Mike Pence and Tim Kaine face off tonight in the vice presidential debate. The New York Times this morning suggests that the debate may bring back to the fore a subject that has been largely sidelined by the candidates at the top of the ticket: faith.
Mr. Pence, who was raised Catholic, turned toward evangelical Christianity when he was in college and has made no secret of how cultural issues have shaped his politics. He was one of the most outspoken foes of abortion rights and same-sex marriage when he was in Congress. And as Indiana’s governor, he became engulfed in controversy after he signed legislation allowing the state’s business owners to deny services to gay, lesbian and transgender people for religious reasons. But Mr. Pence, whose signature line is that he is “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican — in that order,” finds himself in a campaign devoid of any debate about the moral questions that have for decades been central to the country’s right-left political divide. Mr. Kaine, who like Mr. Pence has Irish roots and was raised Catholic, had his faith forged when, during law school, he went to Honduras and served as a missionary for the Jesuits. It was there that he embraced a brand of liberation theology centered on social justice that would eventually be one of the forces propelling him into government. Early in his political career, Mr. Kaine’s style of Catholicism made him uneasy with some elements of the Democratic Party, particularly on issues like abortion rights and same-sex marriage. While he has since shifted on those issues to accommodate his party — and his running mate — he remains unapologetic about how important his faith is to his career in public service. “I’ve been very plain about my time in Honduras and about how important my own spiritual life is to me as my big motivator in this,” Mr. Kaine said in an interview. He said he had not encountered any discomfort from his party, which polls show to be increasingly secular, when he talks about his religious beliefs. “It doesn’t divide you from people,” he said. “It actually connects you to people because they’re skeptical about people in politics but curious about us, too, and if you share with them what motivates you, that gives them some understanding of who you are.” But the openness with which the vice-presidential candidates discuss religion, and their focus on moral issues, have not been shared by their partners atop the ticket.