Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, officially announced on Sunday that he is running for president of the United States as a Democrat. The announcement came as no surprise: Buttigieg (who formed an exploratory committee in January) was advancing in various polls, some of which found him just behind Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden (a likely candidate) among Democratic presidential hopefuls.
And as the 37-year-old Buttigieg has become better known, attacks on him from the Christian Right have been increasing. Because he is both openly gay and a person of faith, Buttigieg is likely to find himself in the middle of some heated Culture War debates.
Far-right blogger/radio host Erick Erickson has been attacking Buttigieg for the specific type of Protestant Christianity he embraces: Buttigieg is Episcopalian. While Presidential Donald Trump is popular among Christian fundamentalists, Episcopalians exemplify what is known as “Mainline Protestantism” among Christians—that is, a non-fundamentalist form of Protestantism. And Erickson, on Twitter, posted last week that Episcopalians aren’t real Christians.
“If Buttigieg thinks evangelicals should be supporting him instead of Trump, he fundamentally does not understand the roots of Christianity,” Erickson tweeted. “But then, he is an Episcopalian; so, he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.”
Erickson also denounced Episcopalians as pseudo-Christians in an April 4 piece for the Resurgent, writing, “Buttigieg married another man. But he is not really Christian so much as he is Episcopalian.” And Erickson even claimed that Buttigieg “thinks bestiality is OK.”
Fox News’ Laura Ingraham questioned Buttigieg’s religiosity as well, scoffing, “He says he’s a traditional Episcopalian, whatever that means these days.” And Robert Jeffress, a Christian fundamentalist advisor to Trump, complained that Buttigieg “wants to shove evangelical Christians into the closet.”
The attacks on Buttigieg not only underscore the divisions within Christianity — they also recall the Christian Right’s attacks on President Barack Obama. Although Obama has a long history of attending church and obviously knows a lot more about the Bible than Trump (who has never been especially religious), the Christian Right sees Trump as an ally and Obama as an enemy. Obama is a Mainline Protestant, not a Christian fundamentalist—and in the minds of extremists like Erickson and Jeffress, only fundamentalists can be true Christians. Trump specifically courts Protestant fundamentalists, who have accepted him as an honorary member of their tribe.
Buttigieg might spend a lot more time in church than Trump, but that is irrelevant to the Christian Right, which has view everything through a tribalist lens. To the Christian Right, anyone who doesn’t embrace their specific version of Christianity is an infidel. And Jim Wallis (who founded the liberal/progressive Christian magazine Sojourners) told HuffPost that the Christian Right is “terrified” of Buttigieg because “they are afraid the new conversation about faith and politics, sparked by Mayor Pete Buttigieg, will get people looking and talking about the things Jesus said and did and called us to.”
Wallis also told HuffPost, “The Religious Right and some on the secular left have one thing in common: they want Americans to believe that all religion in this country is right-wing politically.”
Journalist Chris Hedges, one of the people who has championed a left-wing version of Christianity, wrote an entire book on the Christian Right: 2007’s disturbing “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” And as Hedges sees it, the Christian Right is a dangerous hate movement that has white nationalist tendencies, promotes a “Christianized fascism” in the United States and shows “a strain of deep cruelty, savagery even.”
When Buttigieg promotes a non-Republican platform — from gay rights to universal health care — while identifying with Protestant Christianity, the Christian Right finds it deeply threatening. And the attacks on the South Bend mayor from severe fundamentalists will surely continue in the months ahead.