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Reaching Out To Religion

This column from The American Prospect was written by Rob Garver.


Meet Tim Kaine.

His views on abortion are roughly in line with those of George W. Bush. He thinks John Kerry spent too much time on the campaign trail talking about windsurfing and not enough time talking about God.

And the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is spending an unprecedented $5 million to help him get elected governor of Virginia.

Kaine is expected to face conservative state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore in November in a race that officially got under way this week with the Republican challenger's announcement of his candidacy. As one of only two gubernatorial races being held this year (New Jersey is the other), Virginia's contest will be vivisected by political consultants of both parties anxious to see if there is anything capable of shifting religious voters away from the Republican Party.

Is the devoutly Catholic Kaine, the former mayor of Richmond and the state's current lieutenant governor, a template for Democratic candidates to come? If he can keep the governor's seat in Democratic hands in an otherwise Republican-dominated state, a national Democratic Party still trying to piece itself together in the aftermath of November 2004 might just decide that he is.

Kaine is hoping to replace term-limited Democratic Governor Mark Warner, whose victory in 2001 appeared to have less to do with Democratic ideology than with a charismatic campaign in which Warner spent millions of his own personal fortune to help court rural voters.

In January, when then-DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe announced the party's $5 million commitment to the Kaine campaign, McAuliffe said, "Tim Kaine represents the future of this party. He's a pro-business Democrat, a man of strong faith and values, and is committed to fiscal responsibility."

Kaine, who spoke to me by phone after attending a pair of Palm Sunday services at Baptist churches in Petersburg, Virginia, says that his own strong Catholic faith was his inspiration for entering politics, and that he believes Democrats in general have done a poor job of reaching out to religious Americans.

"I think we need to do a lot better; I really do," he said. "And I think there has been a hunger in the rank and file of the party for us to do better."

Kaine appears to see his own campaign as a blueprint for how Democrats might attract more religious voters.

"We do better by doing two things," he says. "One, by being authentically who we are as candidates. Candidates who feel comfortable talking about their hobbies and their family, but don't feel comfortable talking about what's central to their lives -- there is just something about that that lacks authenticity. Whatever your religious tradition is, if it's important to you and you don't feel comfortable talking about it, you end up coming across as insincere."

A recent example of that, he says, is what happened to Kerry in November. A fellow Catholic who said that his faith was an important element of his life but was clearly ill-disposed to talk about it, Kerry was thrashed by Bush in Virginia, losing 54 percent to 46 percent among the general population and 56 percent to 43 percent among voters reporting weekly church attendance.

Most remarkably, perhaps, is that while Catholics went 52 percent to 47 percent for Bush nationally, in Virginia they went 63 percent to 36 percent for Bush.

"I think that John Kerry demonstrated much more comfort talking about windsurfing and hockey than he did talking about his beliefs," says Kaine, admitting that he does have a limited amount of sympathy for the Massachusetts senator's reticence.

"There is clearly a Christian New Testament tradition that warns against praying loudly in the front of the temple where everyone can see you," he says. " … I think there are devout religious people who are on guard against false demonstrations of piety, and that is an appropriate thing to wonder about. But it always strikes me as a little unusual when a candidate can talk easily about relatively peripheral or minor things but not talk with the same enthusiasm about what is the central belief system of their life."

In addition to actively talking about their own faith, Kaine says, Democrats need to temper their comments about other peoples' faith.

"The second thing that Democrats have to do better on is not attacking the 'religious right,'" he said. "I think that has been a standard bogeyman that Democrats have often used in campaigns, including campaigns in Virginia. If somebody advances an idea or position that's wrong, then attack them for having a bad idea. But they are not wrong because they are religious.

"When Democrats kind of cavalierly attack the religious right or go after Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, our candidates have sent the signal to a lot of religious people, 'Well, I guess they are not interested in me.' And I think this includes a lot of people who would fit very naturally within the Democratic Party."

In many ways, Virginia is the ideal proving ground for a Democratic strategy of attracting religious voters. Southern Baptists and conservative Catholics make up a dominant share of the voting population, so if a religious Democrat can make it here, he can make it (almost) anywhere.

But not everyone thinks Kaine's chances are good.

"I think it is an extremely hard sell for him," said Mark Rozell, a professor at George Mason University who has studied the role of religion in Virginia politics. "On the conservative issues, the conservative Catholics and evangelicals have really come together in support of Republicans. I'm not sure how Kaine can conceivably crack that alliance at all."

Part of the problem -- not surprisingly in debates about religion and politics -- is Kaine's penchant for nuance. There isn't a whole lot of room for a politician who says, as Kaine does, that he is personally opposed to abortion but will abide by the federal laws that make it legal. Nor is there necessarily much tolerance for politicians who are adamantly opposed to the death penalty, like Kaine, but promise that they will sign death warrants when they reach the governor's mansion.

This is not to say that Kaine's positions are insincere or illogical. The Harvard-trained lawyer has good arguments for both of them.

"The law in Virginia right now," he says, "is that the death penalty is the law of the land for the most serious crimes, and on abortion, the law of the United States is that women have the freedom to make their own reproductive decisions early in pregnancy, and I will honor those laws, If someone says, 'Well, that's wishy-washy,' I say, 'No, it's not -- it's being true to my oath.'

"Is there moral unease about [the death penalty]? Sure there is. But remember, when you take an oath, the honesty principle, I think, is the first principle. It is the same position President Bush has often stated about abortion. He is against abortion. He says, 'The voters know my heart.' But he has not done a single thing really to overturn Roe v. Wade.

"I feel like I am in exactly the same position as he is. I tell people what my heart is. I tell them I am good to my word when I take the oath. Does it pain me that there are executions and that abortion is common? Yes, it pains me. But I believe the system of government we have -- which is rule of law, not of men -- is the best system there is on this planet, and it is very important that the leaders who run to lead and execute the laws of the state be able to say that they will do it, and to say it honestly."

Of course, among the "God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it" crowd, nuance tends to play poorly.

"Among the religious conservative voters in the state," says Rozell, "they don't see him as genuine. It is not enough that he holds certain views personally … . What matters is policy and what effect it will have on the lives of Virginians."

Nonetheless, between now and November, Kaine will be traveling throughout the commonwealth, reaching out to evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and other typically Republican-leaning constituencies.

"Even if I don't get them to vote for me, I might get them to think twice that the Democratic Party is just a haven for Hollywood secularists," he says. "I want to make sure that everybody knows -- whether they vote for me or not -- that's not who I am and that's not who my party is."

Rob Garver is a freelance journalist living in Springfield, Va., and is currently studying at Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

By Rob Garver
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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