WASHINGTON — As a religious gay man who believes his party has ceded discussion of religion and spirituality to Republicans, Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic candidate for president, is talking about God and sexuality in an unconventional way: He is using the language of faith to confront the Christian right on territory they have long claimed as their own.
Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has provoked a backlash from conservatives in the last few days after questioning the moral authority of evangelicals like Vice President Mike Pence who remain silent about President Trump’s personal conduct yet disapprove of same-sex marriages and oppose gay rights.
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Though many conservatives were initially reticent to engage Mr. Buttigieg because they feared it would only add to his growing stature as a 2020 contender, they jumped on his latest comments. Some suggested he was attacking the vice president to further raise his profile. Others challenged Mr. Buttigieg’s understanding of Christianity and accused him of smearing the religious convictions of the very people he wants to win over.
A devoted Episcopalian who fluidly quotes Scripture and married his husband, Chasten, in a church service last year, Mr. Buttigieg is making the argument that marriage is a “moral issue.” In a speech on Sunday to the Victory Fund, a group that supports gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender politicians, he said his relationship had made him “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent.”
He then directly addressed Mr. Pence, as one man of faith talking to another: “And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.”
This is not the domain where social conservatives and gay rights advocates are used to doing battle. In the decade and a half since same-sex marriage became a galvanizing issue for both sides, the national debate has largely focused on the tension between civil rights and individual freedoms.
Mr. Buttigieg has reframed it in religious terms, raising questions about God, morality, sexuality and intolerance that depart from the familiar left-right fault lines. That quickly caught the attention of Republicans and conservative media commentators, who tried to cast his remarks as an unprovoked attack on faith-abiding Christians.
Karen Pence, the vice president’s wife, insisted Tuesday that her husband has no quarrel with Mr. Buttigieg. “I don’t think the vice president does have a problem with him,” she said in an interview with Fox News radio. “I think in our country we need to understand you shouldn’t be attacked for what your religious beliefs are,” she added, noting that the speech was probably “helping Pete to get some notoriety.”
Mr. Buttigieg, who was elected mayor of South Bend in 2012, had a friendly working relationship with Mr. Pence while Mr. Pence was governor of Indiana. They toured factories together and occasionally exchanged text messages. Mr. Buttigieg has cited Mr. Pence’s support for legislation that made it easier for religious conservatives to refuse service to gay couples as a reason he decided to come out publicly in 2015.
Mr. Pence’s office responded to Mr. Buttigieg’s comments this week by releasing an old video clip in which he praised the mayor as a “dedicated public servant and a patriot.” Mr. Buttigieg’s ramped-up attacks on Mr. Pence have miffed the vice president, who has privately told allies that if Mr. Buttigieg had questions about his religious beliefs, he could have asked him at any time during their friendship.
The issue followed the vice president to the United Nations on Wednesday, where reporters shouted questions at him about whether being gay was a choice. Mr. Pence walked away without answering.
The reaction from other conservatives was less measured. A Fox News host, Todd Starnes, accused the mayor of wanting “to shove evangelical Christians into the closet.”
Erick Erickson, an evangelical blogger, said that Mr. Buttigieg’s comments about religious conservatives who support Mr. Trump suggest that he “would be O.K. with using the government to persecute Christians.” After Mr. Buttigieg spoke about his beliefs in an interview with USA Today, Mr. Erickson wrote a blog post headlined, “Mayor Pete Buttigieg Apparently Thinks Jesus Would Be Okay With Beastiality.” (Mr. Buttigieg actually said nothing on that subject, though he did quote a favorite Bible verse: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”)
Mr. Buttigieg has provoked a mixture of concern, derision and faint admiration from conservatives. Some built him up early as an undeniable but stealth force in the race. Rush Limbaugh warned his listeners that someone as articulate, personal and seemingly reasonable as Mr. Buttigieg would be a strong opponent. Ben Shapiro, the writer and podcast host, argued that he was the candidate who could most likely beat Mr. Trump. “Really. He’s not crazy, he’s from the Rust Belt, he served in Afghanistan,” Mr. Shapiro wrote on Twitter.
But this week provided a moment of clarity on the right, and the backlash was a reminder of how galvanizing religion and homosexuality can be when evangelicals and other conservatives of faith are convinced that their values are under attack. This sentiment, which was stoked by Mr. Trump and his allies in the Christian right in 2016, was a major factor in the president’s huge margins with white evangelicals. Eighty-one percent voted for him, compared with 16 percent for Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, if Mr. Buttigieg continues to gain in the polls, it could prompt the religious right to draw attention to numerous comments he has made about evangelicals and Mr. Trump — “the hypocrisy is unbelievable,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this week — as conservatives did after Mrs. Clinton called Trump voters a “basket of deplorables.”
Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Mr. Buttigieg’s approach struck him as odd given how so much of his message has been focused on unity and restoring the Democratic Party’s relationship with voters who are more religious and conservative. “It seems to me the solution to that is not to attack the faith of anyone else, whether it is the president, the vice president or anyone else,” Mr. Reed said. “The solution should be to talk about their own faith.”
Mr. Buttigieg’s words suggest that he will spend little effort trying to entice any of the president’s most loyal religious supporters. But by pushing the discussion of homosexuality and marriage toward morality and the Bible, he is opening a door to voters of faith who are turned off by the dominance of the Republican Party’s far right but are not yet convinced they could vote for a Democrat.
That approach would be similar to the one Barack Obama took in 2008 when he received 26 percent of the white evangelical vote. Mr. Trump’s approval rating among white evangelicals has remained high — 69 percent as of January, according to the Pew Research Center. But that has slipped 9 points since his inauguration.
Some evangelical Christians say that the fracture over Mr. Trump within their community runs so deep that the desire for an alternative — especially one like Mr. Buttigieg, who is so temperamentally different from the profane, brash and unpredictable president — will remain strong.
Pete Wehner, an evangelical who worked in the George W. Bush White House and has split with his community and his party over Mr. Trump, said the way Mr. Buttigieg speaks with ease and familiarity about Christianity is a trait many voters will find to be a welcome contrast with the president.
“It’s not a foreign language to him like it is to Donald Trump, so you’re not going to get ‘Two Corinthians’ from him,” Mr. Wehner said, referring to Mr. Trump’s flub of the Bible book properly referred to as “Second Corinthians.”
“He speaks about faith in a way that is largely nonthreatening and not filled with anger,” Mr. Wehner added. “That is a real opening.”
But the unflagging devotion that most white evangelicals have for the president suggests that many will be far more concerned with policy results like conservative Supreme Court justices than with electing someone who speaks their language. The relevant question for Mr. Buttigieg is whether there is a critical mass of those who are wavering.
“Mayor Pete could not have hoped to capture conservative Christian voters or moderate Christian voters at any point in modern American history — until now,” said Jonathan Merritt, an evangelical author and speaker who disagrees with the decision by evangelical political leaders to stand by the president.
Mr. Merritt, who believes the taint of hypocrisy has turned many young evangelicals like him away from traditional leaders, said he remembers growing up in the South when antipathy toward President Bill Clinton and his personal conduct was running hot.
The line he remembers seeing and hearing over and over, he said, was “character matters.”