The Conflicted Catholicism of Tim Kaine
By Megan Sweas | October 4, 2016
On a recent conference call with the voter outreach group Catholics for Hillary, vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine trotted out his faith credentials. He spoke of his Jesuit high school education. He mentioned his year as a missionary in Honduras. He reminded his listeners that these Catholic experiences are what led him to pursue a career in public service. “We’re supposed to be Good Samaritan people,” he said, “not the ones who pass by problems on the side of the road, but when somebody is in need, we’re supposed to roll up our sleeves and try to help out.”
Kaine’s faith journey has long been an essential part of his stump speech, helping him win elections from city council to the Virginia governor’s mansion to the U.S. Senate. Now Hillary Clinton hopes that it will help propel them to the White House, appealing to moderates and Republicans turned off by Donald Trump.
“The Catholic vote is going to be absolutely critical to our success,” Kaine said on the call, encouraging volunteers to rally their friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners around the Clinton campaign. Indeed, Catholics account for more than 50 million potential American voters. While 44 percent are or lean Democratic, Clinton also needs independent Catholics to turn out to vote for her in November.
Kaine’s affable persona and openness about his faith have made him an asset on the campaign trail. While he said at the Democratic National Convention that he and Clinton are “compañeros de alma” (kindred spirits, in a loose translation), Clinton has struggled to connect with the public personally and to talk about her own faith. For his part, Kaine has rallied religious voters in the Democratic base: “Give it up for Reverend Kaine!” said the president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, after the veep pick spoke to the black denomination’s leaders in August.
And just last week, Kaine participated in a roundtable with about 30 national Hispanic evangelical leaders at Iglesia El Calvario, a megachurch in Orlando. “His personal narrative is inspiring; it’s inviting; it’s all the things you want from a former missionary to Honduras,” said the church’s associate pastor, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, who founded the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC).
Kaine—with his love of Latin America and the Catholic Church—also provides a sharp contrast to Trump, with his hardline immigration rhetoric and religious blunders. “Tim Kaine is never going to say ‘two Corinthians,'” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, referring to one of Trump’s gaffes. Kaine “is the real deal, he is genuine. [His faith] is very much a part of who he is, what he believes and what he brings to public office.”
While Kaine has refined his faith story into a simple narrative on the campaign trail, perhaps what makes it seem so genuine is that he struggles with it. His career has been a long reflection on the role of religion in the public square. Tensions between church teachings and his own experience are both an asset and a liability for voters, religious or not.
KAINE’S ABILITY TO SPEAK eloquently about religion wasn’t a given, and it is hardly typical of either Catholics or Democrats. “Probably like a lot of Catholic families, my parents didn’t talk that much about their faith,” he told C-SPAN this past June. He said his parents’ mantra was more, “Preach the gospel, use words if necessary.” But prayer and Sunday Mass were essential parts of his family’s life. Kaine often shares this family joke: “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 8:00 p.m. mass.”
In his campaign speeches, Kaine also shares how his Jesuit boarding school instilled in him their motto of being a “man for others.” A 2005 Virginian-Pilot profile, written during his campaign for governor, explained that his parents only sent him to Rockhurst High School because he was goofing off in public school. Though Kaine initially resisted his parents’ decision, he flourished at the school. Retreats with Jesuit priests “changed the way I look at religion and my faith,” he told the Virginian-Pilot, introducing to him the idea of “Jesus as a companion and friend,” and encouraging him to think critically and find his own answers to questions of faith.
At the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School, Kaine attended Mass only sporadically, but he retained a desire to serve others. Watching law school colleagues abandon their ideals for high-paying law firm jobs left him uncertain about what he wanted to do in life. He decided to take a year off of law school and volunteer at a Jesuit mission in Honduras that he had visited as a teenager.
Working with people living in dire poverty under a dictatorship shaped both Kaine’s career and faith. In Honduras, he was exposed to Liberation Theology, a Catholic-rooted interpretation of Scripture and Christian teaching from the lens of the poor. “I made a decision when I came back from Honduras, that I am not going to focus on making as much money as I can make. I am going to focus on doing things where I can serve people,” he told The Washington Post.
At times in his life, Kaine found American Catholicism lacking in spirit—an experience he shares with his Republican vice presidential rival Mike Pence. While Pence became evangelical to find a personal relationship with Christ, Kaine found God in the kind of jovial communal Catholic worship he experienced in Honduras. “Mass was 2.5 hours long, and it was so vibrant and chaotic and fun,” he told C-SPAN.
After he returned, he found that spirit in African American Catholic churches. In Richmond, he and his wife, Anne Holton, attend St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, where they married in 1984. St. Elizabeth’s is a small, diverse parish in a working class, mostly black neighborhood. The parish motto, Unity/Umoja, “expresses our conviction that a multiracial parish family can work together to build God’s Kingdom,” the parish website reads.
But the church wasn’t integrated in the early 1980s. Kaine told the Progressive National Baptist Convention that the burden is on whites to put themselves into situations where they are the minority. At St. Elizabeth’s, Kaine said, “I’ve had to grapple with, understand, listen to, learn from, confront realities that are not necessarily the ones that were my own but over time have become more a part of me.”
