With Iowa on the line, Buttigieg leans into his faith

Ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor has made morality and theology a key part of his closing pitch.
Image: Pete Buttigieg
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., speaks during a campaign event Jan. 30, 2020, in Ankeny, Iowa.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

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By Adam Edelman

ANKENY, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg hasn’t been afraid to mention religion over the course of his 10-month-old presidential campaign.

But with the first-in-the-nation Iowa contest coming up, the gay former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is increasingly making morality and theology a key part of his closing pitch to caucusgoers, even quoting scripture on the stump.

That approach — which includes the message that the Republican Party does not have a monopoly on churchgoing voters — could pay off in the predominantly white, predominantly Christian Hawkeye State, where polls have Buttigieg narrowly trailing former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Nearly 80 percent of residents says religion is very or somewhat important to them, according to the Pew Research Center, and Buttigieg has leaned into his faith with an eye toward wooing Democrats and independents at campaign events across the state.

At a hotel ballroom in Ankeny, a Des Moines suburb, Buttigieg told an enthusiastic crowd Thursday night that “God does not belong to a political party in the United States of America.”

“Americans of every religion and of no religion are ready to stand united on the moral principle of treating others as we would want to be treated,” he said.

Citing scripture, he said there was a “historic opportunity to engage voters of faith,” including disaffected Republicans.

“There's a lot of folks sitting in the pews right now, looking around wondering, 'Wait a minute, is my faith supposed to mean that I support this White House?' What about I was hungry and you fed me. What about I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” he said.

“We have got to at least make clear that it is every bit as natural for people of faith to be drawn to the Poor People's Campaign as it is to the 700 Club,” Buttigieg said, referring to an economic justice movement and the conservative Christian television program hosted by Pat Robertson, respectively.

Iowa voters interviewed by NBC News said they loved hearing a Democratic candidate who wasn't afraid to speak about his or her faith.

"Democrats haven’t even tried to talk to people of faith," said Shelley Smith, 47, a teacher in Ankeny who described herself as a “person of Christian faith.” “All you ever hear is that conservatives are the ones who are religious. But everyone has their own beliefs, and it’s really nice to hear a Democrat speak about morals and values in a very religious way, but without shoving it down your throat.”

Barb Nelson, 67, a retiree from Altoona, Iowa, said she welcomed Buttigieg's overt discussion of faith.

“It resonates deeply with me,” she said.

Lauren Lacefield Lewis, a Buttigieg campaign volunteer who traveled from Austin, Texas, to help turn out caucusgoers, said she’d “felt a big disconnect my whole life from the Democratic Party, even though their policies line up with what I think” — until she heard Buttigieg.

“My whole life, I’ve been waiting for the Democratic Party to connect with me and other people of faith," Lewis, a self-described “lifelong devout Catholic,” said. “He speaks so much about morality and inclusion and a sense of belonging, that all humans have value. And he says it, often, by way of discussing Christianity.”

At various points in his campaign, Buttigieg, a churchgoing Episcopalian, has talked frankly about his faith and said there is a need for Christian voters to focus on inclusiveness. Last year, Buttigieg -- who married his husband, Chasten, in 2018 -- repeatedly took aim at Vice President Mike Pence for supporting policies and espousing views that are anti-LGBTQ.

Brandy McKibben, who saw Buttigieg speak earlier Thursday in Marshalltown, Iowa, where the former mayor preached inclusiveness, said that, “Everything he stands for and everything he wants to do as far as uniting us is just based on helping the little people.”

“That’s a very Christian value, and I appreciate that he can say it is a Christian value,” McKibben, 43, a hairdresser who identified herself as Catholic, said.

“To have a commander in chief like him, morally speaking, compared to what we have right now, would be wonderful,” she added. “There is an appetite in the Democratic Party for someone who isn’t afraid to speak about religion, about faith, who does that kind of thing publicly.”

Priscilla Thompson contributed.