A long, long time ago — the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion column” — I wrote a tribute to the trailblazing work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. How long ago was that? Well, today is the 31st anniversary of my first syndicated column hitting the wires.
Hunter is best known as the author of “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” This book, more than any other, has influenced my work as a religion-beat columnist.
The words “culture wars” are used all the time by people who clearly have never read Hunter’s book. His thesis is that the old doctrinal, horizontal, denomination divisions in American life have been replaced by a vertical fault line that is much more basic, cutting into almost all religious pews and pulpits.
Hang in there with me. I am working my way to the rapid emergence of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a White House candidate, in part because of his ability to unite Democrats on the religious and non-religious left. I wrote about that the other day (“Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg“) and “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I returned to that topic in this week’s podcast. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes and sign up.)
But back to Hunter and the religious schism in modern America’s foundation:
The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.
Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."
So, what was the big quote from Buttigieg that sent a Barack-Obama-style thrill up the legs of legions of journalists and inspired waves of news coverage?
Here it is again, care of USA Today:
“It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when, if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife," he said. "If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would’ve swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water."
Fortunately, there was no knife and no pill, Buttigieg said. Because then he would not have met his husband, Chasten, who has made him a better person, he said — and their marriage has moved him closer to God. The message many gay people get that there’s something wrong with them, he continued, “is a message that puts you at war not only with yourself, but with your maker.”
“That’s the thing that I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg said of the vice president, who has opposed same-sex marriage. “That if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
What does this have to do with Hunter and, thus, with the state of American politics?
Buttigieg is sharp, sharp, sharp and totally at home talking about his religious faith, as a Christian liberal who began life as a Catholic and has enthusiastically switched over to The Episcopal Church. I’d bet the moon and the stars that he is well aware that his main arguments — theologically speaking — are not with the “Mike Pences of this world” but with, oh, Pope Frances, the Catholic Catechism and 2,000 years of basic Christian doctrines about marriage and sexuality.
Ah, but that’s all a matter of “revealed,” “transcendent” ancient doctrines backed with centuries of truth claims linked to the Holy Spirit, the nature of church, the Bible, the ecumenical councils, etc. That’s the “orthodox” camp.
What is the heart of the Buttigieg message?
That would be his own life, his own experience, his own revelations that trump old doctrines. He has a story to tell and it’s his story. That is the fervent heart of the “progressive” world, the large chunk of our national life that I have for years called “Oprah America.”
Check out these passages in a New York Times report on Buttigieg’s faith appeal, a feature that is — trigger warning: incoming compliment — surprisingly complicated and sort-of balanced. The headline: “Pete Buttigieg, Gay and Christian, Challenges Religious Right on Their Own Turf.”
Yes, I know. Is the Catholic Catechism the “Religious Right”? How about Global South Christians in Asia and Africa? Never mind. Let’s continue, with this key summary passage:
Though many conservatives were initially reluctant to engage Mr. Buttigieg because they feared it would only add to his growing stature as a 2020 contender, they jumped on his latest comments. Some suggested he was attacking the vice president to further raise his profile. Others challenged Mr. Buttigieg’s understanding of Christianity and accused him of smearing the religious convictions of the very people he wants to win over.
A devoted Episcopalian who fluidly quotes Scripture and married his husband, Chasten, in a church service last year, Mr. Buttigieg is making the argument that marriage is a “moral issue.” In a speech on Sunday to the Victory Fund, a group that supports gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender politicians, he said his relationship had made him “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent.”
He then directly addressed Mr. Pence, as one man of faith talking to another: “And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.”
Why argue with Pence?
That’s a simple question: That allows Buttigieg to scratch at the festering wound called Donald Trump, a train wreck of a man — at the level of personal ethics and morality — who is drives lots of evangelicals crazy (including some who reluctantly voted for him).
So, whenever Buttigieg says “Pence,” think “people who compromise on their faith to back You Know Who.”
Here’s another interesting chunk of the Times piece.
Mr. Buttigieg has provoked a mixture of concern, derision and faint admiration from conservatives. Some built him up early as an undeniable but stealth force in the race. Rush Limbaugh warned his listeners that someone as articulate, personal and seemingly reasonable as Mr. Buttigieg would be a strong opponent. Ben Shapiro, the writer and podcast host, argued that he was the candidate who could most likely beat Mr. Trump. “Really. He’s not crazy, he’s from the Rust Belt, he served in Afghanistan,” Mr. Shapiro wrote on Twitter.
But this week provided a moment of clarity on the right, and the backlash was a reminder of how galvanizing religion and homosexuality can be when evangelicals and other conservatives of faith are convinced that their values are under attack. This sentiment, which was stoked by Mr. Trump and his allies in the Christian right in 2016, was a major factor in the president’s huge margins with white evangelicals.
Wait for it.
Eighty-one percent voted for him, compared with 16 percent for Hillary Clinton.
Oh well, whatever, never mind. It’s safe to say that this news story has legs.