Kaine and Holton describe their lives’ “mission” as reconciliation. They live out this mission not only in their parish but also in their careers. Holton, whom Kaine met at Harvard Law, has been a judge, foster care reformer, and until recently Virginia’s secretary of education. Before entering politics, Kaine worked as a civil rights lawyer, fighting housing discrimination.
While Holton is the daughter of a former Virginia governor, Kaine claims he never thought he’d enter politics. But idealistic and ambitious, at age 36, he ran for Richmond City Council, in part because he was frustrated with the racial divide among Richmond’s leaders. The council made him mayor. When he turned to state politics, though, his own parents cast doubts on his goal, expressing concern for how it would affect his family life.
Two days after Clinton asked him to be her running mate, Kaine was singing the communion song at St. Elizabeth’s. Kaine is “almost too honest for politics,” his pastor at St. Elizabeth’s, Father Jim Arsenault, told NPR this year, describing him as “very compassionate, approachable, available, and friendly.” In the past, Kaine helped start a men’s group at the church. He was a member of the choir until political life prevented him from attending rehearsals. The priest noted the candidate has a favorite pew: “Whenever he’s in town, he seems to be there.”
KAINE’S FAITH STORY may be appealing, but it’s not enough for some voters. As Salguero, of NaLEC, said ahead of his event with Kaine, “Latino evangelicals are an informed enough electorate to know that narrative does not always translate to policy,” whether on pro-life issues, immigration, or criminal justice reform.
Kaine has been known to push back against some official Catholic teachings, leading critics to call him a hypocrite. In recent years, he has been a vocal supporter of women’s ordination and gay marriage, advocating for change in the Catholic Church. Kaine’s suggestion that the church might someday recognize same-sex marriage led his bishop to issue a clarifying statement that the church’s “2000-year-old teaching [about] marriage remains unchanged and resolute.” Another bishop questioned Kaine’s Catholicism in a Facebook post over the politician’s support for abortion rights. Kaine says he personally opposes abortion and the death penalty, but he presided over 11 executions while serving as governor of Virginia and has a 100 percent pro-choice voting record for his time in the Senate from both NARAL and Planned Parenthood.
Georgetown’s John Carr is critical of Kaine’s abortion rights voting record and calls his support of same-sex marriage and women’s ordination “practicing theology without a license.” Yet, he notes that Kaine stands out as one of the few Democrats who still admits his personal reservations about abortion. He also applauds Kaine for grappling with the issues. For instance, Kaine reaffirmed his support for the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being used for abortion, despite Clinton favoring its repeal.
After Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last year, Carr talked with Kaine and other Democratic senators about addressing poverty as a policy priority. Unlike his colleagues, Kaine wanted to know more. “What struck me was the lack of defensiveness and the openness,” Carr said. “His commitment comes from faith and experience, not simply from influence and ideology.”
And the same experience that taught Kaine to value faith and service led to his seemingly contradictory stances on how to live out his faith in the public square. In Honduras, he told C-SPAN, “I saw what it was like to live in a society where the rulers did whatever they wanted regardless of the law.”
So when his opponent in the 2005 race for governor ran ads attacking Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty, Kaine promised to uphold the law. The death penalty, he told David Gregory this year, is “emblematic of the kind of thing you’ve gotta struggle with in life. I would describe it as a clash between two important principles”—the sanctity of life and the rule of law.
Colleagues have told The New York Times that Kaine grappled over every death-penalty appeal for clemency as governor and would appear pained all day. He still struggles with those decisions. He told the National Catholic Reporter in August, “I hope on Judgment Day that there’s both understanding and mercy.”
IN 2009, THE VIRGINIA Council of Churches honored then-Governor Kaine with the “Faith in Action” award. He was one of the few laypeople and the only politician to have ever received the award. “We do not all agree on issues of the public square,” said the Rev. Jon Barton of the ecumenical coalition he leads. Nor would they all agree that Kaine should be the next vice president. But the leaders overwhelmingly voted to honor Kaine for the way he integrated faith into public service.
Barton said, “He has this natural gift of a teacher as well as a politician and administrator who can balance his faith and his understanding of the responsibilities of the faith as well as the rule of law and the needs of the community.”
Kaine’s appreciation for the rule of law could also comfort non-religious voters, who may not appreciate his ardent God-talk. Non-religious voters are an important constituency for Clinton: 62 percent favor her, according to a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. By picking Kaine as a running mate, Clinton seemed to turn away from the largely young, liberal voters who supported Bernie Sanders and are more likely than older adults to be religiously unaffiliated.
Kaine’s God-talk might not be as much of a liability among these religiously unaffiliated voters as some might expect. Elizabeth Drescher, author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones, even claims that Kaine’s Jesuit spirituality and service orientation might appeal to the unaffiliated. Even if it doesn’t, Lifeway Research found that 79 percent of “unchurched” Americans don’t mind if a friend who really values their faith talks about it.
Kaine insists he doesn’t want to proselytize people. He shares his faith just as he shares other values with the electorate. “People want to know your motivations to make a gauge of your authenticity and for me, my motivation is a spiritual and religious one,” he told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly in August 2012.
Kaine might not be evangelizing for his faith, but he does hope his own story will encourage voters to show up on the polls on November 8 and back him and Clinton. This, too, he frames in spiritual language. After experiencing life under a military dictatorship in Honduras, he came home with a new appreciation for being able to vote for one’s leaders. “Voting is a sacred act,” he said in August, “whether you’re religious or not.”
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