Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Religion and the Republican front-runners

Welcome to the first part of a multi-part guide to the GOP and Democratic candidates' religious backgrounds and beliefs.

To kick things off, I'll write about the top 5 GOP candidates, and then we'll move to the top 5 Democratic candidates, and possibly breakdown the religiosity of the rest of the pack.

But before we kick things off, let's take a moment to marvel at a pretty remarkable fact: Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Susana Martinez, Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, and Bob McDonnell are all Catholic.

That means 9 of the top 18 potential GOP candidates are Catholic. Truly amazing.

Marco Rubio (photo: Gage Skidmore)

1. Florida Senator Marco Rubio: Catholic

His spiritual path:

He was baptized Catholic at birth, but eight years later, his mother briefly converted to Mormonism, and he was baptized as a Mormon.

According to Rubio, his mom was drawn to the "wholesome" values of the Mormon church, but never "fully understood the church theologically", and Marco's own dad never embraced the religion.

Three years later, his family reconverted (word, theologically possible?) to Catholicism, and he received First Communion and then confirmation in the Catholic church at 14 years old.

Even though he considers himself a "practicing Catholic", he and his family attend Christ Fellowship, a Southern Baptist mega church in Florida. When he's in Washington, he attends the illustrious St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

Last year, Rubio told Christianity Today about what drew his family to the evangelical church, Christ Fellowship -- "Phenomenal" preaching and teaching.

When CT bluntly asked whether he called himself an evangelical, Rubio demurred, "I'm theologically in line with the Roman Catholic Church. I believe in the authority of the Church."

That being said, he believes most Protestants and Catholics agree on salvation -- "that God became a man and died for our sins, and that without that sacrifice, all of us would be doomed."

Christ Fellowship Church, the Rubio family's home church in Miami (photo: WallyMC)

As far as how his faith influences his politics, Rubio notes that you can't really separate the two, and that a faith's value system informs every part of your life.

If you're living out your faith, it influences every aspect of your life. It teaches us to glorify God in everything we do. In everything we do in our lives, we're called to bring glory to God, primarily by the way we live our lives and the things we do so people will look to us and say, "That's what it means to be a Christian; that's what it means to be ambassadors of Christ."

If our faith influences every aspect of our lives, then if we decide to become politically active, it should influence that as well.

There's been some cynical snickering about Rubio's decision to attend Catholic services in DC and an evangelical church in Florida. The rub is that he's trying to hedge his religious bets.

But actually, a professor at Notre Dame recently told me that it's fairly common for Hispanic Catholics to migrate to evangelical churches without making the attendant tweaks in doctrine.

When I lived in South Florida, I saw the same thing, as well -- lifelong Hispanic Catholics attending evangelical churches because they liked the preaching, but didn't consider themselves ex-Catholics.

The fascinating thing, though, is that when Hispanic Catholics do migrate to evangelical churches, they tend to become more Republican -- not because their views necessarily change, but because they rearrange their priorities. In other words, abortion becomes more important to their voting calculus than when they were in the Democratic party.

Political Implications:

Rubio is fairly fluent in the language of evangelicals, who have far larger influence than Catholics in determining GOP presidential primaries.

As far as gay marriage goes, he leans on his faith's interpretation of what marriage should look like.

"In terms of the Bible's interpretation of marriage, what our faith teaches is pretty straightforward. There's not much debate about that. The debate is about what society should tolerate, and what society should allow our laws to be. I believe marriage is a unique and specific institution that is the result of thousands of years of wisdom, which concluded that the ideal—not the only way but certainly the ideal—situation to raise children to become productive and healthy humans is in a home with a father and mother married to each other. Does that mean people who are not in that circumstance cannot be successful? Of course not.

It's not a discriminatory thing. I'm not angry at anyone because of it, but I also have to be honest about what I believe marriage should be in our laws."

So far, Rubio is leading the 2016 pack in Iowa polls -- a state where social conservatives and evangelicals dominate the caucus process (they made up 57% of caucus goers in the 2012 primary). One question is what they'll think about Rubio's comfort with both evangelical and Catholic houses of worship.

