Two men with many similar characteristics were traveling along the same religious and political road. Their paths have diverged. Why?
This year’s vice presidential candidates – Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence – were born only a year apart, Kaine in 1958 and Pence the following year. Both were raised in working class Irish Catholic Democratic families. Both attended Catholic parochial schools. Both graduated from law school, Kaine from Harvard and Pence from the University of Indiana.
In addition, they married within a year of each other, and each has had three children. Both have served as governor – Kaine of Virginia (2006-2010), Pence of Indiana (2013-present).
Throughout their political lives, despite the diverse religious (and nonreligious) constituencies they represent, neither man has shied away from defining himself as a church-going Christian. Pence proudly says that he is “first, a Christian, second, a conservative, and third, a Republican.” For his part, Kaine frequently refers to the Jesuit influence on his life. He and his wife have attended the same church in Richmond for 30 years.
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Yet, notwithstanding numerous similarities, Kaine and Pence are political and religious polar opposites. How can these two “nice Catholic boys” have turned out so differently?
It stems from the differing understanding that these men – and millions of others – have of three overlapping questions: l) How should we relate to Jesus Christ? 2) What determines moral behavior? 3) What should a church teach about Jesus and about moral conduct?
For Pence and others who identify themselves as evangelicals, Jesus is “Lord and Savior,” to be honored, worshiped, praised and loved. Being a Christian entails a deeply felt attachment to the person of Jesus.
On the other hand, for Kaine and what might be called “liberal” Christians, Jesus is someone who points not so much to himself as to our neighbor, especially the poor. Jesus does not want his followers to cling to him but to serve others.
As for issues such as abortion, homosexuality and capital punishment, conservatives see morality as absolute, unchanging. Abortion is murder. Period. Case closed. Homosexual behavior is against God’s law. Case closed. There is no wiggle room; no compromise is possible.
Liberals, on the other hand, see moral understanding as evolving. Light is given gradually over time. For example, for centuries slavery was accepted as moral by Christians – including Catholics. Tim Kaine refers to the influence that the Jesuits had on his moral formation. However, until shortly before the Civil War, the Jesuits at Georgetown College in Washington owned slaves. When they felt uneasy about this, what did they do? They didn’t free the slaves; they sold them.
Not that many years ago, most churchgoers, be they Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians or whatever firmly believed that homosexual behavior was sinful. Today they bless gay marriages, and many have openly gay ministers. On the other hand, the Catholic Church and many evangelical congregations continue to label homosexual behavior as sinful.
Again, until recent decades most Christian denominations held that because all of the apostles of Jesus were men, that only men could be ministers of the Gospel. Almost all denominations now have women pastors; some even women bishops. This may not be a moral issue like abortion, but it is an example of change – of the evolution of understanding.
Although the Catholic Church continues to condemn abortion, to censure homosexual acts and to exclude women from ordained ministry, there are issues on which it has changed. In addition to slavery, it condemns capital punishment, praying for “the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.” Also, not that many years ago, the Catholic Church considered cremation an affront to the sacredness of the human body. Today, many Catholic parishes have columbaria.
It is in this rather confusing context that Pence and Kaine have searched for a religious home. Paradoxically, for Mike Pence, the church of his upbringing is too liberal, and for Tim Kaine, it is too conservative. Pence doesn’t find in the Catholic Church the deep attachment to Jesus, the warm embrace of fellow believers and the rich love for the Bible that he encounters in an evangelical congregation. On the other hand, while Tim Kaine continues to love the church of his childhood and to worship faithfully in a Catholic parish, he has been criticized publicly by several Catholic bishops for his positions on abortion and homosexual marriage.
As the journey to Election Day continues, two men who attended parochial schools, attended Mass regularly, prayed the Rosary, went to confession and were confirmed as Catholics look across not only a substantial political divide, but a religious gulf as well.
William F. Powers, a retired professor of sociology, lives in Chapel Hill.