Do you think maybe the two presidential candidates and their parties used the same algorithm when it came to choosing running mates this year? Because look what they came up with. Two gray-haired Irish-Catholic guys from the Midwest, both from working-to-middle-class backgrounds, both fifty-seven years old, both with experience as governors, and both with religious faith front and center in their lives. Mike Pence, Tim Kaine: they even both have monosyllabic first and last names. Tomorrow night they face off in a debate which, if skillfully moderated, could bring questions of faith to the fore. Let me give you some links to background material on both men.
During the summer Luke Hill posted on this site a look at Kaine and his experiences decades ago as a volunteer working with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras. More recently, the Times went into detail on this topic. Kaine grew up in a religiously observant family in Kansas City; in a C-SPAN interview he describes his parents’ assiduous churchgoing, recalling that “if we got back from a vacation on a Sunday night at 7:30 p.m., they would know the one church in Kansas City that had an 8 p.m. Mass.” He went to a Jesuit high school, where as a 10th grader he first visited Honduras. Six years later he interrupted his stint at Harvard Law School to go back and spend a year there. A future lawyer, in Honduras Kaine taught carpentry and welding, relying on skills learned from his father, who ran a small iron-working shop. The Times article describes him as “a young Catholic at a crossroads, undergoing a spiritual shift as he awakened to the plight of the deeply poor in Honduras,” and chronicles his interactions with various priests, both American and Honduran, who spent their lives assisting the people of that remote area.
These experiences proved formative. “The strong social-justice message of liberation theology,” the Times writes, helped “set Mr. Kaine on a left-veering career path in which he fought as a lawyer against housing discrimination, became a liberal mayor, and rose as a Spanish-speaking governor and senator with an enduring focus on Latin America.” Eventually settling in Richmond, Va., with his wife, he joined St. Elizabeth’s, a predominantly African-American church, where Mr. Kaine told his pastor that his exposure to liberation theology had “changed” and “deepened” him. Here is a 2013 video of Kaine discussing his involvement in St. Elizabeth’s and the challenges of trying to reconcile faith and church teachings with the political and legal realities of such issues as the death penalty – how to find a way, as governor, “to be true to my oath and true to myself.” And here is an NPR interview with Father Jim Arsenault, the priest at St. Elizabeth, discussing Kaine’s role in the close-knit parish community.
As for Mike Pence, he was raised Catholic, then experienced a spiritual crisis in college that led him eventually to make “a commitment to Christ,” as he put it later, and become an evangelical. But the transition was a gradual one. After finishing college in 1981, Pence worked as a Catholic youth minister. He has said that the plan was to become a priest, and though that didn’t happen, he was still attending mass in the late ’80s, describing himself as “a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” By the mid-1990s, though, he had joined Grace Evangelical Church in Indianapolis, a mega-church affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America (a Baptist denomination with roots in the Scandinavian free church movement).
Pence describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican – in that order.” His politics as a Congressman and governor have hewed closely to the line of evangelical conservatism: a stout emphasis on right-to-life issues; advocacy of religious liberty legislation; unwavering support of Israel (“Let me say emphatically... [that] my Christian faith compels me to cherish the state of Israel”); support of legislation protecting traditional marriage; evasiveness about evolution; and a squeaky-clean, teetotaling personal morality. An article in Roll Call about Pence as a Congressman asserts that “his reputation as a culture warrior was unsullied. He opposed federal spending on embryonic stem cell research, was active in efforts to advance a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, fought expansion of abortion rights and got new federal funding for Planned Parenthood cut off for a time.”
Here’s a recent article in Slate, “Where is Mike Pence’s Faith?” by an Indiana journalist who has covered him closely, noting that “Pence’s faith has driven decisions big and small” and that “his beliefs have shifted at least twice—from his family’s Catholicism to an idiosyncratic evangelical Christianity, and from that to a more hardened and ideological version of the same.” Here is a summary from National Catholic Reporter, “Five Faith Facts on Mike Pence.” And the New York Times, in typical comprehensive manner, puts it all together in a lengthy article titled “Mike Pence’s Journey: Catholic Democrat to Evangelical Republican.”
I found it interesting to note Pence’s mention, in a long-ago interview, that the first time he ever cast a vote in a presidential election, it was for Jimmy Carter in 1980. Asked why, he explained that he’d voted for Carter because he “was a good Christian. Beyond that, there was a sense of, ‘Why would you elect a movie star?’” He went on to say that he subsequently decided he’d voted for “the wrong man,” voting enthusiastically for Reagan the next time round, and for Republicans ever since.
His comment brings to mind the role of religious faith in presidential campaigns, or rather in the candidates and their lives. Though I could be wrong, my off-the-cuff sense is that the only president in my lifetime whose life and decisions have been substantially influenced by faith on a day-to-day basis is Jimmy Carter. And what did it get him, electorally? In his first election, he was to some extent supported by the faithful, but by 1980, as Pence’s experience attests, Christian voters – like most voters – flocked to Reagan. Decades later, the triumph of politics over faith remains manifest in the fact that many evangelicals intend to vote for Donald Trump, a man whose life, we can safely say, has not been animated by Christian faith or Christian sentiments.
I wish our conventional political ground-rules would allow for a more honest testimony of faith in our candidates. That would begin by allowing those of no faith to be open about it. Imagine a presidential candidate who said the following: “While I deeply respect the faith commitments of many millions of Americans, and the central and beneficial role religion continues to play in our country, I personally do not share those commitments, or the theological beliefs that underlie them.” I am guessing – again – that this would describe the practical reality of most presidential candidates in the past half-century. But actually say that, and you’re finished. So what we get is a kind of cynical charade, or bargain, in which candidates agree to pay lip service to conventional piety, in exchange for not having to be questioned closely on the actual nature, depth or practice of their faith. It’s discouraging. Once a candidate could profess agnosticism or atheism, and still be allowed in the game, we might be able to get a clearer sense of the nature of the faith commitments and practices held by candidates who do have them.
At any rate, what’s clear right now is that the Tim-and-Mike Show tomorrow night brings us two candidates whose lives and politics truly have been significantly shaped by faith. Of course, they are vice-presidential candidates. What should we conclude from that? Is leading a life of faith one of those tedious and ceremonial tasks, like attending foreign funerals, that get left to running mates?