For most of the last 40 years, the notion that one's Christian beliefs should guide one's voting has largely been promoted by conservative Republicans.
Two Republican presidential candidates from that period — Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee — are former Southern Baptist preachers and one, Ted Cruz, is the son of a conservative evangelical pastor. All three on repeated occasions tied the Christian vote to the Republican cause.
"If Christians will simply show up and vote our values," Cruz told the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2015, "we'll turn this country around."
This year, a Democratic presidential candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., is making the same argument, with a twist: A vote based on Christian values, Buttigieg suggests, would indeed turn the country around, but in a "progressive" direction.
Buttigieg says protecting the poor and welcoming immigrants is a Christian obligation that is inconsistent with Republican priorities.
"It has a very clear set of moral and policy implications, none of which are things I would associate with the right wing," Buttigieg said in an interview last week with the Now This website. "Christianity to me is about humility, it's about love, and if we want to put those values into political practice, at least by my lights, they lead us in a very progressive direction."
The Christian faith has been tied to liberal politics before. It happens regularly at places like Riverside Church in New York City, famous for its promotion of progressive causes. Pastor Amy Butler used her Easter Sunday sermon to lament U.S. immigration policy, misogyny, police violence and environmental neglect.
"We need a new way to see the world, and we need it fast," Butler said. "Thank goodness Easter is here."
Butler believes it is appropriate to tie a message of Christ's resurrection to what people encounter each day in the news. "[With] the constant barrage of indignities coming from the White House," she said, "I don't think you can talk about resurrection and second chances without addressing some of those things."
It's uncommon, however, for Democratic presidential candidates to draw such connections. The Republican Party is more often associated with the religious right than Democrats are with an analogous movement on the left.
Buttigieg's suggestion that liberals be willing to say that "Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction," as he told USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers, provoked some outrage on the right. One conservative academic argued that Buttigieg "doesn't get to make up his own Christianity," and another conservative dismissed Buttigieg's comments as "partisan nonsense."
Such objections would presumably apply as well to Republican politicians who have not hesitated to interpret Christianity as supportive of their agenda.
Peter Wehner, a speechwriter for then-President George W. Bush, is among those who have raised concerns about Buttigieg's connection of Christianity and progressivism, writing in The Atlantic that such claims "ought to worry Christians regardless of their politics."
Wehner said he has the same objection to conservatives associated with the religious right.
"They've crossed the line time and time again," Wehner told NPR. "They've issued Christian score cards, and they've said implicitly or explicitly that if someone is a faithful Christian, they're going to believe certain things on a whole range of public policy issues. And I don't think that's a responsible position to take."
Such an approach, Wehner says, reduces the Bible to a "governing blueprint."
"Christianity as a faith stands in judgment of all political ideologies and all political parties," Wehner says, "so to try and say that the Christian faith will lead you only to a set of liberal or conservative policies, or only the Republican or Democratic Party, I think is wrong."
In times of uncertainty about how to act in the modern world, Christians sometimes wonder, "What would Jesus do?"
"It's an important question to ask," says Pastor Duke Kwon, a popular minister at Grace Meridian Hill church in Washington, D.C. "Jesus is the truest example of love and justice we've ever had in human history."
"That question can be problematic at times, though," Kwon adds," because at times we don't know exactly what Jesus would have done in X, Y, Z case study or circumstance. So we end up speculating, and that can get Christians into trouble."
"I think there is a problem when we try too quickly to say that our view of this or that matter of public policy is the only legitimate Christian view," Kwon says. "I think one of the hallmarks of Christian discourse in the public square ought to be humility, respect, patience, self-control. [Those are] virtues that are informed by the Gospel of Christ, and all too often that's the opposite of what you hear from Christians when speaking out on policy issues."
If politicians on the left start claiming that Christian beliefs support their agenda, however, it could at least balance those on the right who have made that argument before, and it could encourage voters to consider more carefully what implications their faith may have for their political preferences.
"There is such a thing as a Christian ethic," says Wehner, now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "We're required to pursue justice, to care for the weak and the powerless, to promote human dignity and human flourishing."
On that, Kwon agrees. "I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ does inform politics," he says. "It has vast implications for all of life."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Your religious faith - it's personal. But how should your faith guide your voting? That's a question once again popping up in politics, specifically the presidential election. Mayor Pete Buttigieg provoked some conservatives recently when he suggested Christian beliefs lead in a, quote, "progressive direction." People on the religious right have argued the opposite. NPR's Tom Gjelten says some faith leaders are troubled by the debate.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: When former governor Mike Huckabee was running for president in 2008, he said the Constitution should be changed to make it line up with, quote, "God's standards." Over the years, many Republicans have associated the Christian faith with conservative causes. Here is Senator Ted Cruz from an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2015, when he was running.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TED CRUZ: If Christians will simply show up and vote our values, we'll turn this country around.
GJELTEN: What's new this year is that a Democratic candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is making basically the same argument - that by voting your values, you can turn the country around. It's just the values that are different. In an interview last week with the NowThis website, Buttigieg said protecting the poor and welcoming immigrants is a Christian obligation.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
PETE BUTTIGIEG: It has a very clear set of moral and policy implications, none of which are things I would associate with the right wing. Christianity, to me, is about humility. It's about love. And if we want to put those values into political practice, at least by my lights, they lead us in a very progressive direction.
GJELTEN: Christianity has been linked before to liberal politics. It's done every week, for example, at Riverside Church in New York City, famous for its promotion of progressive causes. Pastor Amy Butler says her Easter Sunday sermon tied the message of Christ's resurrection to what people encounter each day via the news.
AMY BUTLER: Just the constant barrage of indignities coming from the White House. And I don't think you can talk about resurrection and second chances and new life without addressing some of those things.
GJELTEN: This year, that view is likely to be echoed by Democratic candidates if the Pete Buttigieg faith-and-politics message gets picked up by others, as if to answer the religious right. Peter Wehner wrote some of President George W. Bush's best-known speeches. He's also a devout Christian. But he says he has never advocated tying the Christian faith too closely to a political agenda.
PETER WEHNER: Christianity, as a faith, stands in judgment of all political ideologies and all political parties. So to try and say that the Christian faith will lead you to only a set of liberal or conservative policies or only to the Republican or Democratic Party, I think, is wrong.
GJELTEN: That approach, Wehner says, reduces the Bible to a governing blueprint. In times of uncertainty about how to act in the modern world, Christians sometimes ask, what would Jesus do? Pastor Duke Kwon, who ministers at Grace Meridian Hill Church in downtown Washington, says it's a good question, given that Jesus was, in his words, the truest example of love and justice.
DUKE KWON: That question can be problematic at times, though, because we don't always know exactly what Jesus would have done in X, Y, Z case study or circumstance. And so we end up speculating.
GJELTEN: Of all people, Kwon says, Christians ought to show humility in their public discourse.
KWON: Humility, respect, patience, self-control - virtues that are informed by the Gospel of Christ and, all too often, the opposite of what you hear from Christians when speaking out on policy issues.
GJELTEN: Many Christian leaders would say it's good that candidates are discussing their faith publicly. Their disagreements over what their faith means may even enrich the political debate. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAKENOBU'S "CHE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.