What did Mike Pence ever do to Pete Buttigieg? During a speech at the LGBTQ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch on Sunday, the South Bend mayor and 2020 Democrat presidential hopeful lambasted the vice president. “If me [sic] being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade,” Buttigieg preached to the choir. “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.” Perhaps all political problems really are theological.
For his part, Pence has never criticized Buttigieg. He has never attacked Buttigieg for his homosexuality or anything else. When Buttigieg deployed to Afghanistan, Pence phoned to wish him well. The only time Pence publicly referred to the South Bend mayor was to pay him a compliment. “I hold Mayor Buttigieg in the highest personal regard,” wrote Pence in 2015, after Buttigieg declared himself gay. “I see him as a dedicated public servant and a patriot,” gushed Pence — not exactly fighting words.
But notice Buttigieg’s diction. He takes issue, not with Mike Pence per se, but with “the Mike Pences of the world.” Vice President Pence’s critics point to his Evangelical faith as evidence of an irrational animus toward gays. By “the Mike Pences of the world,” Buttigieg alludes to all those whose faith proscribes homosexual acts as sinful. But Evangelical Christians are hardly alone in taking a strict view of sexual morality. Every theistic religion, including Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, Judaism, Mormonism, and Islam, has traditionally held homosexual congress in moral opprobrium.
Buttigieg might have conveyed his point more clearly by stating, “That’s the thing I wish the Muslims and Orthodox Jews of the world would understand — that if you’ve got a problem with my homosexuality, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel is with my creator.” Buttigieg offers an explicitly religious argument: that disapproval of homosexual acts blasphemes God because He has so ordered the world that some people are born with homosexual desires.
But why would Buttigieg make a religious argument at all, particularly one so controversial? And why aim it at a politician who has offered nothing but compliments and support? Mike Pence has never so much as mentioned Pete Buttigieg’s sexual behavior; unprompted, Pete Buttigieg directly questioned Mike Pence’s faith.
No politician on either side of the aisle has made an issue of Buttigieg’s sexual preferences. Perhaps that’s why Mayor Pete must tilt at windmills. An unknown, white, male, Ivy League-educated Midwest mayor faces an uphill battle in Democrats’ intersectional presidential primaries. As Slate wondered last week, “Is Pete Buttigieg just another white male candidate, or does his gayness count as diversity?”
To stand a chance in 2020, the elite young mayor must somehow portray himself as an aggrieved victim. That leaves Buttigieg only one option at the moment: to make his sexuality the central issue of his campaign, and to make his case in bad faith.