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‘A Pope Francis Catholic’: Now that Tim Kaine is Clinton’s VP pick, will his faith matter?

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., speaks to reporters following a discussion on immigration reform at Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Va., on Thursday. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
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Many of the most circulated names for Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential pick are Catholic – a fact that both says a lot about the influence of America’s huge Catholic population, but also reveals, when you look more closely, how far the country has moved away from basic religious tribalism.

Clinton on Friday chose U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a former missionary who personally opposes abortion and who pleased anti-abortion advocates earlier in his political career by saying he would aim to reduce the number of abortions by promoting adoption and abstinence education.

Yet it’s not clear what impact Kaine’s faith — or that of any Catholic — would have on voters.

American Catholics have been growing in recent decades in political power and diversity. While they were once a Democratic voting bloc, today they are divided, particularly by ethnicity. Latino Catholics – 34 percent of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic – prefer Clinton to Trump by a huge margin of 77 to 16 percent. Among white Catholics, the preference is Trump by a margin of 50 to 46 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

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The Fix's Aaron Blake breaks down why Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton chose Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to be her running mate. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Kaine would likely solidify Clinton’s lead among many Latinos; he speaks Spanish fluently (he was the first senator to deliver a speech in Spanish from the Senate floor) and ran for the Senate with a focus on immigration reform.

But white Catholics – 59 percent of Catholics are white – in each of the last four elections have favored Republicans. The margins vary greatly, though, with John McCain beating Barack Obama in 2008 by five points and Mitt Romney beating Obama in 2012 by 19 points, according to election day exit polls conducted by the National Election Pool.

In the scheme of Catholicism, Kaine might be described as a “Pope Francis Catholic,” said William D’Antonio, a Catholic University sociologist who writes books on U.S. Catholic voting.

“Serving the poor has been a key aspect of [Kaine’s] work — and social justice, however you define it. He’s always looked upon that as a crucial part” of his life, D’Antonio said of why he puts Kaine in the Francis mold.

“At some point, if you ask: Who reflects more the way Francis looks at the world? To the degree that’s important, it’s certainly not Donald Trump,” D’Antonio said.

In addition to Kaine, Clinton reportedly considered Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack – all Catholics. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, non-Catholic, reportedly also were discussed.

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Kaine’s attention to his faith has become well-known over his years in office, first as Virginia’s governor and then as a senator.

A recent Washington Post profile quoted an interview Kaine had done with C-SPAN. In the interview, Kaine said his parents were so devout when he was growing up in Missouri, that “if we got back from a vacation on a Sunday night at 7:30 p.m., they would know the one church in Kansas City that had an 8 p.m. Mass that we can make.”

While he was a student at Harvard Law School, Kaine took a year off to work as a missionary in Honduras, where he ran a program teaching carpentry and welding. “I do what I do for spiritual reasons,” Kaine said during the C-SPAN interview. “I’m always thinking about the momentary reality, but also how it connects with bigger matters of what’s important in life.”

Kaine’s Catholicism has been strongly influenced by the Jesuits – the order Pope Francis is part of that has long been associated with education and social justice. In the United States, Jesuit schools and parishes are often seen as the most progressive and open-minded. Kaine was educated at an all-boys Jesuit high school in Kansas City, and the program where he worked in Honduras was founded by Jesuits.

Kaine is known to personally oppose the death penalty, which Catholic teaching comes close to banning totally. He has also spoken about his personal opposition to abortion, which is in line with his church. However, in both cases he has been able to convince voters he would not interfere with the law.

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Abortion opponents in Virginia are familiar with Kaine, and see him as a genuine potential partner — but not a full ally to their cause.

Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University in Virginia who writes about abortion, said Friday that Kaine is seen as a faithful Christian.

“This is a brilliant move on Hillary Clinton’s part, because I think she’s picking in Kaine someone who can give her the appearance of more moderation in general and particularly on abortion,” Prior said.

Prior said that while the conservative evangelicals of Liberty might have preferred a more conservative governor, they saw Kaine as a moderate Democrat and particularly responded to his 2005 declaration on his campaign website in which he outlined how he would cut down on the number of abortions in the state. As governor, he carried through on some of those promises, regularly angering abortion rights supporters .

But after his votes in the Senate in favor of abortion rights – Planned Parenthood gives him a 100% rating, covering 13 votes in the past four years – Prior said she can’t imagine conservative evangelicals will still be willing to support him. She’s unmoved by his message, comparing him to Democratic Catholics before him, including Joe Biden and John Kerry, who state their personal opposition to abortion but say they won’t restrict it as a matter of policy.

“That’s like saying you’re personally opposed to racism, but it’s okay for other people to be racist,” she said. “For most of the voters in my faith community, we are not single-issue voters, but if a candidate is unwilling to protect the most vulnerable in our society, then that candidate in our view is not qualified for office…. A person who is willing to keep abortion legal is not qualified for office and I will not vote for that person.”

Younger, more liberal evangelicals are slightly more likely to see it differently, Prior said. They’re more likely to respect Kaine for his personal convictions as well as his political choices – and among those religious millennials, Kaine’s reputation as a person of faith might win some votes, Prior said.

“He does have a faith background that is, I think, authentic and something that he has lived out in his life. That makes him, I think, someone who offers the most appealing persona in this election.”

This post has been updated multiple times.

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