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Why the Religious Right Is Terrified of Pete Buttigieg

The conservative backlash to the South Bend mayor crystalizes the existential threat posed to the movement by a gay presidential candidate.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced he was gay in a South Bend Tribune op-ed in 2015, at the ripe old coming-out age of 33, his rhetoric was anything but revolutionary. He had struggled for years, he wrote, to recognize his sexuality as “just a fact of life, like having brown hair.” He was still the same guy his constituents had elected four years earlier, he wanted them to know. “Being gay,” he insisted, “has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor.”

The first time I interviewed Buttigieg in 2018, he’d won a second term, married a junior-high teacher named Chasten Glezman, and started to ponder a long shot presidential bid. I began with what had bugged me about his coming-out piece. Being queer myself, I said, I couldn’t comprehend how he saw being a member of an often-despised minority as having “no bearing” on the way he did his job. Did he still feel that way? Buttigieg basically didn’t budge from what he’d written three years earlier. “I do think we all bring our whole personal combination of experiences to every role that we have, and to our jobs,” he allowed, but added a bit pointedly: “I find it frustrating when a framework is imposed on you that asks you to represent a part of your identity rather than your ideas.”

Good luck with that now, Mayor Pete. This past weekend, the Afghan War veteran lobbed a live grenade in the direction of anti-gay Christians when he addressed a gathering of the LGBTQ Victory Fund in Washington. His former reticence was gone, replaced by an excruciating honesty. “There were times in my life,” he said, “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.” But if there had been a “cure,” he said, “the best thing in my life, my marriage, might not have happened at all. Thank God there was no pill. Thank God there was no knife.”

Then he made the personal political. “If me being gay was a choice,” he said, “it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand—that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

That was more than enough to send the vice president’s admirers into apoplectic fits, but Buttigieg wasn’t content to stop with his rendition of “Born This Way.” For denizens of the religious right, there was a greater provocation to come: His marriage hadn’t just made him “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent,” he said. “My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.”

Buttigieg knew perfectly well those were fighting words. One of his rarest political assets, as I found when I followed him as he campaigned for other young candidates last fall, is that he never says or does anything that his hyperactive brain hasn’t fully worked through. He knew on Sunday that he was issuing a challenge to religious-right orthodoxy that would bring a hailstorm of condemnation. He knew there would be no turning back, for the remainder of his public life, to posing as the bright young problem-solver who could claim his sexuality was just one small and somewhat incidental aspect of who he was.

The wrath has come down, good and hard, since Sunday. From being the one Democratic candidate some on the right found halfway palatable, Buttigieg was transformed overnight into the left-wing anti-Christ of 2020. Laura Ingraham called him “sanctimonious and self-righteous.” At PJ Media, Paula Bolyard asserted that the mayor “denigrates Christians and Christianity at every turn, brands supporters of traditional marriage as akin to racists, and seeks to erase every vestige of Christianity from public life.” Buttigieg’s thoroughly mainstream support for reproductive rights now marked him, she wrote, as “an openly gay man who supports the murder of babies on their way out of the birth canal.”

Never one to be out-bludgeoned, conservative blogger Erick Erickson fumed: “I mean if Buttigieg thinks evangelicals should be supporting him instead of Trump, he fundamentally does not understand the roots of Christianity. But then he is an Episcopalian, so he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.” Meanwhile, a much-retweeted “gotcha” made the rounds on Twitter—a photo of Mayor Pete with then-Indiana Governor Pence. This made Twitchy ask: “Why was Pete Buttigieg willingly hanging out with someone who allegedly hates him for being gay?”

If the blowback was predictable, it was also remarkably unhinged. And revealing. Long before Sunday’s address, Buttigieg had been questioning evangelicals’ overwhelming support for President Trump. He’d lit into their “exaltation of wealth and power, almost for its own sake, that in my reading of the scripture couldn’t be more contrary to the message of Christianity.” He’d asserted that true Christian faith “is going to point you in a progressive direction.” But none of that produced the vitriol that resulted from his calling-out of Pence.

Evangelicals have heard plenty of criticism—some of it from within the movement—about their transactional Trumpism. They’ve built up their arsenal of defenses on that score. But Pence is different; he’s one of them. They leapt to his defense almost as if they were defending themselves. Which, in essence, they were.

