Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, called out Republicans for what he described as moral hypocrisy during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debates, in Miami. The conversation had turned to the border, where Donald Trump’s administration has continued to separate families seeking asylum and is detaining children in facilities reportedly without soap or toothbrushes or showers. “For a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that … God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages,” Buttigieg said, “has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
Under Trump, conservative Christianity has come to be singularly associated with the president. White evangelical voters brought him to the White House and continue to give his administration high approval ratings. White Catholics were arguably the swing voters who gave Trump his 2016 victories in states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And Trump has leaned into this image as the ultimate president for religious voters. When he took office, “Americans of faith were under assault,” Trump recently told evangelicals at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual conference. “The shameful attempt to suppress religious believers ended the day I took the oath of office.”
On the debate stage, Buttigieg gave voice to a view that has become common among Democratic voters: Many of Trump’s policies, along with his conduct as president, do not reflect Christian values. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” Buttigieg said. “We should call out hypocrisy when we see it.”
This has been a theme throughout Buttigieg’s campaign. The mayor has spoken openly about his religious faith and rallied religious rhetoric to his advantage: This spring, he called out Mike Pence for his opposition to same-sex marriage, saying, “Your quarrel, sir, it is with my creator.”
This is a departure from the usual playbook for the Democratic Party. As Buttigieg himself pointed out, “Our party doesn’t talk about [religion] as much.” The reason for this, he said, is that Democrats are committed to the separation of Church and state, and that the party wants to stand for all people, regardless of their religion. But it may also be a reflection of the growing irreligiosity of the Democratic base: The party’s most politically engaged voters tend not to be affiliated with any particular faith. Buttigieg’s knack for speaking in the language of God makes him exceptional within his generation, but it may also be a strength in reaching the swing voters and voters of color whom Democrats so badly need. Of all the candidates onstage, he spoke most directly to the anger that many Americans seem to feel at the way religion has been co-opted by the Trump administration, at odds with the faith they deeply hold.