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What Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer had to say to a room filled with people of faith

Both candidates spoke this week at the National Faith Forum in Las Vegas

In this composite image, left, Democratic presidential candidate, businessman Tom Steyer speaks during a town hall at Faith in Action’s 2020 National Faith Forum, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Las Vegas. Right, Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at the LULAC Presidential Town Hall, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Las Vegas.
Patrick Semansky and John Locher, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — The Rev. Alvin Herring believes in the power of a good conversation. No matter whether he’s helping people register to vote, increase census participation or expand religion’s role in the public square, he thinks talking with neighbors about why it matters is the starting point for large-scale change.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Rev. Herring, who serves as executive director of Faith in Action, a multiracial and multifaith community organizing network, was more interested in “exchanging ideas” with the top presidential candidates who appeared at his organization’s National Faith Forum in Las Vegas this week than hearing their stump speeches.

During their separate presentations, the Rev. Herring told Pete Buttigieg, who is the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Tom Steyer, a philanthropist and environmental activist, that they’d have just five minutes to tell the crowd of around 300 faith-based community organizers about themselves before he invited members of the audience to share parts of their stories and start asking questions.

“We’re asking some very tough questions,” the Rev. Herring said.

The candidates heard from people across the country who say they’ve suffered as a result of existing policies related to racial and economic equality. A formerly incarcerated woman called for criminal justice reform; a woman who immigrated to the United States described the need for new border policies; and a Chicago-based activist who has lost several loved ones to gun violence said policymakers need to pay more attention to inner-city shootings.

Both Steyer and Buttigieg often connected their responses to moral teachings, sharing their support for Faith in Action’s goal of building a more just society.

“Personal faith calls me above anything else to make myself useful in all worldly actions to those who are marginalized, oppressed (and) cast out,” Buttigieg said. “Every decision being made right now has moral weight.”

“We are going to get back to being a moral country that respects human beings,” Steyer said after reflecting on his frustration with current environmental regulations.

Steyer, who has made fighting climate change a pillar of his presidential campaign, later told the Deseret News that he draws inspiration from Pope Francis in his advocacy work.

“(The pope) has said there are two real rules: Protect the most vulnerable among us and protect God’s earth. And, you know, if you follow those two rules, you end up in the right place,” said Steyer, who is Episcopalian.

Both candidates emphasized the need to bring people most affected by climate change, gun violence or immigration policies into a conversation about how to fix them.

“You need to get information from the people who live it and make sure your policy responds to their actual needs,” Steyer said.

Buttigieg, who spoke to conference participants by video from the campaign trail in California rather than in person, often referenced his friendships with members of underserved communities when describing his desire to bring about “systemic change.”

On immigration policy, “I would insist that there is a level of humanity, that the rule of law is enforced and that the voices of those most impacted are taken into account,” he said.

When pushed to be more specific about his stance on deportation, Buttigieg, who will be in Utah on Monday, would not commit to ending the practice, but he did promise to be more respectful of immigrants and their loved ones.

Right now, at the border “our values are being torn to shreds,” he said.

The candidate presentations were only a small piece of the three-day National Faith Forum, which was primarily focused on training faith-based community organizers and strengthening relationships between Faith in Action organizations in different states. Participants listened to presentations on how to increase census participation in their region, improve their advocacy campaigns and get out the vote for this year’s election.

However, those brief conversations with Buttigieg and Steyer were crucial to Faith in Action’s goal of getting policymakers to pay more attention to the concerns of multiracial religious communities, the Rev. Herring said. No matter who is elected in November, that person should look to faith-based coalitions like Faith in Action for guidance as they seek to improve the country’s policies.

“Every important conversation, people of faith need to be in it,” he said.

After each candidate spoke, the Rev. Herring invited them to take part in a prayer. He asked God to be with the men during their campaigns and emphasized the significance of the 2020 election and the important role religious communities can and should play in it.

“If it should be this dear brother (who is elected), we ask that he not forget the Lord’s people here today,” the Rev. Herring said during his prayer for Steyer.

The next day, in his prayer for Buttigieg, the Rev. Herring said, “Lord, have him know that there is a nation that is watching. That people of faith who believe in justice are listening very carefully to his words and actions.”