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Pete Buttigieg's faith was as much a part of his profile as being LGBT. Is it a model for others?

His nomination to Biden's cabinet makes clear the former mayor has a bright future in politics. The question is whether he can pull others up with him.
Image: Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg speaks during a news conference at President-elect Joe Biden's transition headquarters Dec. 16, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.Kevin Lamarque / Getty Images

When President-elect Joe Biden this week announced his intention to nominate former South Bend, Indiana, mayor (and one-time rival for the Democratic presidential nomination) Pete Buttigieg as his secretary of transportation, many people once again began speculating about the rising star's future role in the Democratic Party and as a candidate for federal office again.

Of course, calls for Buttigieg to be included in the incoming administration began almost as soon as the polls closed in early November — and many in his party believe that he is likely to return to the presidential campaign trail in the coming years, having passed up the opportunity to challenge his home state governor, Eric Holcomb of Indiana, this past election cycle. A Cabinet-level appointment will undoubtedly help Buttigieg's national prospects by providing the opportunity for him to gain both additional experience and broad name recognition.

But whether or not a stint at transportation secretary raises his national profile, the question still remains whether America has changed enough to consider electing not just an openly LGBTQ+ politician to federal office — of whom there have been notably few — let alone an openly gay and religious politician — who to date have been noticeably absent from national politics.

On the presidential campaign trail, Buttigieg was neither shy about speaking of his personal faith nor hesitant to use it to counter Republican talking points — especially about LGBTQ+ rights. One particularly striking moment came at aVictory Fund event in April 2019, when Buttigieg emphasized that his marriage made him not just a better man, but also moved him closer to God.

How receptive is the broader membership of the Democratic Party to a LGBT politician with a deeply held faith?

Buttigieg’s approach to both his identity and his faith initially helped him stand out in a crowded field, especially the early primary in Iowa. But how receptive is the broader membership of the Democratic Party to a LGBT politician with a deeply held faith? And how do Republicans view the marriage of an openly professed religious belief and an openly LGBTQ identity?

Our new research in the December issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion demonstrates that Democrats are relatively — but not universally — affirming of professions of faith from LGBTQ+ candidates, while respondents identifying with the GOP remain categorically opposed to LGBTQ+ candidates regardless of whether they are religious.

Our original survey experiment found that most Republicans prefer a straight, religious candidate relative to other choices, while most Democrats favor nonreligious candidates.

At the same time, when provided the choice between a straight, nonreligious candidate and a gay, religious candidate, Republicans are more open to voting for the former. Not even religion — which the GOP claims to so dearly value — offsets their members’ antipathy for LGBTQ+ people.

Faith may give LGBTQ+ candidates the critical edge they need among independent and more conservative Democratic voters to win tight races.

In stark contrast, Democrats are more likely to weigh their competing preferences. While they did not show more support for a LGBTQ+ religious candidate relative to all other choices, they did report being more likely to vote for a LGBTQ+ religious candidate relative to a straight, religious one. This is significant since faith matters to voters in many parts of the United States — especially the heartland and the South.

Our study has implications far beyond Buttigieg’s presidential aspirations: A record number of openly LGBTQ+ candidates were on state and local ballots Nov. 3, and a surprising number confronted Republicans on what had traditionally been their home turf by bringing religion to the fight.

In California, for instance, Freddy Puza emphasized that his drive to help those on the margins of society stems from his Jesuit education. Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., once again mobilized support from both pro-LBGTQ+ and faith-based groups to win re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In fact, our preliminary review of LGBTQ+ candidates' 2020 public bios finds that nearly a fifth mentioned religion in some way.

This new trend could be very important for LGBTQ+ candidates in the future. Given Republicans’ biases, Democratic candidates will almost certainly face off against straight, religious opponents in state and local elections across the country. And, while our study focused on presidential elections, faith may give LGBTQ+ candidates the critical edge they need among independent and more conservative Democratic voters to win tight Congressional or municipal races in the years to come.

Additionally — and unexpectedly — LGBTQ+ candidates might also end up leading the charge to help the Democratic Party as a whole come out of the religious closet. For far too long, many mainstream Democrats have been— in the words of Buttigieg — “allergic to religious language” despite the fact that many Black Democratic voters are deeply religious.

If these other Democrats follow the lead of their LGBTQ+ colleagues and seize this political moment to solve their “religion problem” for good, Republican candidates will no longer be the only faith game in town. If the “God vote” is truly up for grabs in the future, it is possible that the soul of American politics will be radically transformed — and openly gay and religious candidates might not just be competitive in U.S. elections, but could also hold the highest political office in the land during our lifetime.