Friday, July 22, 2005

Tim Kaine and religion -- "Please, Lord, bless all the starving pygmyies"

"[Bill Clinton's] point was that Democrats can’t win the presidency if they don’t campaign earnestly among churchgoing Christians—he noted that he got 75 percent more Evangelical votes in 1996 than John Kerry did in 2004."
(Report on Clinton at the Aspen Institute’s first annual weeklong Ideas Festival.)

"I'm not going to change my religious views to get elected to public office," Kaine said. "And I won't let anyone push me around for my religious views."
(Tim Kaine interviewed after Saturday's debate with Jerry Kilgore.)

Watching Tim Kaine defend his "religious views" after the Kilgore/Kaine "debate," I couldn't help but think of a recent visit Tim Kaine paid to Floyd County, Virginia, a jurisdiction with one stoplight and so far back in the woods you have to pump in daylight.

It's not that the visit couldn't have been productive. After all, the wine and cheese festival crowd which Kaine visited are a likely demographic for a liberal Democrat. What was odd was that Kaine, fresh off what some called his public "meltdown" at the Salem Fair the day before, didn't seem to know where he was, or who he was talking to. A reporter from the Floyd Press wrote:

The Lt. Governor was asked what he wanted citizens to know about him both as a man and as a candidate. He replied that he had been a missionary in Honduras... At which point the crowd looked down at their brie and swirled their wine while murmuring polite little hobbit noises.

Actually, I made up that last sentence, because it sorta fit. After all, this was a wine festival crowd, not the regulars at the Tuggles Gap diner a few miles down the road. All I can figure is Tim's missionary service is included in the talking points he spouts regardless of where he is and who he's talking to. Either that or he looked around, saw mountains and trees, muttered, "Toto, we're not in Richmond any more," and said what he thought would mollify the natives. Kaine's awkwardness stood in stark contrast to the country fair atmosphere of Governor Warner's visit only days later.

But seriously, does it seem to anyone else that Kaine tries to shoehorn his religiosity into political conversation at odd moments? He did so at the wine festival and he did so after the aforementioned debate. Likewise, in an interview in February he responded to a question: "Who's the last person you wrote a letter to?" "A missionary in Honduras." Add those things to the television campaign add where Kaine says, "As a missionary in South America I learned that life is sacred," and you've got to be intrigued.

Kaine began speaking about the issue of faith early in the campaign, back in February:

"Kaine, in addressing about 1,000 people at the party's annual Jefferson-Jackson fund-raising dinner, said he would not tolerate attacks on his Roman Catholic faith nor would he condone Democratic attacks on the Religious Right.

"I will never cede to any other party or any other candidate the label of the faith and values party, because Democrats are about faith and values," Kaine said.

"Sometimes our candidates have trashed the religious right, when what we meant to trash is a bad idea," he said, prompting more than a few hard-core Democrats to squirm in their seats. "We should never, never label people who are from the religious right."

And shortly thereafter, Kaine told the American Prospect:

"The second thing that Democrats have to do better on is not attacking the 'religious right.' 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.'"

So far, this is fine, even positive. There is certainly nothing wrong in a candidate's grounding his principles in his faith. We often hear of how important George Bush's faith is to him. Wasn't it Bush who, in the 2000 campaign, named Jesus Christ as the most important person in his life? And Republicans and conservatives certainly don't have a lock on religious convictions.

The side of me that dislikes cynicism whispers that Tim Kaine may very well be a sincere Christian who honestly dislikes the growing anti-religious element that increasingly controls his party. Perhaps Kaine was uncomfortable with the MoveOn representatives that came from out-of-state to help his campaign effort at Virginia's shad planking. It's well-known that one of MoveOn major contributors is billionaire George Soros, whose hatred for George Bush derives partly from his contempt for religion. We'd naturally expect a religious person to be uncomfortable with Soros as a bed-fellow. Maybe Kaine's religion talk is a brave attempt to recapture his party and make common-cause with religious conservatives.

The Washington Post, however, offered a more cynical analysis:

"Kaine, an observant Roman Catholic, has apparently decided to compete directly for the religious vote with his likely opponent, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R). His advisers think the faith issue plays well in regions where Democrats traditionally do poorly -- the southwest and Hampton Roads. They also see Kaine's faith as a shield against his position on the death penalty, which he opposes but pledges to enforce.

The religion strategy should come as no surprise. Kaine has been telegraphing that part of his campaign at every opportunity."

"Religion strategy?"

Wait a minute... Now that they mention it, there is an eerie similarity between Kaine's "my religion" statements and John Kerry's emphasis on his military service during the Presidential campaign. Remember how Kerry attempted to inoculate himself against criticism of his anti-war protests by highlighting his Vietnam service? Remember how Kerry cried "How dare you question my patriotism!" at every mention of his anti-military voting record? Now Tim Kaine cries "Stop attacking my religious beliefs!" at every mention of his liberal political stances. Not only did he do so after the debate, but in an earlier skirmish where Kilgore asked whether Kaine, with respect to the death penalty, would follow his conscience or his oath as governor, Kaine responded by saying, "So are we saying that people with strong religious beliefs who take oaths of office can't be trusted to mean what they say when they utter that oath? I would hope not."

That response, of course, does indeed sound like a "strategy," not an answer.

Unfortunately for Kaine, it's not just Kilgore asking such questions.

As Washington Post reporter Melanie Scarborough wrote:

Kaine says that his Catholic faith leads him to oppose both abortion and the death penalty but that he would not, as governor, try to thwart either practice. Why not?

Kaine’s opposition to the death penalty dates from his days as a law student. What sort of person spends his adult life campaigning against the death penalty, but — if given the power to commute death sentences — would decline to use it?

Either Kaine’s beliefs are not strongly held, or he is being disingenuous.

Not strongly held, or disingenous? I don't know, but the more I hear Kaine talk about his religious faith, the more he sounds like Larry the Cable Guy talking about starvin' pygmyies. And friends, that won't get 'er done.