It hasn’t been an easy election year for anyone, especially pastors attempting to lead an increasingly polarized congregation. Even though many churches choose to keep politics separated from the typical Sunday morning, the current cultural landscape can’t help but cross over into the church, and usually not in a way that feels very comfortable to pastors encouraging their people to follow the path of Jesus.
On one hand there’s Hillary Clinton, whose views on abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom have made her a non-option for many evangelical voters. On the other hand is Donald Trump, who, as we wrote previously, is unprecedented in his proud disregard for the “Judeo-Christian values” evangelicals consider core to American society.
All this leads to an unusual amount of interest in tonight’s vice presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence. For evangelicals there’s a lot to like about both candidates, at least in comparison to the presidential options, especially when it comes to their faith.
To prepare, here’s a brief primer on the Christian beliefs of both candidates.
One of the pivotal experiences in Tim Kaine’s life was a nine-month Jesuit mission trip he took to Honduras at the age of 22. “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.
Kaine grew up in a devout Catholic family, started a men’s group in his local parish, and says his faith is central to everything he does. “My faith position is a Good Samaritan position of trying to watch out for the other person. I do what I do for spiritual reasons. I’m always thinking about the momentary reality but also how it connects with bigger matters of what’s important in life.”
However, Kaine believes there are some areas where his faith and politics do stay separate, most notably with abortion. On Meet the Press Kaine said, “I have taken the position, which is quite common among Catholics—I have got a personal feeling about abortion, but the right rule for government is to let women make their own decisions.”
Kaine also is anti-death penalty and yet upheld numerous executions while governor of Virginia. “How many of us are in the church and are deeply serious about our faith and agree with 100 percent of church doctrine?” Kaine asked the National Catholic Reporter in August. “I would argue very few Catholics are in that position. We’re all working out our salvation with fear and trembling.”
One of Pence’s signature lines is he’s a “Christian, conservative and Republican, in that order.” He recently said he was “overwhelmed with gratitude” that “Jesus had died for all the sins of the world, [and] somewhere in there he died for me.” Pence, who grew up Catholic, converted to evangelical Christianity in college while attending a non-denominational campus group. He has since described himself as a “a born-again, evangelical Catholic.”
As a member of Congress, Pence opposed abortion right expansion and stem-cell research, pushed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, and briefly cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. He supports Israel and considers doing so directly connected to his faith. And as governor, Pence supported Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, allowing businesses to refuse offering services to people based on their religious beliefs. However, when multiple businesses threatened to boycott the state, Pence ultimately reversed his decision.
As governor Pence also came into conflict with both evangelical and Catholic churches when he drew a hard line in the sand on the refugee crisis, refusing any state support to them. When the archdiocese defied the law and welcomed a Syrian family to the city, Pence relented and allowed the family to use government services for support.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE DEBATE
It is hard to overstate how tonally different tonight’s event should be from the Clinton-Trump debate. Both Kaine and Pence have a track record of being fairly subdued and polite (some might say boring). But considering how discouraging the election process has been so far, a somewhat civil exchange of ideas between two candidates who take their faith seriously might be a breath of fresh air.