Mayor Pete's case for community
WASHINGTON -- Pete Buttigieg has broken through the noise of a cacophonous Democratic presidential field by raising issues that usually fall by the wayside in an era when politics feels prepackaged and defined by short-term obsessions.
The South Bend mayor frequently talks about matters that are not strictly political, do not necessarily lend themselves to solutions by government, and have more to do with how we live our lives than where we stand on an ideological spectrum. It will be useful if his recent comments on two themes, religion and community, have a contagious effect.
During an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" last week, Buttigieg made a modest plea: "I do think it's important for candidates to at least have the option to talk about our faith," he said. He specifically targeted the idea that "the only way a religious person could enter the politics is through the prism of the religious right."
An Episcopalian and a married gay man, Buttigieg pointed to the core Christian concept that "the first shall be last; the last shall be first."
He added: "What could be more different than what we're being shown in Washington right now -- often with some people who view themselves as religious on the right, cheering it on? … Here we have this totally warped idea of what Christianity ought to be like when it comes into the public sphere that's mostly about exclusion. Which is the last thing that I imbibe when I take in scripture in church."
Buttigieg's assertiveness about religion's role ought to draw attention to other Democratic hopefuls who are openly faithful. "I don't know how many speeches of mine you can listen to and not have me bring up faith," New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said last year. Like Buttigieg, Booker suggested that works count for more than words. "Before you tell me about your religion," Booker said, "first show it to me in how you treat other people." New York magazine writer Ed Kilgore has asked whether Booker might turn out to be "the candidate of the Christian left."
There could be real competition for the title. When I interviewed Elizabeth Warren during her first race for the U.S. Senate in 2012, she spoke powerfully about her Methodist faith. It "stresses the importance of community, because it says, in fact, it's about action and it's about action together," she said. "There is God in ... the hungry, the poor, the stranger," she continued, "there is God in each of us."
In our public life, we don't hear God talked about this way as much as we should.
Buttigieg also broke ground in placing the rise of white ethno-nationalism in the context of "a kind of disorientation and loss of community and identity."
"The sense of belonging can be very powerful," he told The Washington Post's Greg Sargent last week, "and we're very fragile without it."
Conservatives have tended to talk about community breakdown more than liberals have -- see, for example, Timothy P. Carney's new book "Alienated America." Carney doesn't discount economics, but he sees the collapse of social capital as leaving "a scar far deeper than an unemployment rate."
In his interview with Sargent, Buttigieg turned the argument in a progressive direction by stressing work itself. For many Americans, the "very basic human desire for belonging … historically has often been supplied by the workplace ... based on the presumption of a lifelong relationship with a single employer." Economics can matter in surprising ways.
At its best, political argument is about learning. Our exchanges give us a chance to see things through someone else's eyes. That sounds positively utopian these days. What's important about Buttigieg's remarks on religion and community is that he broached issues that the political right is more eager than the left to talk about. He takes conservatives seriously enough to challenge them on concerns that genuinely engage them.
If some liberals, as conservatives complain, seek to marginalize religion's public role, might one reason be the bizarre and reprehensible invocation of faith by Christian nationalists to justify bigotry? Conservatives are right to worry about the decay of community. But the left is right to insist that this problem is aggravated by radical changes in our economy that have shattered communities, and individual lives.
Campaigns (and -- I know what you're thinking -- the media) are generally not good at encouraging debates of this sort. The very unlikeliness of Buttigieg's candidacy gives him an opportunity to change this -- and good for him for trying.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.
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