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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Sebelius, Kaine and Their Church

With two Roman Catholic governors, Kathleen Sebelius and Tim Kaine, reportedly on Barack Obama’s short-list for the vice presidential nomination, it was inevitable that comparisons would be made about their relationship with their church. Catholic historian Michael Sean Winters has an article up on the New Republic site that argues Sebelius would have a harder time appealing to her co-religionists than Kaine.
Winters offers two reasons for that judgment: (1) Sebelius has been publicly rebuked and asked to refrain from taking communion by her bishop after she vetoed a bill restricting abortion providers in Kansas, making her an obvious target for a revival of the “wafer war” quasi-excommunications by conservative bishops that dogged John Kerry in 2004; and (2) aside from getting along with his bishop, Kaine, unlike Sebelius, has made his Catholicism a central feature of his political persona.
I’m not an expert on Catholicism, but do know something about John Kerry’s experience and about Catholic opinion. And based on that, I’d say Winters’ second point is more compelling than his first. Kerry’s “religion problem” mainly flowed from his admitted reluctance to talk about his faith and its relevance to his public life. In combination with his conflicts with conservative bishops, his reticence made him seem a nominal Catholic or even a bad Catholic, even though he was actually a lot more religiously observant than George W. Bush. And that in turn probably reduced his appeal to Catholics qua Catholics.
As Winters says, Sebelius could have the same problem. But if, on the other hand, she did find a way to articulate her faith in a convincing way, her conflict with the local hierarchy might actually help make her a champion to the significant majority of Catholics who don’t agree with the church’s position on abortion, and who may soon be itching to rebel against conservative threats to massively expand the “wafer wars” by witholding communion from regular church-goers who think or vote “wrong.”
Conversely, while Kaine’s proud Catholicism (not to mention his missionary service and his Spanish-languge fluency) is undoubtedly a political asset, his lack of friction with the church is partly attributable to views on abortion and LGBT rights that are offensive to some Catholics and many non-Catholics, and moreover, aren’t very consistent with those of Barack Obama.
I’m not “endorsing” either candidate or anyone else (though it should be noted that another apparent short-lister, Joe Biden, is a Catholic with long experience of navigating ecclesiastical shoals). But if Obama’s interested in appealing to Catholics by his choice of running-mate, it’s not just a simple matter of picking the candidate least objectionable to the more conservative ranks of the hierarchy. A clear majority of American Catholics are “objectionable” to these bishops, and that’s important to keep in mind.

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