Catholicism, Politics a Careful Mix For Kaine

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2005

As Democrat Timothy M. Kaine campaigns to become Virginia's first Catholic governor, he has cited his religion to explain himself and his political positions to a far greater degree than his Republican rival, Jerry W. Kilgore, a Baptist.

"I'm a person of faith, and here's who I am, and you're entitled to know who I am because you ought to know about me, what's important to me," Kaine, the lieutenant governor, said in a recent interview in which he talked in depth about the influence of his religion on his life. "That'll give you a yardstick for judging my actions."

Decades after John F. Kennedy broke a faith barrier to become the country's first Catholic president, Catholic politicians still generally played down their religion in the public square. But religion's rising profile is persuading more politicians of all denominations to regard their faith as an asset to be promoted rather than a personal devotion to be understated.

This presents "a conundrum for Catholics who are obliged in conscience to follow their church's teaching but who are elected by a larger constituency than just Catholics," Georgetown University theology professor Chester Gillis said. "Either one runs as a hard-line Catholic and everyone knows that, a la [Republican Sen.] Rick Santorum, or one tries to . . . represent one's constituency even if one disagrees on moral or religious grounds."

Kaine, who is taking the second tack, is trying to signal to voters that just because he talks about his religious life doesn't mean he represents a conservative perspective. His approach has created some delicate political challenges for him on two major issues: capital punishment and abortion. On both matters, he has stated a willingness to accept the legal status quo even though it conflicts with his religious convictions.

Nowhere is this dilemma more evident than on the death penalty.

Kaine says his faith leads him to oppose capital punishment -- a position that Republicans have sought to exploit with emotional television advertisements slamming Kaine's personal stance. Kilgore supports capital punishment, and polls show that most Virginians do as well.

Kaine has said that, if elected, he would follow Virginia law in enforcing the death penalty -- as the oath of office requires. He would not attempt, he adds, to circumvent executions by using the governor's powers of clemency to pardon or commute death sentences.

"A Catholic can follow an oath just like anybody else can," he said.

Although he personally opposes abortion -- as does Kilgore -- Kaine has said on the stump that he would veto legislation outlawing abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and left the matter to the states. That stance on abortion rights is in line with the views of many Democratic voters. Kaine said he would support a ban on "partial birth" abortion only if it had an exception for protecting a mother's health.

In the interview, Kaine said he came to oppose capital punishment long before he entered politics or took on a death penalty case as a lawyer.

Asked to explain his understanding of his church's position, Kaine first mentioned how the late Pope John Paul II said "the death penalty is not allowed in circumstances except those so unusual and remote as to be practically nonexistent."

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