With only five weeks left before Election Day, religion finally came up in the presidential race.
At the vice presidential debate in Farmville, Va., Mike Pence and Tim Kaine met as two personally devout politicians from pro-life, Catholic backgrounds who have very different views about how religion should influence a politician’s public role. During one of the few segments of the debate that was free of interruptions and crosstalk, the two candidates quoted from the Bible and highlighted those differences while also expressing respect for each other’s “sincere faith.”
Kaine, who speaks often on the campaign trail of his time as a Catholic missionary in Honduras, talked warmly about his experiences studying and working with Jesuits, calling them “the heroes of my life.” And he talked about running for governor as an anti-death-penalty Catholic in Virginia, a heavily evangelical state where support for capital punishment remains high.
“I looked the voters of Virginia in the eye and said, ‘Look, this is my religion,’” said Kaine. “‘I’m not going to change my religious practice to get one vote. But I know how to take an oath and uphold the law. And if you elect me, I will uphold the law.’ I was elected, and I did.”
Kaine used that example of overseeing executions — 11 in four years — to illustrate his views on how elected officials should reconcile their religious beliefs with their public responsibilities. “I try to practice my religion in a very devout way and follow the teachings of my church in my own personal life,” he said. “But I don’t believe, in this First Amendment nation, where we don’t raise any religion over the other and we allow people to worship as they please, that the doctrines of any one religion should be mandated for everyone.
“I think it is really, really important that those of us who have deep faith lives don’t feel like we can just substitute our own views for everybody else in society, regardless of their views,” he said.
Those statements were an implicit criticism of Pence, who helped lead efforts to defund Planned Parenthood when he served in Congress and who, as Indiana governor, signed a 2015 law that was intended to protect business owners who cite religious beliefs as a reason to refuse LGBT customers. (It proved so controversial it was quickly amended, to soften its impact.)
For his part, Pence — who was raised Catholic but is now an evangelical Christian — spoke simply about his personal faith, characterizing his upbringing as “church on Sunday morning and grace before dinner.”
“My faith is at the very heart of who I am,” said Pence. “My Christian faith became real for me when I made a personal decision for Christ when I was a freshman in college. I’ve tried to live that out, however imperfectly, every day of my life since.”
He then turned to his opponent. “I have a great deal of respect for Sen. Kaine’s sincere faith — I truly do,” said Pence. “That’s shared,” Kaine added. “But for me, the sanctity of life proceeds out of the belief, that ancient principle where God said, ‘Before you were formed in the womb, I knew you,’” Pence continued, quoting from Jeremiah.
“And so from my first time in public life, I’ve sought to stand with great compassion for the sanctity of life,” he said. “We’re well on our way in Indiana to becoming the most pro-adoption state in America. I think if you’re gonna be pro-life, you should be pro-adoption.”
“But what I can’t understand is with Hillary Clinton, and now Sen. Kaine at her side, is to support a practice like partial-birth abortion. To hold to a view — and Sen. Kaine, I know you hold pro-life views personally — but the very idea that a child who is almost born into this world could still have their life taken from them is just anathema to me,” Pence continued.
And with those few words, Pence laid out the choice for social conservatives in the 2016 election. They can take their chances on a Democratic ticket that includes a pro-life Catholic but is headed by a nominee who would appoint justices who uphold Roe v. Wade. Or they can take their chances with a Republican presidential nominee who may possibly be pro-choice, but who has vowed that his judicial nominees would overturn Roe and support broad protections for and definitions of religious freedom.