(RNS) — Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has garnered a lot of attention for using God-talk during his presidential campaign. From regular discussions of his own faith to a willingness to challenge those who invoke the divine while supporting the policies of President Trump, the millennial Episcopalian has made religion a centerpiece of his pursuit of the Oval Office.
Buttigieg spoke with Religion News Service to discuss sin, immigration, being a religious millennial and whether he can rally the support of a burgeoning religious left movement. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you see as the appropriate role of religion in American politics?
You should be able to offer (messages) that anyone — of all religions or of no religion — should find meaningful. Sometimes we’ve been afraid to use this language because we think it means not honoring the separation of church and state. For me, it means we need to honor the separation and also speak to those who are guided (by faith.)
The New Sanctuary Movement has protected undocumented immigrants in houses of worship. You support legislation that would prevent ICE from raiding those churches, but would you urge your faith community take in an undocumented immigrant in defiance of a federal government?
I certainly don’t speak for my church, but I can certainly speak for faith traditions that I am a part of (who are) encouraging that. Recently in Iowa a woman shared a story about being a teacher in a community where one of these raids just emptied out this rural town. Like a third of the community was effectively gone the next day. And there was a family that remained in a church and stayed there and lived there for a while.
When I’ve experienced people sleeping in a sanctuary, it’s a much more tame stuff. Our church puts up a bike-and-build group that bikes across the country and builds Habitat for Humanity style projects as they go. We let them camp out in sanctuary for a day or two.
But certainly that has been part of (religious history) for centuries — the idea of literally refuge in a church. It’s something that shows you just the point we’ve come to, that people feel that they need to turn to a church for physical refuge from the federal government at a time like this.
You were the first candidate to hire a faith outreach director. Why intentionally target people of faith in the Democratic primary?
Another way to look at it is: why not have one?
I think it just makes sense to reach people where they are. Some people are brought together by ethnicity or identity. Some by experience or economic role — that’s what a union is, right? The same is true with faith. So making sure that people who are organized through faith — or perhaps come to politics by way of faith — have a way to connect with our campaign on that wavelength is important to me.
It’s not that we’re going to have a different message. Our message is the same for everybody. But we might find different relationships and connections to help ensure that message reaches people who maybe have not felt welcomed or spoken to by my party for some time, even though our positions might very well harmonize with their values.
A few weeks ago here in DC you showed up at the Poor People’s Campaign protest outside the White House led in part by the Rev. William Barber, but remained silent — as you put it, offered a “silent witness.” What were you bearing witness to?
What I saw was a moral call coming from people of many very different faith traditions, all concerned about how policies of this White House were harming those most in need of our support. And, to me, there’s a direct line between that moral call and what is in the Christian faith. But the people who were there were not all Christian. Nobody was there as a Democrat or a Republican, which is one of the reasons why I understood that my role was simply to be there and witness.
There is something going on that is so much bigger than party politics right now. It’s a kind of stirring or, or reawakening. I try to speak about this with a certain kind of humility, because there’s been this kind of progressive dimension to religious activism for much longer than I’ve been on the scene. But it seems to be asserting itself in new ways, and it should be. Because what’s happening is I think a real affront to many of the principles that faith counsels us to uphold when we come into the public square.
As a millennial and a person of faith, do you feel like you have to talk differently to your own famously nonreligious demographic when discussing religion?
It can feel a little bit countercultural at times. But I guess I also see it as an opportunity to be something of a bridge-builder, to point out all the ways in which these different communities can hear each other. Because there’s certainly no contradiction to me between being young, being progressive and being Christian. I think maybe just providing an example of how that can come about might help others on various sides of these divides realize that we’ve got a common cause here.
You’ve criticized those who invoke Christianity while supporting administration policies such as family separation, accusing some of misusing Scripture and misusing faith. Do you see their actions as sinful?
I’ll be careful to use that word to kind of point out a speck in my brother’s eye. What I would say is that it’s clear that some naked sins are being at best condoned by people who then summon religious arguments. That rings more and more hollow. It’s not just that we might have a different interpretation of faith, it’s that these arguments no longer stack up even on their own merits, right?
For example: Mike Pence’s view of Christian sexuality is obviously a little different than mine. But even with his view, it makes no sense to condone this president and his behavior. So there’s two layers to this. There’s the fact that I subscribe to a vision of faith that leads me to a certain place politically. But it’s also just seeing the hypocrisy among people who now endorse people and practices that are offensive, not only to my values, but to their own.