The most popular anti-Buttigieg meme this week was summed up in a tweet by social-media entrepreneur Charlie Kirk:

This was accurate, as far as it went. Pence did say those nice things about Buttigieg in June 2015, when he was asked about the mayor’s coming-out article. As Buttigieg himself has noted, Pence has never publicly said a bad word about him. This became, over the last few days, irrefutable evidence that Buttigieg was simply inventing a quarrel with the saintly veep for cheap political gain. “The only basis for Pete Buttigieg’s false claim that Mike Pence hates him and his husband is Buttigieg’s own prejudice against traditional and evangelical Christians,” another Pence-defender tweeted.

The fact that Pence championed one of the most notorious anti-gay laws in recent history, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, didn’t merit a mention amid the right-wing firestorm. Nor did his long history of cheering on anti-gay laws and rulings, nor his apparent support for “reparative therapy,” a cruel and discredited form of church-sanctioned psychological torture pretending to be a “cure” for homosexuality that’s now been banned in several states.

It was the dishonestly named “religious freedom” law—which Pence had signed in March 2015—that helped spur Buttigieg to come out publicly three months later. And Pence’s praise of Buttigieg came after his own popularity had tanked in the wake of the roundly unpopular legislation, which was making his re-election campaign for governor in 2016 an uphill climb. Pence was scrambling to save his political skin, until Trump tapped him as his running mate and delivered him from Indiana. No gay person, by then, could consider him anything but a dangerous and determined enemy of their very humanity.

By refusing to let Pence off the hook, Buttigieg was taking square aim at the religious right’s most cherished rationale for its anti-gay bigotry—the old canard of “loving the sinner but hating the sin.” Growing up among conservative Christians myself, I heard it constantly: “I love you as a child of God, and part of my love is telling you that you’re eternally damned if you don’t suppress your desires.” Pence is the poster boy for this insidious brand of hate masquerading as love, and the smiling face he put on for Buttigieg exemplified it.

“I guess he knew damn well not to go there with me,” Buttigieg told me last fall. “He was perfectly pleasant to my face. Always polite. But it’s what you do, particularly in a position of power, that actually speaks to who you are. And we all know what he did, and what he quite clearly wants to do beyond that.”

Buttigieg’s message on Sunday stung so much because it wasn’t just aimed at Pence but, by extension, at all the smiling Christians who want nothing more than to strip basic rights away from the objects of their public politesse. While the religious right has by and large abandoned the old ugly rhetoric about gays being pedophilic, disease-carrying moral monsters, the agenda hasn’t changed. And Buttigieg was using his own newfound power to deliver a bracing message: Sorry, folks, you’re not fooling me. In fact, you’re not fooling anybody but yourselves.

Clearly, that hit home. And the reaction was fiercer, I think, because Buttigieg’s political prominence itself represents a mortal threat to the intolerant excesses of conservative Christianity. Every advancement in LGBTQ rights has involved stripping away, one by one, prejudices rooted in right-wing religious tradition. Gay men weren’t proper men, real men like God meant to make them—until they began to fight bravely for their rights, alongside other queer folk, in the 1960s and 70s. Gay people were nothing but sexually depraved creatures of lust, the preachers preached, until the AIDS crisis of the 1980s demonstrated the irrefutable depths of their humanity. Even so, gays were hostile to family values, incapable of real love. They would destroy marriage. They could not be trusted with children. Not until they won the right to prove, at long last, that the opposite was true.

A gay and devoutly Christian president would represent one more great stripping-away of the dehumanizing myths so long, and so successfully, propagated by the religious right: In this case, the notion that the gays (much like the communists, the atheists, the feminists, the blacks—name your pariahs) want to “take over,” with the ultimate aim of destroying traditionalist Christianity and all its fine values.

When Buttigieg made it emphatically clear, on Sunday in Washington, that he was not going to make nice—that he would use his newly powerful platform to call out the bigotry behind the religious right’s “love”—he sent a bone-chilling message to all the Erick Ericksons out there. The very basis of their faith, after all, is fear: fear of God, fear of sin, fear of difference. By liberating himself from his own fears—both personal and political—Buttigieg has evolved into a dangerous figure for the champions of American intolerance as he prepares to formally announce his candidacy this coming Sunday. He’s demonstrating a level of blessed assurance that his detractors are showing they lack. His strength is laying bare their weakness. Of course they’re furious—and scared.