In vice presidential debate, two portraits of faith-filled lives

Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence – both raised Catholic, one now born-again Christian – see religious faith as central to their public service.

Steve Helber/AP/File
Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate between Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia pits a former radio host who’s described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” against a harmonica-playing former missionary whose aw-shucks style has spawned a thousand dad jokes. The debate is being held at Longwood University in Farmsville, Va.

Mike Pence says it early and often: “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican – in that order.”

Tim Kaine, too, has made his faith – Roman Catholicism – central to his political career.

Both men, the vice presidential nominees of their respective parties, will face each other on stage Tuesday night in their only debate of the campaign. And while their tickets’ political differences are likely to dominate, as will controversies surrounding their principals – GOP nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – the running mates’ personal profiles will also surely come into play.

Governor Pence (R) of Indiana and Senator Kaine (D) of Virginia are both mild-mannered 50-something men from their parties’ respective establishments with long résumés in government; both have served as governor and in Congress. Partisans on both sides call each a solid understudy for his larger-than-life boss.

The selection of Pence, in particular, has reassured Republicans concerned about Mr. Trump’s lack of governing experience, looseness on conservative principles, and less-than-pristine personal history, with three marriages. Kaine, too, presents a more straightforward family life than does Mrs. Clinton and her complicated marriage to former President Bill Clinton.

Trump, a Presbyterian, has given little attention to social conservative issues in his campaign – and, in fact, seems comfortable with gay rights. Clinton, a Methodist, has not spoken as much about her faith in this campaign as she did in her first run for  president in 2008.

So both Pence and Kaine add a religious dimension to the campaign – one that presents two public servants for whom faith is a central aspect of their lives and informs their governing decisions.

"Both Pence and Kaine appear to have sincere religious beliefs, though Pence focuses on the ‘Thou shalt nots’ while Kaine focuses more on 'the musts,’” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, in an email.

“Pence's strategic problem is that Trump has violated so many of the ‘Thou shalt nots’ that he will be hard to defend,” Mr. Jillson adds. “Kaine must advocate Clinton's Methodist injunction to do as much good as you can without causing people instinctively to clutch for their wallets."

Mike Pence: from Catholic Democrat to born-again Republican

Pence was raised in Indiana in a big, devout Irish Catholic family that idolized Democratic President John F. Kennedy. As a young man, he became a born-again Evangelical Christian – and a Republican. Some of his highest-profile political moves – including efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and protect the religious liberty of people for whom serving gay couples is anathema –  have stemmed from his faith.

Charlie Neibergall/AP/File
In this Sept. 24, 2016 file photo, Republican vice presidential candidate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks in Des Moines, Iowa. The vice presidential debate on Oct. 4, will be the only time Governor Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine will have the nation’s attention all to themselves, away from their much more well-known running mates.

“I sign this law with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers, and families,” Pence said in a statement in March, when he enacted a ban on abortions based on fetal disability. In June a federal judge blocked the law.

The biggest firestorm of Pence’s tenure as governor centered on the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), also signed in private in March 2015. The measure was designed to protect the rights of the faithful to practice their religion; critics feared it would be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and an uproar ensued. Companies and state governments banned employee travel to Indiana, and musicians canceled concerts.

Within days, the state legislature passed a legislative fix aimed at ensuring the rights of LGBT people under the state RFRA, which Pence signed. And in so doing, he again invoked his faith.

“In the midst of this furious debate, I have prayed earnestly for wisdom and compassion, and I have felt the prayers of people across this state and across the nation,” he said in a statement. “For that I will be forever grateful.”

Tim Kaine: How Catholicism infuses his politics

Kaine, too, was raised in a devout Irish Catholic family, and attended an all-boys Jesuit high school in Kansas City, where he grew up. Midway through Harvard Law School, he took a year off to work with Jesuit missionaries in a Catholic school in an impoverished part of Honduras. From then on, he has dedicated himself to helping others.  

“I share my faith story a lot because it’s what motivates me in public service,” and voters want to know what motivates candidates, Kaine told the Monitor in May.

Chuck Burton/AP/File
Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., speaks in Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 6, 2016. The vice presidential debate on Oct. 4, 2016, will be the only time Republican Mike Pence and Kaine will have the nation’s attention all to themselves, away from their much more well-known running mates.

Congress these days is known for its polarization and gridlock, but at least once a week, partisan differences are put aside in weekly bipartisan prayer breakfasts, in both the Senate and House. Kaine and Sen. John Boozman (R) of Arkansas co-chair the Senate breakfast.

But even if Kaine’s faith-filled approach to politics might make some Republicans more comfortable with him, it’s not clear that it helps him with Democrats, whose party has grown increasingly secular. In fact, Kaine’s approach to abortion – he personally opposes it but generally supports the right to choose – gave some Democrats pause when Clinton named him for the ticket.

In the past, Kaine has supported restrictions on abortion, including a ban on so-called “partial-birth abortion.” But as Clinton’s running mate, he has subsumed his personal positions to hers.

A much different debate style

And in a bit of pre-debate “spin,” Kaine was accused of being a less faithful Catholic than the formerly Catholic Pence.

“To say, as Kaine does, that he personally opposes abortion, but legally supports it, makes nonsense of Catholic teaching, which insists that one can know by reason that abortion is wrong,” writes Jay Edwards, an assistant research professor in the business school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in The Washington Examiner. “For him to treat his opposition to abortion as a private, sectarian belief is itself a contradiction of Catholic teaching.”

Chances are, Kaine and Pence won’t get into a shouting match Tuesday night over who is living his faith more fully. Neither man traffics in campaign attacks or even raised voices. Some observers say the 90-minute debate could be a big snooze, at least compared with the Trump-Clinton fireworks of last week.

But that in itself may be reassuring to the public in this most unusual presidential campaign.

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