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Sebelius' Catholic Problem

This column was written by Michael Sean Winters.

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius reportedly sit on top of Barack Obama's vice presidential short list. In late June, Barack Obama called Sebelius "as talented a public official as there is right now," and just two days ago, Politico reported that Kaine was "very, very high" up in considerations for v.p. What binds these two — aside from being effective Democratic governors of red (or reddish) states — is that they're both Roman Catholic. And given the fact that Catholics were such a difficult group for Obama in the primaries, and that they heavily populate swing states like New Mexico and Pennsylvania, Sebelius's and Kaine's Catholicism should be a point in their favor. (Joe Biden, another short-lister, is Catholic as well.) But their similarities mask a surprising gulf: Sebelius and Kaine have had markedly different political relationships with the Church.

Sebelius attended a Catholic women's college, but she has not made her Catholicism a central part of her political biography. She has stated that her religious beliefs are private, a position that liberal Catholics have been taking ever since JFK. When she gave the Democratic response to the last State of the Union in January, she did not mention her own faith or the nation's, and she didn't describe any of the challenges facing the nation as moral challenges. This reticence to apply her faith to her political life has a downside: It has severely limited her ability to articulate a moral rationale for her commitment to other issues such as universal health care, which the Catholic Church considers a moral obligation that society owes its members.

Beyond her decision not to "speak Catholic," Sebelius has a politically thorny relationship with her bishop. In April, she vetoed legislation that would have beefed up efforts to enforce restrictions on abortion providers in Kansas. The law was aimed squarely at Dr. George Tiller, one of the nation's fiercest defenders of late-term abortions. Sebelius said she vetoed the law because it was clearly unconstitutional and would invite frivolous lawsuits, a position that was supported by the Kansas City Star and various women's organizations. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City — Sebelius's own bishop — saw it differently: He went public with his request that the governor refrain from presenting herself for communion. In a column in his diocesan paper, the archbishop called her behavior "scandalous" before going on to say, "The spiritually lethal message, communicated by our governor, as well as many other high-profile Catholics in public life, has been in effect: 'The church's teaching on abortion is optional.'" Sebelius did not offer any public response to the archbishop's edict.

Archbishop Naumann is one of a number of conservative prelates who have decided to use the communion rail as a bludgeon in the culture war. (The most famous example came in 2004, when Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis forbade John Kerry from receiving communion within his jurisdiction; another was when Douglas Kmiec, a former Department of Justice official in the Reagan administration, was denied communion for his support of Obama this year.) Naumann has been published in the conservative Catholic journal First Things, a magazine that often mimics White House talking points more faithfully than it follows the teachings of the Catholic Church. And he has participated in the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that's meant to bring Catholics together with (mostly Republican) political leaders. In the event that Obama selects Sebelius, we can expect Naumann to take to the airwaves, and Obama's campaign could be forced into a high-profile and unwelcome skirmish with a religious figure.

Tim Kaine, on the other hand, has an easier relationship with the Catholic Church. To some degree, this is a blessing of geography: He has the advantage of governing and living in an area with more level-headed bishops. In Richmond, Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo is an established moderate who calls for "an integrated approach to the Right to Life" on the diocese's website. True right-wingers never advocate an "integrated approach" to anything, let alone the right to life. In the northern half of the state, Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington has established a similarly moderate reputation.

But Kaine also has an involving personal story to tell about his Catholicism. He took a year off from law school to work as a missionary with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Honduras. Kaine explains his decision in words akin to those of Obama describing his decision to become a community organizer in Chicago. "I could see the direction most students at Harvard Law School were focused on, going to big law firms in big cities, and I didn't think that was what I wanted to do," Kaine told the Boston Globe last month.

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Kaine emphasizes the effect his missionary work has had on his political life. In his 2006 inaugural address, Kaine linked his values as a believer with the traditional Democratic concern for education: "We will affirm that family and faith is our bedrock, hard work our way, and education our path to progress." Similarly, when the GOP challenged his opposition to the death penalty, Kaine did not back down, explaining his beliefs, but assuring voters that he would enforce the law. Like Obama, he often speaks about the impossibility of separating faith from politics. "They rise from the same wellspring: the concern about the distance between what is and what ought to be," he told Newsweek. Kaine, in short, makes his religion sound not like an electoral add-on, but as an integral part of his life, the way it is for many Catholic swing voters.

Every candidate has baggage, but if part of the reason to put Sebelius on the ticket is to reach out to Catholics, Obama should recall that John Kerry--who also struggled rhetorically tying his religion to a progressive agenda--lost the Catholic vote partly as a result of his fight with the conservative hierarchs four years ago. In fact, if the Catholic Kerry had done as well among Ohio's Catholics in 2004 as Protestant Al Gore did in 2000, Kerry would have won the election. Will Sebelius be able to counterattack more effectively than Kerry? It's hard to say now. And, in any event, a controversy about a vice presidential candidate would likely be less significant than one involving the nominee. But Obama's campaign is no doubt aware of the additional hurdle facing the Kansas governor.

Michael Sean Winters' new book Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats has just been published by Basic Books. He also writes the daily political blog on America's website.
By Michael Sean Winters
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