“The time has come for more of a religious left to emerge in our country that lets people know they are not alone when they look at faith,” former 2020 candidate Pete Buttigieg said nearly a year ago.
Buttigieg dropped out of the Democratic presidential race on Sunday, but he will go down in history for more than being the first openly gay man to mount a major presidential campaign. Another lasting impact he will have on American politics: his vocal embrace of his faith. This aspect of his campaign moved me as a gay progressive Christian. It was also an incredibly important moment of representation for people who are both religious and part of the LGBTQ community.
LGBTQ people of faith are often erased from our public discourse that portrays LGBTQ rights as mutually exclusive from religious belief. Buttigieg campaigning with his husband Chasten by his side, and quoting the Bible at every turn, busted that narrative wide open. Buttigieg spoke about his faith in personal and political terms.
The former South Bend mayor found his faith as a student on a Rhodes scholarship in Oxford, England, and upon returning to Indiana, he became a member of the Cathedral of St. James, part of the Episcopal Church. He and Chasten were married there, a step Buttigieg said moved him “closer to God.” The denomination had evolved on same-sex marriage and even elected an openly gay bishop, the Right Rev. Gene Robinson. “The natural weapon against a gay man is religion,” Robinson told CNN. “By appropriating religion and being an authentically Christian person, [Buttigieg] has robbed the opposition of using that weapon against him.”
The political dimension of Buttigieg’s faith and sexuality featured prominently on the campaign trail. In response to a debate question about his outreach to black Americans — a topic of consistent and deserved criticism he faced during his campaign — he responded by talking about his faith and sexuality leading him to care about all forms of oppression.
“I care about this because 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 said at the November debate. “Wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience.”
He was also outspoken about those who weaponize religion as cover for their anti-LGBTQ policies. “That’s the thing that I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg said about the vice president’s anti-LGBTQ record. “That if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” He also criticized Pence for his response to an HIV outbreak in Indiana, saying at a CNN town hall that Pence’s resistance to act “was completely ideological.”
But the criticism around faith and politics wasn’t just directed at Republicans. It was also aimed at progressives’ reluctance to talk about religion. “I think it’s unfortunate [the Democratic Party] has lost touch with a religious tradition that I think can help explain and relate our values,” he told the Washington Post. “At least in my interpretation, it helps to root [in religion] a lot of what it is we do believe in, when it comes to protecting the sick and the stranger and the poor, as well as skepticism of the wealthy and the powerful and the established.”
Buttigieg isn’t alone in helping progressives carve out a positive role for religion in the public square. Cory Booker and Julián Castro spoke about faith frequently during their bids for the Democratic nomination. And just last week, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivered a stirring defense of LGBTQ rights as consistent with her Catholic faith during a US House Oversight Committee hearing.
Like Ocasio-Cortez and most Democrats, most religious Americans support LGBTQ rights. According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), majorities of all religious groups in the United States — from Protestants to Muslims — are in favor of laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodations. The nonprofit research group also found that “majorities of every major religious group report becoming more supportive of transgender rights over the last five years.”
Support for LGBTQ rights from all people of faith is important, but religious LGBTQ people claiming our space in public helps undermine the false notion that our faith and sexual orientation or gender identity are in conflict. Representation matters. “We send a message to every kid out there wondering if whatever marks them out as different means they are somehow destined to be less than,” Buttigieg said in his speech suspending his campaign. “To see that someone who once felt that exact same way can become a leading American presidential candidate with his husband by his side.”
In the end, Buttigieg’s candidacy showed there is strong interest in revitalizing the religious left in America. He outperformed expectations, and his overt religious appeals attracted attention to his campaign. While the religious right has monopolized the public’s understanding of what it means to be a “religious voter” by investing in political and media organizations such as the Christian Broadcasting Network and Values Voter Summit, its efforts dwarf what exists on the religious left in size, funding, media attention, and political embrace — and all the opportunities that could bring for LGBTQ acceptance.
Buttigieg’s future in politics will face tests of his support with people of color; he also faced criticism from within the LGBTQ community during his presidential run. But political prospects aside, he can also make a difference through faith-based advocacy. He can serve as an unofficial faith ambassador to help counter the right’s distorted use of religion to harm LGBTQ people — including in many areas of life such as housing, employment, and health care.
Then there is the personal impact the former candidate has had: Buttigieg’s campaign made me feel less alone in a culture that tells us LGBTQ people and people of faith are competing groups with no overlapping membership. He inspired me to speak up more about how my Christian faith leads me in a progressive direction. I hope other LGBTQ people of faith will be inspired to claim our space in the media and politics.
We exist. We’re not alone. We can even run for president.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons is a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress and the author of the forthcoming book Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity.