The most honest answer in last night’s debate

When theology meets election strategy.

CREDIT: AP/Patrick Semansky
CREDIT: AP/Patrick Semansky

Near the tail end of last night’s interruption-filled vice presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, moderator Elaine Quijano finally waded into a topic that has received relatively little attention this election season: religion.

After noting that both men have been vocal about their deeply-held faith on the campaign trail, she asked each “to discuss, in detail, a time when you struggled to balance your personal faith and a public policy decision.”

The response to the “religion question” was one of the most honest, compelling moments of the debate, with both men affirming each other’s faith and — for once — refraining from interrupting each other. Yet their answers betrayed two very different sets of spiritual priorities, with each man appearing to use their time to court a different subset of the faithful.

“Their answers betrayed two very different sets of spiritual priorities, with each man appearing to focus on a different subset of the faithful.”

Kaine, for his part, initially name-checked his Catholic (Jesuit) education before insisting that one faith should not be lorded over another. By way of example, he explained that the most spiritually trying moment of his political career was wrestling with whether or not to support the death penalty — something the Catholic Church opposes in most cases.


“The hardest struggle in my faith life was the Catholic Church is against the death penalty, and so am I,” he said. “But I was governor of a state, and the state law said there was a death penalty for a crime if the jury determined them to be heinous … I looked the voters of Virginia in the eye and said, ‘Look, this is my religion—I’m not going to change my religious practice to get one vote. But I know how to take a vote and uphold the law and if you elect me I will uphold the law.’ I was elected and I did.”

Kaine’s answer effectively conveyed two messages at once. First, his struggle over capital punishment, which he has mentioned before on the stump, reflects America’s own creeping ambivalence on the issue. Just last week, Pew Research announced that only 49 percent of Americans said they back executions, the first time the practice has lost majority support in more than 45 years. Feelings on the issue tend to break along religious lines: while healthy majorities of white evangelicals and white mainline Protestants support the death penalty (69 and 60 percent, respectively), only 43 percent of Catholics endorse the practice. Only a narrow majority of white Catholics (54 percent), a coveted swing vote, support the practice, and 50 percent of the religiously unaffiliated — a younger group that leans Democrat — oppose it outright.

In other words, Kaine’s agony over ordering the death of another human being is a relatively safe topic.

“I think it is really, really important that those of us who have deep faith lives don’t feel like we can just substitute our own views for everybody else in society regardless of their views.”

But the second, and arguably more important, part of Kaine’s response was how he appeared to use a traditional definition of religious liberty to slyly jab at Pence’s own, far more controversial understanding of the same concept.


“[The death penalty issue] was a struggle, but I think it is really, really important that those of us who have deep faith lives don’t feel like we can just substitute our own views for everybody else in society regardless of their views,” he said.

Kaine’s goal here is subtle, but strategic. Pence is infamous for supporting his state’s version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) in 2015, a law many saw as a thinly-veiled attempt to discriminate against LGBT people. The governor faced a cavalcade of criticism for signing the bill, including several faith groups who said it “could provide a legal excuse for individuals and corporations to use religious conviction as a reason to discriminate”—in other words, forcing others to submit to the religious beliefs of one group.

The faith groups weren’t alone. Polls taken at the time showed that the majority of every major religious group favor legal nondiscrimination policies that protect LGBT people, and almost all opposed laws like the Indiana bill that grant religious businesses the right to refuse service to LGBT people on religious grounds. That’s a lot of potential votes.

The one exception, of course, was white evangelical Protestants—the group that backed Indiana’s “religious liberty” bill in the first place, and who Pence geared his own answer toward Tuesday night. In fact, Pence made his target audience crystal clear: conservative Christians who oppose abortion — especially evangelicals.

“My Christian faith is at the very heart of who I am,” he said. “With regard to when I struggle…For me the sanctity of life proceeds out of the belief, that ancient principle, where God says, ‘before you were formed in the womb, I knew you.’ … The state of Indiana has also sought to make sure that we expand alternatives in health care counseling for women; non-abortion alternatives. I’m also very please that we are are well on our way to becoming the most pro-adoption state in America. I think if you’re going to be pro-life, you should be pro-adoption.”

Pence, like Kaine, was broadcasting dual messages, although they were far easier to parse. The first was plainly reiterating his opposition to abortion—a position harbored by the vast majority of evangelical Protestants, even among millennial evangelicals. The second was naming adoption as an implied alternative to abortion, an idea that has become something of an obsession among evangelicals. In fact, adoption—which is often pushed by church leaders—has become so prevalent among the right-wing Christians that it’s causing serious issues abroad, as eager parents flood international adoption agencies with requests for children.


The ultimate objective is for Pence to do exactly what most political analysts say he was tapped by Trump to do: bolster support for the GOP nominee among religious conservatives, many of whom support Trump—but only reluctantly.

So, yes, both men spoke honestly about their religious beliefs last night. They just also happened to speak about it in ways that would resonate with a very specific subset of the (voting) faithful.