Obama’s VP choices include two different Catholics

Michael Sean Winters, author of Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats has an interesting article in the New Republic about two of the three Catholics that are reportedly on Barack Obama’s short list for the Vice President slot on the ticket:

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. . . .

. . .

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.

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.

Read it all here.

Political analyst (and cradle Episcopalian) Ed Kilgore has a different take:

Michael Sean Winters has an article up on the New Republic site that argues Sebelius would have a harder time appealing to her co-religionists than Kaine.

Winters offers two reasons for that judgment: (1) Sebelius has been publicly rebuked and asked to refrain from taking communion by her bishop after she vetoed a bill restricting abortion providers in Kansas, making her an obvious target for a revival of the “wafer war” quasi-excommunications by conservative bishops that dogged John Kerry in 2004; and (2) aside from getting along with his bishop, Kaine, unlike Sebelius, has made his Catholicism a central feature of his political persona.

I’m not an expert on Catholicism, but do know something about John Kerry’s experience and about Catholic opinion. And based on that, I’d say Winters’ second point is more compelling than his first. Kerry’s “religion problem” mainly flowed from his admitted reluctance to talk about his faith and its relevance to his public life. In combination with his conflicts with conservative bishops, his reticence made him seem a nominal Catholic or even a bad Catholic, even though he was actually a lot more religiously observant than George W. Bush. And that in turn probably reduced his appeal to Catholics qua Catholics.

As Winters says, Sebelius could have the same problem. But if, on the other hand, she did find a way to articulate her faith in a convincing way, her conflict with the local hierarchy might actually help make her a champion to the significant majority of Catholics who don’t agree with the church’s position on abortion, and who may soon be itching to rebel against conservative threats to massively expand the “wafer wars” by witholding communion from regular church-goers who think or vote “wrong.”

Conversely, while Kaine’s proud Catholicism (not to mention his missionary service and his Spanish-languge fluency) is undoubtedly a political asset, his lack of friction with the church is partly attributable to views on abortion and LGBT rights that are offensive to some Catholics and many non-Catholics, and moreover, aren’t very consistent with those of Barack Obama.

I’m not “endorsing” either candidate or anyone else (though it should be noted that another apparent short-lister, Joe Biden, is a Catholic with long experience of navigating ecclesiastical shoals). But if Obama’s interested in appealing to Catholics by his choice of running-mate, it’s not just a simple matter of picking the candidate least objectionable to the more conservative ranks of the hierarchy. A clear majority of American Catholics are “objectionable” to these bishops, and that’s important to keep in mind.

Read it all here.

Category : The Lead

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2 Comments
  1. Brie Dodson

    At last – news I don’t have to get mad about! ;-) Thanks for this post. It was fascinating. If Sebelius or Kaine gets the nod, this could be one campaign I don’t do my best to tune out.

  2. pam

    I hope for the day that religious affiliation or the lack thereof is not part of the discussion regarding our secular leaders.

    Pam Alger

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