Pete Buttigieg’s Neutered Public Christianity

Pete Buttigieg attends a church service at First Baptist Church of James Island in Charleston, S.C., February 23, 2020. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

At the start of the Pete Buttigieg moment — which recently came to a merciful endThe Atlantic‘s Peter Wehner wrote that the former mayor’s Episcopalian bona fides “should help make some members of the Democratic Party less hostile to Christianity, which as a Christian I take to be a good thing.”

It certainly would be a good thing if the party that booed God at its convention became less hostile to religion and its practitioners. But then it would be a mistake to say the Democratic Party is hostile to “religion” — who but a cabal of zealots could treat the Little Sisters of the Poor’s refusal to subsidize the sexual behavior of its employees as a veritable threat to public order? The public Christianity is the issue. Some are honest enough to say so.

Buttigieg presented a neutered public Christianity that posed no threat to the prevailing secularism of his party. Consider a campaign ad he ran in South Carolina:

“In our White House, you won’t have to shake your head and ask yourself: whatever happened to ‘I was hungry and you fed me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ … [which] means unifying around issues from wages and family leave to gun violence and immigration.”

Christ’s immortal words in the Last Judgment are not about one’s individual acts of charity, in this view — whether you, personally, fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick — instead, Buttigieg’s eschatological vision is rather like a voter registration drive, with Christ separating the sheep from the goats based upon one’s willingness to elect temporal representatives to use government force to expropriate a neighbor’s wealth to better fund the social-service state. The solemn obligation of charity is replaced with a vague commitment to rejecting the Laffer curve.

C.S. Lewis once wrote a letter to Sheldon Vanauken:

My own position at the threshold of Christianity was exactly the opposite of yours. You wish it were true; I strongly hoped it was not… Do you think people like Stalin, Hitler, Haldane, Stapledon (a corking good writer, by the way) would be pleased on waking up one morning to find that they were not their own masters, that they had a Master and a Judge, that there was nothing even in the deepest recesses of their thoughts about which they could say to Him ‘Keep out! Private. This is my business’? Do you? Rats! Their first reaction would be (as mine was) rage and terror. And I [very] much doubt whether even you would find it simply pleasant. Isn’t the truth this: that it would gratify some of our desires (ones we feel in fact pretty seldom) and outrage a good many others? So let’s wash out all the wish business. It never helped anyone to solve any problem yet.

Pete Buttigieg’s public Christianity demanded nothing of wine-track liberals that they did not already see reflected within themselves. If Christianity can be adequately distilled to that noxious phrase — Vote for Us — then I see no reason to think C.S. Lewis was writing about the same religion that Pete Buttigieg so publicly and gratingly espoused.

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