It's not clear, but by 2016, it could be a moot point. Rubio is currently looking to move his family to Washington DC, so presumably, one would think it would be Sunday trips to St. Joseph's Catholic Church for the whole family.

Whatever the case, it's clear that Rubio's faith informs his views on marriage and abortion -- two of the most touchy issues in presidential politics.

Famous Catholic presidents:

John F. Kennedy.

JFK, the only Catholic president (photo: JFK Library and Museum)

South Park's Butters is also Catholic, although he has never been a U.S. President.

How Catholics vote:

There was a massive ethnicity gap in how Catholics voted in 2012.

Barack Obama squeaked by Mitt Romney, 50%-48%, among all Catholics, but white Catholics preferred Romney, 59%-40%.

Non-white Catholics picked Obama, 80%-18%.

Why the disparity?

The ranks of non-white Catholics are dominated by Hispanics, which the entire galaxy by now knows trend heavily Democratic.

Good quote from a Catholic:

Thomas a Kempis, from his famous Imitation of Christ:

"If God were our one and only desire, we would not be so easily upset when our opinions do not find outside acceptance."

2. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: Catholic

His spiritual path:

Publicly, he hasn't talked about his spiritual path as extensively as Marco Rubio, but the outlines are easy enough to grasp.

He was born Catholic, and chose the Catholic university, Seton Hall, to get his law degree, and in 2011, he talked with young students at a Catholic elementary school about the value of a Catholic education.

As for his governorship, Christie kicked off his inauguration with a Catholic mass, and a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York told CNA:

“Catholics are in general very happy and proud of the fact that we have a Catholic as governor and someone who very clearly talks about his faith and lives his faith and holds his opinions according to his formation as a Catholic.

Political Implications:

Last month, Christie told CNN that his Catholic faith informed his views on gay marriage, and that he would never "compromise my principles for politics."

"Will it become politically unpopular to have the position I’m having? If it does, so be it. I don’t compromise my principles for politics.”

With support for gay marriage at a record high, Christie's line-in-the sand should resonate with powerful evangelicals in a GOP primary.

Having said that, Christie seems to reject his Church's teaching on homosexuality, which he wouldn't call a sin in another interview with CNN:

CNN’s Piers Morgan asked Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie in an interview that aired Tuesday night: “Is homosexuality a sin?”

“Well my religion says it’s a sin. I mean I think - but for me? I don’t - I’ve always believed that people are born with the predisposition to be homosexual, and so I think if someone is born that way, it’s very difficult to say then that that’s a sin,” said Christie.

“But I understand that my Church says that, but for me personally, I don’t look upon someone who’s homosexual as a sinner.”

That puts Christie in the following camp: He doesn't think homosexuality is wrong, but he thinks gay marriage is wrong.

That's a hybrid you don't see too often, and Dems could make a big deal out of it in a general election.

As for abortion?

It's not clear whether it would be a net win or loss for him in a GOP primary.

In a past political life, Christie favored abortion, but he became pro-life when he saw his child's sonogram, which means the Catholic's church's teaching on the subject wasn't sufficient to move him in his past political life.

That being said, The American Catholic was quite pleased with Christie's decision to veto public funding for Planned Parenthood, as were pro-life evangelical groups, and quite frankly, that was pretty gutsy in a deeply blue state.

But it's hard to tell how much that would help him in a GOP primary, because there are certainly other candidates to the right of Christie for social conservatives to turn to.

The plain truth, though, is that Christie doesn't really need evangelicals for a GOP primary.

Neither Mitt Romney nor John McCain established any sort of a connection with them during their primary runs, but the group came home for both of them in the general elections. As such, any troubled connection in a primary probably wouldn't hurt Christie.

Famous Catholic presidents:

John F. Kennedy Jr.

A young JFK, the only Catholic president (photo: John F. Kennedy Library and Museum

Also, the bird woman from Mary Poppins was possibly Catholic (feeding the birds at St. Paul's Cathedral, even though my wife says it's not technically Catholic, it kind of seems like it would be), but there's no evidence suggesting she was a U.S. President.

How Catholics vote:

As I noted in my Rubio write-up, there was a massive ethnicity gap in how Catholics voted in 2012.

