rev. Thurlow Weed, from the Progressive Episcopal Church (not the same as the Episcopal Church) on a progressive view of atonement and the cross is illustrative. He explains what he calls “moral influence theory”:

So what is the moral influence theory?  In a nutshell, it is the teaching that Jesus came to save us from ourselves, not from sin.  It is a doctrine that focuses on positive moral change as the heart of the Christian faith.  It teaches that God’s concern is with our inner character, and whether our free will inclines that inner character to good or evil.  A good inner character is one that is inclined to unselfish love to others.  Moral Influence Theory teaches that God works through the hearts and minds of people to transform us into more loving societies.  Central to the Moral Influence doctrine is the concept of Free Will, wherein all human beings are responsible for their own actions, and that we are all capable of change.  Moral Influence doctrine generally rejects the doctrine of Original Sin.

And what of crucifixion and resurrection? Here’s Weed again:

This brings us to the fourth item, that of Jesus’ crucifixion, which under Moral Influence is regarded as martyrdom—martyrdom as a consequence of his efforts to bring about moral transformation through the message and teaching of God’s love and acceptance.

You may then ask, “What, then, is the significance of the Resurrection?”  The answer is that the Resurrection provides the evidence that an atonement occurred.  The Resurrection extends the impact of his death, and thereby extends the impact of his life and teachings.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Rev. Weed speaks for Mayor Pete. Mainline Christianity is diverse, and there is certainly no one single statement of its beliefs, but many Mainline readers will scan those passages and nod along approvingly. Theologically minded Evangelical readers, by contrast, will read those same passages will have a very different—and quite negative—reaction. 

Evangelicals, by contrast, see the Bible (and humanity) fundamentally differently. My church (the Presbyterian Church in America) calls the Holy Scriptures “the only rule of faith and practice.” We don’t need to get into all the different Evangelical nuances regarding the inspiration of scripture (or when any given command is temporal and cultural versus eternal and applicable) to note that you can go your entire life and never, ever hear a theologically orthodox Evangelical declare any biblical command to be simply “wrong.” 

When Evangelicals encounter a tough passage, they may question its applicability, but they won’t question its authenticity or its morality. And the first method of resolving scriptural disputes is by reference to other scriptures. This is even true in political debates. Why did so many Christians reference King David or Cyrus to justify a vote for Donald Trump? Because a biblical argument is ultimately necessary to persuade a biblically minded people. 

Even more critically, the Mainline vision of salvation is alien to the Evangelical mind. Without diving in depth into each of the “Five Solas” of the Reformation, most Evangelical Protestants understand salvation not through works of compassion but rather through faith alone, by the grace of God alone, working through the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone. There is a bad news/good news element of the Gospel. The bad news is that we do suffer from original sin. We are lost. The good news is that the very real debt of our sin has been paid, by Christ, on the cross. 

All of that may sound hair-splitting and esoteric to those who aren’t Christian, but these theological differences create profound cultural differences. For example, a Mainline Christian looks at an Evangelical and simply can’t understand how someone who calls themselves “loving” or “kind” or “compassionate” could possibly believe that the loving sexual union of two men or two women is in any way immoral. An Evangelical wonders how a person who calls themselves “loving” or “kind” or “compassionate” could excuse or rationalize conduct that God rejects. Does that not harm the souls of the very people they love? (To his credit, Buttigieg frequently acknowledges the good faith of competing Christian ideas.)

Or, to put it another way, at his or her best an Evangelical declares (to quote the esteemed theologian Kanye West), “Jesus is King,” and then seeks to follow what the King commands through the “God-breathed” scriptures that represent the final word and ultimate authority in any religious contest. They (we) are of course subject to comprehensive critique in the way in which we uphold our own professed principles, but those are the principles, that’s the language, and that’s one reason why not all “God talk” is created equal in the eyes of the faithful.  

I appreciate Mayor Pete for putting his faith front and center in his campaign. Truly, I do. It’s a welcome act of transparency. After all, we all get our code of ethics from somewhere, and it’s worth knowing the source of Buttigieg’s forceful moral arguments. But if mainstream media figures believe that Mayor Pete speaks the same Christian language as Trump’s Evangelical base, they need to think again. He’s a sincere proponent of a faith that is very different from theirs. 

One final thing ... 

No, the Sunday letter won’t feature any NBA highlights, but it will solicit feedback. I’ve immensely enjoyed reading considerable amounts of reader mail this past week, especially the many thoughtful comments about marriage and “common-good capitalism.” But nothing generates heat (and, hopefully, light) quite like a good religious discussion, so please—send your thoughts. I’ll respond to a subset of the most interesting and thoughtful responses next week. 

Happy Sunday!