Op-Ed: Americans are looking for a Redeemer President. Do any 2020 candidates fit the bill?

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg waits to speak to a crowd about his presidential run at the Circle of Friends Community Center in Greenville, S.C. on March 23.
(Richard Shiro / Associated Press)

Twice in the past half-century, in 1976 and again in 2000, Americans have sought a Redeemer President, someone whose election promised to expunge the sins of his predecessor. Next year’s election is shaping up as another such.

By the mid-1970s, Americans had grown weary of misrepresentations emanating from the White House. Lyndon B. Johnson had lied to us about Vietnam, and Richard Nixon had lied about, well, pretty much everything. In hindsight, it’s probably no accident that the electorate turned to a one-term former governor of Georgia who wasn’t shy about touting his resume as a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher. In the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter promised he would “never knowingly lie to the American people,” a pledge so starkly in contrast to Nixon’s endless prevarications that it catapulted Carter to the presidency.

In 2000, Americans once again sought a president who could atone for the transgressions of his predecessor, in this case Bill Clinton and the tawdriness of the Monica Lewinsky affair and the shame it brought on the presidency and the nation. Al Gore, the Democratic nominee and Clinton’s vice president, sought in vain to distance himself from Clinton’s indiscretions (not least by naming Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Clinton critic and observant Jew, as his running mate). Albeit by a slim — and contested — margin, Americans turned this time to a United Methodist who, like Carter, wore his “born again” status proudly. George W. Bush, again like Carter, was a family man, and his transformation from too much drinking to the straight and narrow appealed to the electorate.

So far, the two candidates who seem most comfortable employing a moral vocabulary on the campaign trail are Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker.


Now, once again, Americans have every reason to look for a leader who can demonstrate that he or she has a moral compass. Donald Trump exemplifies the worst of both previous examples: a documented history of philandering, and lying at a rate that would make even Nixon blush — an average somewhere in the neighborhood of six a day, according to independent sources.

In searching for a Redeemer President, we should remember that religious affiliation is an imperfect proxy for morality; many atheists are paragons of virtue. But religion is typically the shorthand for judging someone’s moral and ethical fiber, so I’m astonished that so few of the many candidates running for the Democratic nomination have made their faith a calling card, thereby offering themselves as the redeemer option this time around.

Yes, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders make a right-versus-wrong argument for economic fairness. They are on the side of goodness, but do we have any indication that there is a personal moral core informing their policies other than their own humble origins?

Warren responded admirably to a question about faith at a CNN town hall, quoting Jesus about caring for “the least of these,” but declarations like this rarely come up unprompted on the campaign trail. Kamala Harris apparently has fungible views on the death penalty as does Kristen Gillibrand on gun safety. That in itself is no impediment; any intelligent being changes his or her opinions over time. But why aren’t they talking about the foundational principles that prompted those reconsiderations?


So far, the two candidates who seem most comfortable employing a moral vocabulary on the campaign trail are Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Cory Booker, U.S. senator from New Jersey. Booker’s apparent coziness with Wall Street and Big Pharma doesn’t immediately suggest deep principles — I expect he’ll have to justify those alliances more than once on the campaign trail — but his grounding in the black church leavens his rhetoric and sets him apart from a field whose language typically veers toward pugilism.

“Love means that I see you, I see your worth, I see your dignity,” Booker told a rally in Des Moines. “There are some days we may not like each other that much, but love says, I see you.”

Buttigieg is a gay man and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He is also a person unafraid to talk about faith.

During a recent interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Buttigieg declared that he was an active Episcopalian and noted that he and his husband were married at the Cathedral of St. James, an “urban faith community” in South Bend. Buttigieg said it was time to “reclaim faith” from “the prism of the religious right.”


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When host Joe Scarborough interrupted with a question about whether Buttigieg, like Barack Obama, had “accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior,” Buttigieg quickly responded, “Yes, but there’s so much more to it” than litmus-test questions. “When God comes among us,” he said, “you see service, you see humbling, you see foot-washing.” It’s about servant leadership, he said.

The lesson of Booker and Buttigieg is especially germane to the Democratic Party, which for too long has been allergic to expressions of faith. “I think the time has come for more of a religious left to emerge in our country,” Buttigieg declared. Too often, he said, religious voices talk about exclusion.

While affirming his strong belief in the 1st Amendment and the separation of church and state, Buttigieg said, “I do think it’s important for candidates to at least have the option to talk about our faith.”


Other Democratic candidates might want to avail themselves of that opportunity.

Randall Balmer, a professor at Dartmouth College and an Episcopal priest, is the author of “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter” and “God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.”

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