Barack Obama squeaked by Mitt Romney, 50%-48%, among all Catholics, but white Catholics preferred Romney, 59%-40%.

Non-white Catholics (which are dominated by Hispanics) picked Obama, 80%-18%.

Good quote from a Catholic: St. Francis of Assissi:

"Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words."

3. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: Catholic

Jeb's spiritual path:

His journey is one of the more interesting out there.

A former Episcopalian, he, like Newt Gingrich, converted from Protestantism to Catholicism later in life.

And, similar to Gingrich, he was drawn to the church's history, liturgy, and sacraments.

Bush said what primarily attracted him to the faith were the “sacraments of the Catholic Church, the timeless nature of the message of the Catholic Church, and the fact that the Catholic Church believes in and acts on absolute truth as its foundational principles and doesn’t move with modern times as my former religion did.”

That last sentence is fascinating -- "Catholic Church.... doesn't move with modern times as my former religion did."

The fact that Jeb takes solace in the immutability of a church's doctrine should comfort conservative evangelicals and Catholics, who reel at some denominations' tendency to look for "cultural relevance" by simply shifting church doctrine according to the wind's whimsy.

If Jeb talks like that, he'll certainly earn props from social conservatives, but could risk looking out of step with more secularist voters.

Epiphany Catholic Church in Miami -- home to the Bush family

So when did Jeb convert?

In 1994, he lost an uber-close governor's race and the following year went through a Rite of Christian Initiation in the church and became a full-fledged Catholic that year.

Some have noted that South Florida's Hispanic community is heavily Catholic, and Jeb would run for governor once again, but this time as a Catholic, which couldn't have hurt.

Nevertheless. it's important to note that Jeb -- like Gingrich -- had a Catholic spouse, and of course, people do genuinely convert from faith-to-faith.

Moving onto political positions, Jeb is strongly pro-life.

In fact, Catholic Online noted that some have called him "Florida's greatest pro-life governor."

As a Catholic politician, Bush compiled a sterling record in programs and initiatives designed to protect unborn children. His leadership helped gain passage of a law that requires abortion clinics to advise parents that their underage daughters are seeking abortions. He also put his support behind a measure to regulate health and safety standards at abortion clinics, which previously were allowed to operate with little or no state oversight.

In 2004, Bush attempted to have the court name a guardian for the unborn child of a developmentally disabled woman, and in the following year shepherded through passage the funding for a pro-life counseling program for abortion-minded women.

"He was a pro-life governor the likes of which I don't think we'll see in Florida again," said D. Michael McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference, the public policy agency of the Florida bishops.

That being said, Catholic Online wrote about an incongruity between Bush's Catholicism and his support for the death penalty -- which he vigorously enforced in Florida, despite suspending it for a time.

It's not entirely clear, though, what Jeb thinks about the death penalty. In fact, in his interview with Catholic Online, he seems to take the tact of I'm personally opposed, but obligated to comply with law.

"It's troubling to me, it's hard to do, it's the hardest part of my job, to sign a death warrant and then to participate in the death penalty," said Bush. "But I have a duty to do it."

Bush compares his duties under the death-penalty law to those under laws that make abortion the law of the land.

"I'm pro-life and I've probably attempted to do more to reduce abortions, but it's the law of the land and there needs to be respect for the rule of law," he said. "The same applies if you flip it around on the death penalty. But I can also justify it spiritually because there is a distinct difference between an innocent life and someone who has committed the most atrocious of crimes."

That being said, other Catholic, GOP candidates differ with their Church on the death penalty, including Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Susana Martinez.

In a way, capital punishment is the GOP's corollary of Dems' abortion problem. Loads of Catholic, Democratic candidates support abortion rights, despite their church's teachings. Thus, both parties deal with a credibility problem.

Even if Jeb's Catholicism were somehow an issue to evangelical voters, remember that his top opponents are Catholic, as well, which provides him some cover. In fact, think of it as the wall of immunity that the top candidates are giving themselves on immigration reform -- something Jonathan Chait wrote about today.

Past Catholic Presidents:

John F. Kennedy.

