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."
The pope was actually more sweeping. In a 1999 visit to the United States, he appealed "for a consensus to end the death penalty," which he denounced as "cruel and unnecessary," saying that "the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."
Kaine also noted that "the church's teaching is that you ought to have a presumption toward life and toward the protection of life." But for him, he added, "the real guidance is Jesus. I mean, that's the real arbiter. And the adulterous woman about to be legally executed. Christ stopped the execution. And you know, Christianity is a religion that begins with the execution of a man in some way. And that strikes me as well."
Kaine, who attends St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Richmond, recognizes that not all Catholics agree with him or the church. Polls consistently find that a majority of Catholics favor capital punishment.
"I'm not saying somebody has to believe X or Y to be a good Catholic," he said. "I'm just saying I've embraced my church's teachings on both abortion and the death penalty."
Kaine said he believes there are exceptions to the church's "presumption toward life."
"As I understand church doctrine, it's not that Catholics have to be pacifists, to avoid all use of force. . . . [There are] exceptions for murder for self-defense, just war, killing in times of war."
And noting that "you're talking about a war situation if you're talking about Osama bin Laden . . . I mean, terrorism is an act of war," Kaine said that "it would not cause me problems at all" to see bin Laden executed.
For centuries, the Catholic Church accepted the principle that states had the right to execute criminals to ensure societal order. But after World War II, the Vatican became more vociferous in condemning the death penalty. Today, the Catholic catechism no longer states that capital punishment can apply "in cases of extreme gravity."
U.S. bishops began denouncing capital punishment in the 1970s, and in a seminal 1980 document they declared that it should be abandoned. The question "today is whether capital punishment is justifiable under present circumstances," the bishops wrote. "We believe that in the conditions of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty."
The Rev. John Langan, professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics, said that "the heart of the position . . . is that there is no need, and therefore no justification, for putting criminals to death, that the problems can be handled in other ways, [such as] life imprisonment."
The bishops are declaring, Langan added, that "even the lives of the guilty deserve respect and that respect for life will be stronger if the lives of the guilty are spared."
Kaine aspires to put himself in a spot familiar to more than a dozen other Catholic politicians. Of the 22 Catholic governors, 14 preside over states with the death penalty, although in two -- New York and Kansas -- the statute has been declared unconstitutional.
In Virginia, 23 people are on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.
Although it's an unusual tactic for a Democrat, discussing his religion in connection with his politics can be effective in reaching Virginia voters this year, Kaine believes.
"A hundred percent of people are values voters," he said. "And it's never been otherwise."
In general, he added, "people who run -- and maybe particularly Democrats because they have a little harder time doing it -- they ought to be upfront about what motivates them, their faith and values. . . . It will make plain that everybody's a values voter."