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How Would Jesus Vote?

This year, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is making the same argument Republicans have for years: that a vote based on Christian values would turn the country around.
Charlie Neibergall
This year, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is making the same argument Republicans have for years: that a vote based on Christian values would turn the country around.

For most of the last 40 years, the notion that one's Christian beliefs should guide one's voting has largely been promoted by conservative Republicans.

Two Republican presidential candidates from that period — Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee — are former Southern Baptist preachers and one, Ted Cruz, is the son of a conservative evangelical pastor. All three on repeated occasions tied the Christian vote to the Republican cause.

"If Christians will simply show up and vote our values," Cruz told the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2015, "we'll turn this country around."

This year, a Democratic presidential candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., is making the same argument, with a twist: A vote based on Christian values, Buttigieg suggests, would indeed turn the country around, but in a "progressive" direction.

Buttigieg says protecting the poor and welcoming immigrants is a Christian obligation that is inconsistent with Republican priorities.

"It has a very clear set of moral and policy implications, none of which are things I would associate with the right wing," Buttigieg said in an interview last week with the Now This website. "Christianity to me is about humility, it's about love, and if we want to put those values into political practice, at least by my lights, they lead us in a very progressive direction."

The Christian faith has been tied to liberal politics before. It happens regularly at places like Riverside Church in New York City, famous for its promotion of progressive causes. Pastor Amy Butler used her Easter Sunday sermon to lament U.S. immigration policy, misogyny, police violence and environmental neglect.

"We need a new way to see the world, and we need it fast," Butler said. "Thank goodness Easter is here."

Butler believes it is appropriate to tie a message of Christ's resurrection to what people encounter each day in the news. "[With] the constant barrage of indignities coming from the White House," she said, "I don't think you can talk about resurrection and second chances without addressing some of those things."

It's uncommon, however, for Democratic presidential candidates to draw such connections. The Republican Party is more often associated with the religious right than Democrats are with an analogous movement on the left.

Buttigieg's suggestion that liberals be willing to say that "Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction," as he told USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers, provoked some outrage on the right. One conservative academic argued that Buttigieg " doesn't get to make up his own Christianity," and another conservative dismissed Buttigieg's comments as " partisan nonsense."

Such objections would presumably apply as well to Republican politicians who have not hesitated to interpret Christianity as supportive of their agenda.

Peter Wehner, a speechwriter for then-President George W. Bush, is among those who have raised concerns about Buttigieg's connection of Christianity and progressivism, writingin The Atlantic that such claims "ought to worry Christians regardless of their politics."

Wehner said he has the same objection to conservatives associated with the religious right.

"They've crossed the line time and time again," Wehner told NPR. "They've issued Christian score cards, and they've said implicitly or explicitly that if someone is a faithful Christian, they're going to believe certain things on a whole range of public policy issues. And I don't think that's a responsible position to take."

Such an approach, Wehner says, reduces the Bible to a "governing blueprint."

"Christianity as a faith stands in judgment of all political ideologies and all political parties," Wehner says, "so to try and say that the Christian faith will lead you only to a set of liberal or conservative policies, or only the Republican or Democratic Party, I think is wrong."

In times of uncertainty about how to act in the modern world, Christians sometimes wonder, "What would Jesus do?"

"It's an important question to ask," says Pastor Duke Kwon, a popular minister at Grace Meridian Hill church in Washington, D.C. "Jesus is the truest example of love and justice we've ever had in human history."

"That question can be problematic at times, though," Kwon adds," because at times we don't know exactly what Jesus would have done in X, Y, Z case study or circumstance. So we end up speculating, and that can get Christians into trouble."

"I think there is a problem when we try too quickly to say that our view of this or that matter of public policy is the only legitimate Christian view," Kwon says. "I think one of the hallmarks of Christian discourse in the public square ought to be humility, respect, patience, self-control. [Those are] virtues that are informed by the Gospel of Christ, and all too often that's the opposite of what you hear from Christians when speaking out on policy issues."

If politicians on the left start claiming that Christian beliefs support their agenda, however, it could at least balance those on the right who have made that argument before, and it could encourage voters to consider more carefully what implications their faith may have for their political preferences.

"There is such a thing as a Christian ethic," says Wehner, now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "We're required to pursue justice, to care for the weak and the powerless, to promote human dignity and human flourishing."

On that, Kwon agrees. "I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ does inform politics," he says. "It has vast implications for all of life."

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Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.