JFK, a Catholic president (photo: JFK Library and Museum)
Although he plays one in this video, Pet Shop Boys leader singer Neil Tennant is not, in fact, Catholic, although he grew up as one.

Also, there's no evidence that he was ever a U.S. President.

How Catholics vote:

As I wrote in my write-up of Rubio and Christie, there was a massive ethnicity gap in how Catholics voted in 2012.

Barack Obama squeaked by Mitt Romney, 50%-48%, among all Catholics, but white Catholics preferred Romney, 59%-40%.

Non-white Catholics picked Obama, 80%-18%.

Good quote from a Catholic: GK Chesterton:

"What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.

4. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Evangelical

Spiritual path:

He was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which should immediately tell you something. The city is teeming with politically active, evangelical conservatives, and Walker's own dad was a Baptist preacher.

Walker credits his familiarity with church leadership for giving him a special touch with people.

“I watched how my father dealt with people, how he really listened to them, and I have always tried to emulate that in my daily life."

According to BeliefNet, he told Christian businessmen that his life was best encapsulated by the hymn "Trust and Obey."

Scott Walker's home church, Meadow Brook (photo: Scott Dresmal)

While Walker is most known for his fiscal reforms, he frequently mentions his faith and, after winning his tough recall election, said, "First of all.... I want to thank God for his abundant grace."

His battles with the unions have led many liberal Christians to call him a hypocrite for allegedly falling short on social injustice (which is, btw, a fairly ideological term), but again, it's important to remember that Walker's brand of Christianity is the Colorado Springs variety which tends to rather brashly assume that to be Christian is to be Republican.

Political implications:

Interestingly, back in April 2012, Walker hinted (for one of the first times) that a presidential run might be in the works, and talked about it in a religious context with CBN:

“All this is just a temporary thing and God's got a plan for us," Walker tells us. Could that lead to even bigger things beyond being Governor of Wisconsin? “Who knows where it might be, beyond just serving as Governor of this state.”

If he does run for president (which is looking more likely), Walker could do very well with Iowa and its evangelicals.

After all, evangelicals dominate the Iowa caucuses (as I noted earlier, 57% of caucus goers in 2012 identified as evangelical), and as noted, the top '16ers are mostly Catholic.

That's not to say evangelicals wouldn't vote for a Catholic (they gave Catholic Santorum the win in 2012), but in a tie-breaker sort of voting situation, that could really matter.

When you consider four things -- Walker's Midwestern state, evangelicalism, fiscal cred, and social cred -- he suddenly looks like an Iowa front-runner.

But there are two developments this week that could throw a kink in his Iowa plans.

When The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel asked Walker about Rob Portman's shift on gay marriage, Walker affirmed his opposition, BUT gave a very libertarian qualification.

"The interesting (thing) on the generational standpoint is I've had young people ask me I think an appropriate question, is not expanding it to include folks who are not one man and one woman but rather questioning why the government is sanctioning it in the first place," he said on the show. "I mean, that would be an alternative to say not have the government sanction marriage period, and leave that up to the churches and the synagogues and others to define that."

Further, the Sentinel wrote that Walker "said he is more focused on economic issues" than social ones.

Walker was even more explicit when he was on Meet the Press over the weekend, where he stopped short of calling for an explicit truce on gay marriage, but acknowledged that the battle was pretty much done.

DAVID GREGORY: Are younger conservatives more apt to see marriage equality as something that is, you know, what they believe, that is basic rather than as a disqualifying issue?

WALKER: I think there's no doubt about that. But I think that's all the more reason, when I talk about things, I talk about the economic and fiscal crises in our state and in our country, that's what people want to resonate about. They don't want to get focused on those issues.

So the question is which Scott Walker will show up in the 2016 primary?

There's a chance he might pursue an Iowa/South Carolina strategy, but you could also easily make the case that he could make a push for New Hampshire with its penchant for fiscal hawkishness and hatred of the deficit.

His ultimate hope, of course, would be to wield his cred with both groups and veer between the social and fiscal on demand.

Past evangelical Presidents:

Walker is non-denominational, and non-denominational presidents of old can't be compared to the brand today.

