[Episcopal News Service] Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, an Episcopalian who made his religion a prominent aspect of his campaign in this year’s Democratic presidential primary, spoke to The Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies via Zoom on July 15 about living his faith as a public leader, answering deputies’ questions about everything from his military service to his two rescue dogs.
Buttigieg spoke to about 400 deputies and alternates as part of a series of Zoom webinars hosted by the House of Deputies – one half of The Episcopal Church’s General Convention – dealing with “the ministry of governance to which deputies have been called.”
Buttigieg was invited to speak by the Very Rev. Brian Grantz, a deputy and the dean and rector of South Bend’s Cathedral of St. James, where Buttigieg worships and where he married his husband Chasten in 2018.
In introducing Buttigieg, Grantz testified to the sincerity of the man who has sat “in the same seat on Sunday morning in the fourth pew from the back, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday for 10 years” and recalled a conversation he had with Buttigieg during his first term as mayor, in which Buttigieg shared that he viewed public office as a “diaconal ministry.”
Buttigieg told the deputies he misses that pew at the cathedral, which is closed due to COVID-19. Like many Episcopalians, he’s found the loss of in-person worship difficult.
“I’ve found it really challenging,” he said. “As somebody who is maybe politically progressive but I’m liturgically conservative, I depend on the rhythms of liturgy, and, and as we’re all finding, there are parts of it that we can grasp powerfully through technology and others that just aren’t there across the computer screen.”
Buttigieg shared stories from his presidential campaign, his time as mayor and his winding journey into The Episcopal Church. Raised by parents who came from Roman Catholic and Episcopalian backgrounds, Buttigieg began attending an Anglican church while studying at Oxford University and ended up at St. James when he moved back to South Bend. He found “a sense of spiritual grounding” there. His newfound identity as an Episcopalian, he said, became real when it was listed on the dog tags he was issued before being deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as a naval intelligence officer.
Buttigieg addressed the importance of bringing faith into the public sphere, and he spoke to how a reluctance to live one’s faith publicly can leave it to be defined by others.
“Those who are on my side of the aisle, those who view themselves as more progressive are sometimes allergic to talking about faith in a way that I’m afraid has made it feel as if God really did have one political party,” Buttigieg said. “And so it was very important to me to assert otherwise, but also to talk about the political implications of the commandments to concern ourselves with the well-being of the most marginalized and the most vulnerable.”
The United States is suffering from a lack of trust in institutions, and understandably so, Buttigieg said, pointing to systemic racism in everything from law enforcement to the medical establishment. Faith communities have a crucial role to play in rebuilding that trust, he told deputies, adding that the resolutions they pass establish “a kind of moral authority … that comes from outside of the traditional political space.” Resolutions on specific national issues can break through political partisanship and keep the conversation focused on policies, he said.
With his mayoralty and his presidential candidacy behind him, Buttigieg will teach at the University of Notre Dame in the coming academic year on the subject of rebuilding trust in political institutions.
“He really understands his public service as a vocation,” House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings told Episcopal News Service. “I think the big takeaway for me was that your faith and your values and your politics are of the same cloth. They’re not separate. It was clear to me that his understanding himself as a person of faith, as a Christian, as an Episcopalian, that that’s not just a separate piece of his life but it’s part of the whole fabric of his life.”
Deputies got to hear about his much quieter post-campaign life at home with Truman and Buddy – “a wayward Lab mix of some kind” and “a one-eyed puggle on a weight loss journey” – and his husband Chasten, whose cooking, Buttigieg said, he has come to appreciate as part of the “spirituality of the everyday.”
“We’re connected with the everyday in a whole new way,” he said. “I never was somebody very connected to the Earth – certainly the lawn. And now we have just these moments of interaction with, literally, birds and butterflies – sounds like a cliché, just things that happen in your own backyard. You don’t always pause to think about, let alone imagine, that the presence of God is there. What could be funnier than watching a bird take a bath? And I just never sat still long enough to do it in my own backyard.”
Byron Rushing, vice president of the House of Deputies, appreciated that Buttigieg was not there to give a stump speech but to offer lessons from his own life and show what ministry can look like for laypeople in The Episcopal Church.
“I think most of the people on that call got a sense of what it is to be an Episcopalian and see this public policy as your ministry,” Rushing, who served for 36 years in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, told ENS. “And have dogs and be married and have a backyard!”
Buttigieg, Rushing said, is an example of the “ministry of the baptized,” and a reminder that laypeople are called to ministry in their lives, not just in their churches.
“They realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute. Yes! What I do is my primary ministry.’ There’d be no Episcopal Church if there wasn’t Monday through Saturday,” Rushing said.
And as much as Buttigieg reveres his vocation as a politician, he extended his admiration to the deputies as they undertake the sometimes-thorny work of church governance.
“I have been pleased to be involved in the church and to be involved in politics, but I would not dare get anywhere near church politics,” he said.
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.