Is Martin O’Malley The Candidate Religious Progressives Have Been Waiting For?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

When asked in December 2015 to describe his approach to politics, former Maryland governor and Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley could have repeated the same slew of archetypes commonly heard from those seeking the White House. He could have framed his campaign as that of a political outsider, for instance, or championed his desire to “get stuff done,” or even trumpeted himself as a harbinger of hope and change.

Instead, the two-term governor appealed to something increasingly uncommon among Democratic candidates: his faith.

“The politics of higher purpose — that’s what’s always drawn me to public service,” he told the Nation. “I believe that the power of politics isn’t money. It’s the beliefs that unite us, when they are actually tapped — when a leader is willing to make him- or herself vulnerable for the sake of those values.”

Granted, O’Malley didn’t specifically tie this “higher purpose” to his Catholic beliefs (the interviewer did that for him), but he didn’t have to. Of the three Democratic candidates vying for the presidency, O’Malley — who attends mass regularly while on the campaign trail — is arguably the most explicit about his religious beliefs, often invoking his faith while discussing his policy positions.

This firm embrace of the spiritual is arguably seen as a detriment to an increasingly secular Democratic electorate, whose ranks are rapidly being filled by nonreligious voters often wary of politicians who make explicit appeals to faith. It certainly doesn’t appear to be doing O’Malley any favors this campaign season: He still trails far behind rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Real Clear Politics poll averages, barely making a blip at 2.1 percent nationally compared to Sanders’ 37.2 percent and Clinton’s 52.1 percent.

O’Malley’s apparent invisibility stands in stark contrast to the man he is most often associated with — Pope Francis, the wildly popular pontiff who is second only to Barack Obama as the most admired man in the world (tied, inexplicably, with Donald Trump). Unlike O’Malley, Francis has garnered widespread approval among left-leaning Americans, largely for his more liberal approach to religion.

But when you get down to it, O’Malley is actually far, far more liberal than Francis on several issues. This makes the progressive tendency to ignore him interesting, and the contours of his faith — which he argues compels him to endorse left-leaning policies — worth exploring.

A deeply Catholic education at home and at school

O’Malley often jokes about growing up in a “mid-size Irish Catholic family” of “only” six children, quipping, “People at Our Lady of Lourdes thought we were Lutheran spies.” “Mid-sized” or not, his parents reportedly raised him with an abiding respect for the Christian faith, especially Catholicism’s historic — and in many ways progressive — social-justice teaching.

“My father taught me that the only thing that lasts in this world is being good to other people,” he told Esquire.

Naturally, O’Malley’s relatively privileged family (his father was a successful criminal defense lawyer) quickly enrolled him and his siblings in schools that provided a distinctly Catholic eduction, something he says had a lasting impact on both his spiritual and political beliefs. Even for a guy with a quintessentially Irish Catholic name like O’Malley, his schooling was unusually Catholic: He attended a parish school for his elementary education in Bethesda, Maryland, the Jesuit Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., and Catholic University of America for his undergraduate degree. O’Malley deviated from the Catholic pipeline when he attended law school at the University of Maryland, but maintains it was his faith-led tutelage that shaped his worldview — especially the influence of one D.C.-based priest whose homeless center was located next to his high school.

“You'd come in from the lily-white suburbs and you'd see the nation's Capitol looming in front of you and then . . . you'd walk by the morning line of homeless and poor and jobless men who were waiting in line at Father Horace McKenna’s,” O’Malley told the Washington Post in 2007. “That was not lost to many of us walking into school by that line every day: how lucky we were, how much we had."

He also credits his Christian education for sparking an interest in elected office. In a 2002 commencement address to Gonzaga, then-Baltimore mayor O’Malley told students that the school’s commitment to public service is what inspired him to abandon a potentially lucrative law practice and vie for a career in politics.

"I learned [at Gonzaga] that it is not enough to have faith, you must also have the courage to risk action on that faith, to risk failure upon that faith: the faith that one person can make a difference and each of us must try,” he said, speaking of his decision to run for mayor after serving on the Baltimore City Council.

To this day, O’Malley says he tries to to find time to pray in the mornings, taking 20-30 minutes to reflect and read what he calls “good stuff” — works by Catholic theologians such as Ignatius Loyola and Thomas Merton, as well as other faith thinkers such as Protestant writer C.S. Lewis and rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel.

“My Catholic faith has taught me that there is no such thing as a spare person,” he said.

He claims a faith that influences his liberal politics…

As O’Malley climbed the Democratic political ranks in Maryland, his Catholic faith continued to influence his approach to policy — usually in ways that pushed him leftward. He helped lead the charge to abolish Maryland’s death penalty, for instance, a practice that Catholic leadership also staunchly opposes. The campaign took four years to yield results, but he finally managed to convince the state legislature to abolish it on his third try.

“My advisers told me, as I took on the death penalty during my first year as governor in Maryland, that I was misguided,” O’Malley, who also commuted the sentences of all remaining death row inmates in Maryland, wrote in November 2015. “I didn't listen because my faith and my own experience taught me otherwise.”