Jimmy Carter was Southern Baptist, but once again, he might doctrinal affirm the same savior, but he and Walker's views couldn't be more different, politically. Non-denominational evangelicals, for example, are heavily supportive of Israel. Jimmy Carter would rather it go the way of Sony.

The best, and perhaps only, comparison to Walker would be George W. Bush, who is officially a Methodist, but has close ties to evangelical pastors and is generally considered evangelical.

Good quote from an evangelical: F.F. Bruce

"Where love is the compelling power, there is no sense of strain or conflict or bondage in doing what is right."

5. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: Catholic

Spiritual path:

I put Bobby in the top 5 candidates, because a) he's generally considered a top 5 candidate and b) he has one of the most interesting faith journeys.

Although he was raised as a Hindu, he converted to Catholicism as a teenager.

He spoke with the Wall Street Jounal about the visceral moment of conversion.

During a youth group's Easter season musical production in 1987 at LSU's campus chapel, a black-and-white video of the Passion played during intermission. "I don't know why I was struck so hard at that moment," said Mr. Jindal. "There was nothing fascinating about this particular video. . . . But watching this depiction of an actor playing Jesus on the cross, it just hit me, harder than I'd ever been hit before," he said. "If that was really the son of God, and he really died for me, then I felt compelled to get on my knees and worship him."

"It was liberating," said Mr. Jindal about his moment. "Up until that point, my prayer life was like a child talking to Santa Claus -- making deals with God saying 'I'll be good, but this is what I want in return.'" Soon after, Mr. Jindal began to pray and fervently read the Bible, principally parables in the New Testament. "It was like the words were jumping out of the page. It was literally as if it had been written just for me," he said.

That, though, was preceded by "seven long years" of intellectual struggle with spirituality, as he explained last year to Christianity Today.

My best friend gave me my first copy of the Bible, but it wasn't the Christmas gift I wanted, so I threw it in the back of my closet. The first time I thought seriously about matters of life and death was when my grandfather died. I picked up the Bible to start reading, and I spent many years reading books by authors like C. S. Lewis and Chuck Colson.

Years later, my best friend invited me to hear him sing at a nondenominational church on Louisiana State University's campus where they showed a movie. When I saw the actor playing Jesus being crucified, it hit me that he was on that cross because of Bobby Jindal, my sins. How arrogant for me to do anything but get on my knees and worship him. The most important moment in my life was when I found Jesus Christ.

That last sentence sounds similar to George W. Bush's famous confession of faith during the 2000 primary when he said that Jesus had been the most important philosopher in his life, because "He changed my heart."

Political implications: 

Jindal, like the rest of the Catholic, GOP contenders, disagrees with Church teaching on the death penalty, and his recent push for making oral contraceptives available over the counter -- well, you can imagine how that played with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Having said that, Jindal's take on Catholic doctrine happens to line up perfectly with his party's --- he's against gay marriage, against abortion, pro-death penalty, and economically conservative.

Jindal has done a number of things to make himself attractive to evangelicals in Iowa. He's championed vouchers with a massive school reform push (vouchers were thrown out in court, though), and he also signed a bill giving local schools more control over how evolution and its theoretical alternatives should be taught.

JFK was the only Catholic president (photo: John F. Kennedy Library and Museum)

For a GOP primary, of course, that won't be a problem, but in a general election, you can expect a furor over the issue, despite the fact that, according to Gallup, 46% of Americans believe God created man in his present form. Nevertheless, we all know the primacy that's often accorded tangential, only vaguely relevant issues, and you can expect the Left will make a big deal of Jindal's apparent support for creationism.

And I can't sign off without mentioning Jindal's claim that he witnessed an exorcism while in college (here's the 1994 article he wrote about it).

Will it be a problem?

Look, most Americans believe in angels and demons, but they tend to get categorized in their own conversational genre, if you will.

There's no recent precedent of Americans having a national dialogue about exorcisms and demons within a presidential context, and who knows just how combustible that might be -- particularly considering the rise of Meme-ville which is especially brutal to conservatives.

Thus, the exorcism + creationism is a big unknown in the context of a presidential election.

NEXT WEEK: The Democrats