Mayor Pete and the Politics of Faith


Dustin Messer

Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg made some waves during the second Democratic debate last week when he brought up faith. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” said Mayor Pete, “… our party doesn’t talk about that as much, largely for a very good reason, which [is] we are committed to the separation of church and state and we stand for people of any religion and people of no religion.”

Much has been written about Buttigieg—his faith, his sexuality, his politics. My goal here isn’t to address him, or even his point in that quote, so much as it is to address his premise; namely that one ought to leave religious talk at the door when entering the public square. I want to take a step back and ask whether or not the Christian faith can, in fact, remain wholly private and secluded from one’s politics. The political scientist Glenn Tinder has a long track record answering that question negatively. His assessment is worth quoting at length:

“We are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But … the God of Christian faith created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world—that we can practice a spirituality that is not political—is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.”

In other words, if Scripture tells us the true story of this world—and it does—then our faith can’t be restricted to a certain space or time. It will be all encompassing. Said differently, the Bible isn’t just God’s word to the church, it’s God’s word to the whole world—everyone, everything.

Thus, contra Mayor Buttigieg, applying the Bible to every sphere of life (politics, art, family, etc.) isn’t involving the church in those areas, it’s involving Jesus. And it turns out, Jesus doesn’t just claim to be the King of the church, He’s King of the cosmos—which includes every square, even public ones. I completely agree with the Mayor when he insists that there should be a separation between church and state, but that’s not the same thing as saying there should be a separation between faith and state, or religion and state. Nicholas Wolterstorff sums it up well:

“Since the content of Christian theology goes far beyond church and devotional life to life as a whole, and since its addressees extend far beyond church members to humanity in general, its arena must be civil society.”

The relationship between the Third Reich and the church in Germany illustrates this point well.  Perhaps counterintuitively, Hitler had no problem with the Christian faith, so long as it was purely spiritual and privately practiced. “You [Christians] take care of the church,” he said, “and I’ll take care of the German People.”

When the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller heard Hitler say this, he protested: “But we, too, as Christians and as pastors, have a responsibility to the German people. That responsibility was entrusted to us by God, and neither you nor anyone in this world has the power to take it from us.” You see, Niemöller didn’t just want freedom of worship—which Hitler was willing to grant—he wanted freedom of religion, which invaded space that Hitler viewed as the State’s.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I think our republic is in danger of becoming 1930s Germany. It’s not. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that Mayor Buttigieg has nefarious motives when he talks about leaving religion at the door of politics. I’m sure he doesn’t. Indeed, I take Mayor Pete’s basic point about hypocrisy and the like. To be sure, the faith ought not be used as a “cloak” to smuggle in some political agenda.

While I think politics can be used to propagate kingdom priorities, the kingdom ought never to be used to propagate politics. My point is simply James’ point: that faith should be personal, but it shouldn’t be private. Faith must work itself out in our lives. The Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers says it beautifully:

“Let him not lay his godliness aside when he is done with the morning devotion of his family; but carry it abroad with him, and make it his companion and his guide through the whole business of the day… If it be substantially a grace within us at all, it will give a direction and a color to the whole of our path in society. There is nothing that meets us too homely to be beyond the reach of obtaining, from its influence, the stamp of something celestial.”

This was precisely Niemöller’s point. What he understood—and what too many of his ministerial colleagues did not—was that Jesus’ reign doesn’t end with quiet times and potlucks. It’s not bound to a building or an hour on Sunday. No, Jesus’ reign extends to “every square inch” of creation; He’s King of the Cosmos, not Chancellor of the Church. That period of history teaches Christ’s followers that when the church isn’t trying to transform the culture, the culture is succeeding in transforming the church. We’d do well to remember that when Jesus and someone else both say “mine,” Jesus always wins.


Dustin Messer is Worldview and Cultural Engagement Coordinator at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and author of Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church.
Image: Google Images


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