No Catholic has been elected to the office of president of the United States since John F. Kennedy—and none since. The same could be said for vice presidents entirely, until Joe Biden came into office with the election of Barack Obama. In 2016, the next vice president will unquestionably be Catholic—in practice, or at least in origin.
Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Virginia senator Tim Kaine, cites a mission to Honduras with Jesuit priests in the early 1980s as a “North Star” in orienting him toward a career in public service. Donald Trump’s running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, identifies as an “Evangelical Catholic,” whose hard-right views on same-sex marriage and women’s reproductive rights are squarely in line with Church social doctrine.
Tim Kaine’s liberal politics were, in part, infused by liberation ideology—a strain of Catholic and Christian thought that elevates service to society’s least empowered as the central tenet of faith in practice. “I got a firsthand look at a system—a dictatorship—where a few people at the top had all the power and everyone else got left out,” he said of his time in Honduras in a speech at the Democratic National Convention in July (delivered partially in Spanish). The experience put him on a track through public service that would include 17 years as a civil right attorney,—specializing in housing discrimination cases—the mayorship of Richmond, Virginia; lieutenant governorship of Virginia, governorship of Virginia, and eventually a senate job from the same state.
And while this history certainly appeals to likeminded, liberal Catholics and Christians across the country, it has provoked some criticism from conservatives within Catholic America.
“Tim Kaine’s public record and his time in Honduras suggest that he has adopted a form of Catholicism that is at odds not only with what his church believes but with the interests of the United States,” Brian Burch, president of the conservative group Catholic Vote, told The Daily Beast, referring to Kaine’s time spent with a purportedly “Marxist” priest in Honduras.
This is perhaps where the selection of Pence might come in handy for the Trump campaign. Pence could in theory shave votes from more conservative Catholics who might be otherwise attracted by Kaine’s religious identity. Which is perhaps why, despite openly identifying as an “Evangelical,” Pence has never publicly disavowed the Catholic faith he was born into. (Pence served as a Catholic youth minister and expressed interest in joining the clergy.) In fact, he has spoken about blending the Catholic lessons of his upbringing with Protestant Evangelical ideals picked up—parallel to Kaine—as a young man in the early 1980s. “I made a commitment to Christ,” Pence has said. “I’m a born again, evangelical Catholic.”
Pence’s political legacy on Indiana seems to appeal to conservative factions in both denominations. He has been an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage and women’s reproductive rights, enforcing a number of restrictive social-conservative measures during his time in the governor’s mansion. In March 2015, he granted Indiana businesses legal protection in discriminating against LGBTQ individuals. And in 2016, he signed a majorly prohibitive anti-abortion measure that “decimated access to abortion” in Indiana, according to Mother Jones.
When Tim Kaine and Mike Pence meet on the debate stage tonight (Oct. 4), they will, once again, strike a collective contrast to their running mates—the first woman to represent a major party in a US presidential race, and a politically inexperienced reality TV star propelled upward by a combination of anti-establishment sentiment and atypically flagrant campaign rhetoric. And with neither the Clinton nor the Trump campaign demonstrating any particular interest in courting religious interests, the appointment of Kaine and Pence might seem doubly puzzling.
But with 83% of Americans still identifying as Christians in 2016, a dose of dogma is an understandable addition to a major-party ticket. (Particularly for the Republican party, which has, until this year, made highly concerted overtures toward religious elements in national campaigns.) And considering America’s continued religiosity on this broad scale, Kaine and Pence may actually be apt representatives of a majority of voters’ thinking. Contrary to popular belief, not all Christians are conservative; otherwise polls would show Donald Trump amassing 83% of the national vote. And liberal Christians, though likely in favor of the separation of church and state, surely have their politics informed in some way by their faith-values—as Kaine has demonstrated.
Essentially, Kaine and Pence present models for the effect of Christianity on politics in 2016. Kaine mirrors the voter whose Christianity is more about economics and infrastructure. He or she wants a president and vice president in office who value universal healthcare, adequate funding for public schools, and perhaps more empathetic and merciful foreign policy (particularly when it comes to refugee resettlement and undocumented immigrants).
Pence stands in for Christians who see their ideology as under attack on a national scale. They want a vice president who will guide the White House toward restoring so-called “religious freedom”—the ability to deny service to same-sex couples, or to restrict their communities’ exposure to concepts deemed inappropriate by their faith (abortion, sexual education, etc.). More narrowly, they may even want an executive team that will practice more aggressive foreign policy with regards to the defense of Israel and the Holy Land, which likely entails policy reverberations unfriendly to Muslims and refugees.
Collectively, their face off tonight stands in direct affront to the notion that American religiosity is on a rapid decline. Though church attendance rates may be falling, sizable portions of the electorate still hold that their faith-values should be represented at the federal-executive level. And in 2016, with both major-party candidates breaking records for age of nomination, two religious men are perhaps closer to the White House than any vice presidential candidates in recent history. Regardless of how their faith informs their politics, it’s sure that whatever the outcome in November, whether formally or informally, church and state will continue to intermingle in Washington.