O’Malley has since advocated for abolishing the death penalty nationally, and partnered with a number of faith coalitions to enact some of the strongest gun safety laws in the nation — including an assault weapons ban. This barrage of left-leaning policies, in addition to signing a bill decriminalizing pot in Maryland and his overall progressive outlook, has led some to label O’Malley as a “social justice Catholic” — or a Catholic politician towing the tradition’s more liberal line, such John F. Kennedy or Vice President Joe Biden.

More recently, however, political analysts have started using a different label to describe O’Malley’s faith-fueled brand of liberalism: he’s a “Pope Francis Catholic,” so named for the wildly popular pontiff who has achieved acclaim for giving voice what many argue is a more aggressively progressive brand of theology.

Indeed, O’Malley is the only Catholic candidate running for president who has celebrated Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, which called on world leaders to take bold action to slow the effects of global climate change. All other Catholic White House hopefuls — Republicans Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum — have dismissed the pope as “wrong,” belittled his scientifically supported document as inappropriate because he’s not a “scientist,” or dodged his call for policies that reduce carbon emissions.

“Today, Pope Francis published his first encyclical —an official teaching document to all 1.2 billion Catholics — on the moral imperative of addressing climate change,” O’Malley wrote in a USA Today op-ed. “He is not alone among leaders of world faiths making such a clarion call for action. Given the grave threat that climate change poses to human life on our planet, we have not only a business imperative but a moral obligation to future generations to act immediately and aggressively.”

O’Malley has also echoed Francis’ repeated calls to welcome immigrants. He has expressed support for the U.S. Catholic Church’s push for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level, allowed more then 2,000 refugee children to shelter in his state during the 2014 unaccompanied migrant crisis, and signed into law legislation allowing some undocumented immigrants to be granted in-state college tuition.

…But he’s willing to buck Catholic authorities from time to time

O’Malley’s dedication to his faith doesn’t mean he ascribes to all aspects of Catholic doctrine, however, nor does it mean that he always follows the lead of Church leaders. The Catholic Church spent years vehemently opposing efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, for instance, yet O’Malley hinted back in 2011 that he would endorse legislation supporting the right to marry. When Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien sent O’Malley a letter encouraging him to oppose any law endorsing same-sex marriage because it “deeply conflicts with your faith, not to mention the best interests of our society,” the governor ignored the cleric, signing the bill anyway when it passed in 2012.

His inspiration? Pope Francis, who — while still opposed to same-sex marriage — famously responded to a question about gay priests by saying “Who am I to judge?

“I sent [the archbishop] back a very succinct letter that encapsulated my thinking,” O’Malley said in an interview with the Nation. “I said, ‘Look, on many, many issues — feeding the hungry, healing the sick, all these corporeal works of mercy — we agree. But on this one, we are going to have to disagree.’ With this pope, it’s been a huge difference. Especially as a Catholic politician, to have someone giving a broader context to the range of public-policy choices that we make [is meaningful].

Not even Pope Francis could help O’Malley justify his support for abortion rights, however. Though the Catholic Church is a stalwart opponent of abortion, the governor reportedly supported a 1992 Maryland referendum that allowed abortions to be legal until a fetus can survive outside the womb. Planned Parenthood also honored O’Malley with an award in 2014, lauding him for his “outstanding leadership in protecting and advancing reproductive rights in Maryland.”

O’Malley’s support for abortion isn’t actually that out-of-step with the U.S. Catholic population: According to an August 2015 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, more than half (51 percent) of American Catholics say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, only two points behind the national average of 53 percent.

O’Malley even defended Planned Parenthood while campaigning as a presidential candidate this year at Loras college, a Catholic school in Dubuque, Iowa. When a student asked him how he could support the women’s health group, he was conciliatory, but firm.

“Very few public issues that I've wrestled with as much as this one given my beliefs and given my faith,” he said, but noted that Planned Parenthood provides preventative health care and that abortion should be a choice left to a woman’s "individual conscience."

Not all of O’Malley’s polices find support among the faithful, however. He has defended his support for “zero tolerance” policing while mayor of Baltimore, a policy that local residents argue created an unnecessarily hostile — and often deadly — relationship between African Americans and city police. The issue has driven a wedge between O’Malley and the Black Lives Matter movement, which includes many people of faith, and the relationship was made even worse when he responded to a protest action at Netroots Nation in 2015 by saying “all lives matter” — a phrase often described as a way to dodge the issue of system racism within police forces and American society as a whole.

O’Malley quickly apologized for the gaffe — and his response to the controversy, while imperfect, hinted at the social justice upbringing that taught him to approach issues of justice with a grain of humility.

”There’s no progress without adversity, for a people or a person,” O’Malley said in December during his interview with the Nation. “Even for all of the service I’ve offered, and all of the good things we’ve done in both Baltimore and the state of Maryland, none of us as white people can ever fully appreciate the constant sense of vulnerability that our black neighbors live with in our country. I’m on a constant learning curve. I’m always trying to get better, to deepen my own personal understanding so I can be of greater service.”

Time will tell whether voters will give O’Malley the chance to be “of greater service” while serving from the Oval Office, or if he will have to continue his “politics of higher purpose” somewhere else.

This article is part of our ongoing series on the faith of presidential candidates. You can find our first entry, which chronicles Gov. Scott Walker’s questionable claims to evangelicalism, here. Check out other other posts on the faith of Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.