Faith issues front and center in governor’s race

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Tim Kaine doesn’t hide the fact that he is a Roman Catholic.

“I am a Catholic, and I’m very serious about my faith,” said Kaine, Virginia’s lieutenant governor and the presumptive Democratic Party nominee to run for governor in the Commonwealth in the fall.

“I took a year off while I was in law school to serve as a missionary in Central America, and in many ways, that was the most formative experience in my life. I do take faith and values issues seriously. And I respect others who take their faith seriously in their lives,” Kaine told The Augusta Free Press.

Kaine’s faith is being put to the test in the wake of a recent series of political attacks by his Republican Party rival, Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, whose campaign for the top job in Virginia government has raised issue with the Democrat’s opposition to the death penalty.

Kaine has said repeatedly that his stance on the death penalty is faith based – and that in spite of his faith and in spite of his position that the death penalty is morally wrong, he would uphold his oath of office and uphold the Constitution of Virginia with respect to petitions for clemency or commutation that might come across his desk as governor.

That the Kilgore camp has pointed out that Kaine could follow the law of the Old Dominion and still move to block executions by granting clemencies and commutations of death sentences when given the opportunity has, inadvertently or not, brought the lieutenant governor’s religion front and center at this early point in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign.

“I don’t know the direction that the Kilgore campaign is trying to go with this, but I do find it insulting that someone would challenge my ability to keep an oath,” Kaine said this week. “I’ve been elected to office five times, and I’ve taken five oaths to uphold the law to the best of my ability. I take that very seriously. I take it as seriously as my marriage oath.

“I find it insulting that somebody would challenge me on that, but I can take it. I’m a big boy. I know that it goes with the territory,” Kaine said. “But how many people in Virginia are there who take oaths of office who also have strong religious beliefs? My guess is a lot.

“So are we saying that people with strong religious beliefs who take oaths of office can’t be trusted to mean what they say when they utter that oath? I would hope not,” Kaine said.

Kilgore campaign spokesperson Carrie Cantrell, who is herself a Roman Catholic, said the issues being raised by the attorney general on the death-penalty matter “are not about religion at all.”

“He has advocated a moratorium on the death penalty and has actively worked against the death penalty for two decades. As governor, he can institute a backdoor moratorium while still, as he puts it, upholding the law,” Cantrell told the AFP.

“It’s important for people to understand that,” Cantrell said.

 

Parsing words

The focus being placed in the governor’s race on faith and moral values could end up playing into the GOP’s favor – as it did in the 2004 presidential election, when George W. Bush rode the faith and values tidal wave to victory in November against another Roman Catholic Democrat, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

“I think Kaine has to be careful of engaging himself in a prolonged values discussion,” Christopher Newport University political scientist Quentin Kidd told the AFP. “If he lets the debate in the gubernatorial race become a discussion of values, he has nothing to gain and everything to lose. His history is a little harmful in this area, in particular on the death-penalty issue. I think he has a lot to lose here by focusing his attention on his position on that as being an issue of faith.”

That the Kaine camp seems to be willing to take the issue on this early in the campaign season is a bit of a surprise, Kidd said.

“The only thing I can assume is that the Kaine campaign is aware of this and is aware of the problems that could emerge from a discussion of this and has decided that it needs to take them on. I would also assume, though, that the Kilgore campaign is aware of the repercussions of pushing this issue into the forefront as well. Looking at both of those assumptions, I can’t see where Tim Kaine comes out on top in the end,” Kidd said.

University of Mary Washington political-science professor Stephen Farnsworth sees the politics perhaps playing out very much differently.

“Looking back at last year’s campaign, where the Kerry campaign made a key mistake was when it decided not to speak more to the issue of values than it did,” Farnsworth told the AFP.

“The Bible offers up more material on the moral-values front than what it has to say, for example, about the issue of gay marriage,” Farnsworth said. “There are numerous passages related to social justice and efforts to eliminate poverty and promote peace and that sort of thing that speak to the values held by many Democrats, but those issues weren’t brought up. There are opportunities for Democrats to speak to issues of faith, but it tends to be Republican candidates who speak to those issues while Democrats do not.

“Tim Kaine, from all indications, seems to have learned from John Kerry’s example. He has been, to date, much more public with his feelings on faith and values issues,” Farnsworth said.

 

Nuance

One area where Kerry’s public-policy views resulted in a bit of unwanted attention in the ’04 presidential campaign came in the area of abortion rights. Kerry’s pro-choice stand earned him the enmity of a number of Catholic bishops across the country who threatened to deny him and others in the public sphere communion for their position on the issue.

One of Kerry’s more vocal critics, Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president William Donohue, noted a key difference between Kerry’s pro-choice views as a United States senator and the views of a candidate running for governor on abortion and other issues of import to Roman Catholics.

“Speaking personally, there is a profound difference between the roles of executive and judge and the role of a legislator,” Donohue told the AFP.

“An executive and a judge administer or interpret laws that are already on the books. And frankly, neither has any right relying on matters of conscience in the jobs that they do. The law is what it is, and it’s up to them to enforce it and interpret it. I don’t want them bringing in their personal values,” Donohue said.

“But a legislator does have a right to rely on faith and conscience in considering pieces of legislation. That’s fundamental to the role of being a legislator. If his faith guides him to believe that abortion is morally wrong, for example, then it is his duty to vote his conscience accordingly,” Donohue said.

“With Tim Kaine, I’m taking a more laissez-faire attitude than I did with John Kerry,” Donohue said. “One, as an executive, it would be his job to uphold the laws passed by the state legislature, period. And he has said that he would uphold the laws as passed by the state legislature according to his oath of office.

“Two, the situation with Sen. Kerry was an entirely different situation, because on the one hand he tried to portray himself as a dedicated Catholic, and on the other hand there isn’t a single public-policy position of the Catholic church that he has accepted,” Donohue said.

“I’m not questioning whether the man is a good Catholic, but you can’t talk about being a good Catholic on the one hand and then on the other say that the separation of church and state prevents you from supporting the church’s policies in the public sphere. You can’t have it both ways,” Donohue said.

 

Come a long way

The discussion of Kaine’s and Kerry’s religious beliefs stands in stark contrast to the questions that were lobbed at John F. Kennedy in his run at the White House in 1960.

Kennedy, for one, was asked openly if he would take his marching orders on policy issues from the Vatican.

“Catholics don’t have a hard time understanding this,” Kaine said. “They understand that one’s personal beliefs can’t interfere with the oath that one takes before entering public office.

“The central point of my faith is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. That doesn’t mean that I’m any less of a Christian for not going out and trying to pass a law making that belief mandatory. I believe in tithing, and I do tithe. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to try to work toward the passage of a law requiring that everybody tithe,” Kaine said.

Kaine called the Kilgore campaign’s claim that he would use clemency and commutation provisions in the state code to in effect legislate a moratorium on the death penalty a “red herring.”

“Clemency and commutation are there for a very specific purpose. I would never use clemency or commutation to try to substitute my will for the will of the legislature of Virginia. Those items are there to give the governor the opportunity to provide relief for someone who is innocent,” Kaine said.

Cantrell emphasized that the question of what Kaine would be able to do as governor with respect to the death penalty is “central to this debate.”

“Tim Kaine wants people to believe that this about religion, but it’s not,” Cantrell said.

“The issues are about his positions on the death penalty and abortion and others in which it has been made clear that he is out of the mainstream of what the majority of Virginians believe.

“This is not about his faith. It’s about issues of public policy in Virginia,” Cantrell said.

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