In perhaps the most extensive religious speech of the campaign season, which doubled as a plea to black voters, Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine on Thursday described his faith identity and values as shaped largely by his experiences living and worshiping among Latino and African American Christians.
Kaine’s talk before the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a 2.5-million-member, liberal black denomination, was sermon-like in its heavy religious message and cadence. It ended with the denomination’s president saying: “Give it up for Reverend Kaine!” and contained many scriptural references, tales of his work as a missionary and of praying with Hillary Clinton backstage at the Democratic National Convention.
The core of his talk was about the Biblical story of Job, who loses everything, which Kaine said is really about how people react to suffering and tough conditions, whether they blame the victim and past errors or instead commit more deeply to their faith, principles and moving forward.
“After he has lost everything, he asks: ‘Where is my strength? I have to find it somewhere’…Sisters and brothers, our strength is our creator who has given us the capacity to love, the capacity to lead and the capacity to heal,” he told the audience. “Together with our congregations we have to make sure people don’t lose faith and that their vote matters.”
Kaine’s tales of his faith life wove back to the key point of his talk: Get out and vote. The hour-long sermon started and ended with a push to register more voters and to think of voting as a sacred duty.
The issue of African American turnout is essential to the Clinton-Kaine campaign. Black turnout eclipsed white turnout for the first time in 2008 and again in 2012. Barack Obama’s candidacy was credited with boosting black turnout in both years, but it is not yet clear whether they will vote at the same historically high rates with Clinton on the ballot. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found fewer African Americans than whites are absolutely certain to vote this year, 62 vs. 75 percent.
Black registered voters favor Clinton by a 91-3 percent margin over Trump in Post-ABC surveys conducted in July and August. Over eight in 10 African Americans have a favorable view of Clinton, and the group was a strong base of support for her in the primary. While 55 percent have a strongly favorable view of Clinton, this is far below the 77 percent who were strongly favorable toward Obama at this point for years ago.
Kaine’s impassioned speech about how his Catholic faith was built and tested was especially rich in religious detail for a candidate of the Democratic Party, the home in 2016 for most of the country’s religious minorities as well as the massive slice of religiously unaffiliated voters. In recent years, Democrats have been working a bit harder to connect with religious voters without alienating people who are sick of the blending of partisanship and God and turned off by too much “God talk.”
Donald Trump has turned off many religious conservatives with comments about Muslims, women, African Americans and his lack of desire for God’s forgiveness. The question is whether Clinton and Kaine can lure in some of those voters.
Kaine talked at length Thursday about the inspiration he drew from worshiping with Hondurans while he was a missionary during law school, how much more powerful their faith seemed than back home, where many are concerned that the Mass gets wrapped up in 45 minutes.
“They were simple but beautiful and the sermons were challenging — made you look yourself in the mirror,” he said of Honduran Masses. It made him realize, he said. “I don’t want a worship service that is a transactional box checker on Sunday morning. I want a worship service that’s not transactional but transformational. We shall not fall asleep but we shall be changed. Reform your lives!..That promise of change, of reform. that changed my life.”
He connected that experience back to the movement for voting rights. Citing his experience in the military dictatorship of Honduras, he described coming back to the United States changed. “I spent time with people who prayed for the day they might be able to vote. And when I came back I had a different attitude because I realized what we have and take for granted.”
Kaine went on to say he and his wife selected their Catholic parish in Richmond, which was primarily African American when he joined, because of the racial make up.
“From my perspective, if you’re a minority you have to learn ways to survive, just to survive. If you’re majority you can go through your life and not have to learn ways..you can be segregated, walled off, move with people like you and never have to grapple with reality that’s different from your own,” he said.
He and his wife, Anne Bright Holton, who was secretary of education in Virginia until last month, chose to live in Richmond because of its fights with racism and segregation, he said. We decided “our mission in life was reconciliation. That we would work to heal divisions that threaten to tear communities apart.”
Kaine aimed to weave his life, and that of his wife’s family, through the fight for civil rights. Holton’s father was governor of Virginia in the early 1970s, a time when the state was riven with division over desegregation. He chose to enroll his children, including Anne, into mostly black public schools. Kaine talked about his first case as a Virginia lawyer being sent to defend a woman who experienced racial discrimination in housing and how that shaped the following two decades of his career.
African American men still face a greater odds of going to prison and African American women make 64 cents on the dollar compared to white men, he said. “And how do we respond when churchgoers during a Bible study get gunned down by a senseless act of violence. How do we respond?” Kaine asked the audience. “You have to name injustice, you have to name it and fight it and remain true to justice, mercy, love, the need to build what Martin Luther King called ‘the Beloved Community.’”
Washington Post Polling Manager Scott Clement contributed to this report.