THE BLOG
09/16/2016 09:14 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2017

The Religious Backgrounds of Mike Pence and Tim Kaine and the 2016 Presidential Election

The vice presidential candidates in 2016 for the two major parties are, in terms of their religious backgrounds, an interesting mix of similarities and differences. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine are both native sons of the Middle West, born in the late 1950's into Irish Catholic Democratic families. Both men were very young when the Catholic Church implemented its Vatican II reforms in November 1964, which means that probably neither of them can remember what American Catholicism was like before then. Studies of older American Catholics in the 1960's revealed that they viewed the most revolutionary change associated with Vatican II as not the switch from Latin to English during religious services, as important as that was, but rather that the priest now turned around, faced the congregation, and spoke to it directly.

Their post-Vatican II upbringing means that Mike Pence and Tim Kaine are part of a distinctive cohort of American Catholics who experienced a kind of religious service much closer to mainline Protestant ones than had ever been true before. Like Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, Pence and Kaine are also part of a distinctly newer and different cohort of Catholic politicians. Older Catholic candidates for the Vice Presidency such as Edmund Muskie of Maine, Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, Sargent Shriver of Maryland, Geraldine Ferraro of New York, and Joseph Biden of Delaware, grew up at a time when the American Catholic world was more distinct from the that of mainline Protestantism. Younger Catholic politicians like Pence and Kaine from the post-Vatican II era tend to blend in more easily with Protestants.

That change has had far-reaching consequences for both Pence and Kaine. Let's consider the GOP nominee first. Mike Pence's family was heavily involved in his local Catholic Church (Saint Columba) in Columbus, Indiana, where he and this three brothers all served as altar boys and attended the parochial school connected to it. At Hanover College in southern Indiana in the late 1970's, however, Pence began moving away from his Catholic roots. The reason for that was simple. At Hanover, which was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, Pence began meeting evangelical Christians who spoke about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That appealed to the deeply religious Mike Pence, and it was something he felt that the formality and rituals of American Catholicism had not provided him. And so, to the surprise of his family (and the distress of his mother), Pence became an evangelical Christian in the 1980's. Although in no way hostile to Catholicism (he calls himself an "evangelical Catholic"), Pence left that world. By the 1990's, he and his wife Karen, whom he met while studying law at Indiana University, were attending an evangelical megachurch in Indianapolis.

That shift in religious identity contributed to a change in his political one as well. During the 1980's, Mike Pence went from being a Reagan Democrat to a Reagan Republican. The issue of abortion was evidently very important to that switch. As the Democrats nationally became ever more supportive of the Roe v. Wade decision and the Republicans steadily less so, Pence felt drawn toward the GOP. His success in Indiana politics - where he has served as a congressman and as governor - stemmed from Pence's ability, rooted in his own life story, to unite morally traditional Catholics and Protestant evangelicals behind his campaigns. With that kind of support, Pence became one of the most socially conservative major politicians in a socially conservative state. What made him distinctive was his refusal to demonize his opponents while still taking very right-wing stands on such issues as reproductive rights and gay marriage.

For Tim Kaine, growing up in a post-Vatican II Catholic environment produced a very different outcome. Kaine mostly grew up in a middle-class suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, where he went to Catholic schools, including a Jesuit high school. While a sophomore there, he went on a mission trip to Honduras to deliver donations to a Jesuit mission in the town of El Progreso. After college at the University of Missouri (which he completed in just three years), Kaine moved on to Harvard Law School, where he decided to take a break and go back to El Progreso to do volunteer work. There he became involved with a group of Catholic clergy who had been influenced by "liberation theology," which emphasized support for oppressed working-class people. Liberation theology had a Marxist tinge to it, which put off some senior Catholic clerics, most notably Pope John Paul II, but all the indications are that the young Tim Kaine liked that more populist kind of Catholicism. His time in Honduras also gave Kaine a more doubtful view of the goodness of U.S. military intervention there, and elsewhere in Latin America, during the 1980's. The repression of dissidents by the military in Latin America then, and the assistance given to the armed forces there by the Reagan administration, appear to have moved Kaine in a more liberal, though still Catholic, direction.

After returning to Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1983, Tim Kaine chose to settle in Richmond, Virginia, the hometown of Anne Holton. They had met a few years earlier, when they were both students at Harvard Law, and married in 1984. Anne Holton was the daughter of the former liberal Republican governor of Virginia, Linwood Holton, a Presbyterian who gave each of his four children a Bible with underlined passages about the good Samaritan. While governor from 1969 to 1973, Holton had sent his children to racially mixed public schools in Richmond, while pushing the state to comply at long last with the Brown school desegregation decision. At the time Anne Holton met Tim Kaine in law school, she was attending services at a local Quaker meeting house. Holton's churchy leftism appealed to Kaine, and her family's political background, so different from his own, intrigued him. After settling down together in Richmond, they joined St. Elizabeth's, a primarily African-American Catholic church.

Thanks mostly to Anne Holton's influence, Tim Kaine entered Virginia politics, where he was elected to the Richmond City Council, and then became mayor, lieutenant governor and governor before winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. Crucial to his success was his ability to appeal to a multi-racial electorate with a moderately liberal message. A white Catholic guy who belonged to a predominantly black church and spoke fluent Spanish, Kaine proved adept at navigating the racially and ethnically diverse electorate of Virginia as it is now.

The differing paths, religiously speaking, taken by Mike Pence and Tim Kaine reflect larger changes in American Catholicism and Christianity over the past generation. As the American Catholic church became, in some important ways, a more liberal institution, and as evangelical Christianity boomed, Mike Pence moved away from Catholicism. Tim Kaine, on the other hand, evolved in ways more in sync with post-Vatican II Catholicism. It helped prepare him for an interfaith marriage to a mainline Protestant, something that transformed his life. That two men could start out with such similar backgrounds, theologically speaking, and end up in such different places reflects the larger polarization of American religion - and society - since the 1970's. Much depends on whether people like them can find more common ground in the years that lie ahead.