A Faith-Based Initiative

The morning after Democrat Tim Kaine won the governorship of Virginia, his first order of business was to attend mass in Richmond, where he said prayers for his father-in-law, who is ill with bladder cancer. It was an apt conclusion to a notable campaign, in which Kaine ran as a mass-attending disciple of Jesuit missionaries and the Roman Catholic Church's social gospel. Kaine accomplished three things. He became the first Catholic to win the top job in Virginia, home of Protestant evangelicals Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. He provided a road map into the cultural mainstream for national Democrats. And he highlighted the ever more pivotal role of Catholic politicians, jurists and voters at a time when "values" debates are front and center. "We can't completely separate politics and faith," Kaine told NEWSWEEK. "They rise from the same wellspring: the concern about the distance between what is and what ought to be."

Formerly a reliable part of the Democratic base, Catholic America (now approaching 75 million) is increasingly inclined to vote for Republicans. Bush won 52 percent of that vote in 2004; his majority among white Catholics was 56 percent. Not coincidentally, GOP presidents have placed four Catholics on the current U.S. Supreme Court and a majority-making fifth, Judge Samuel Alito Jr., is up for confirmation. Democratic polltaker Stan Greenberg frets that, while Catholics remain sympathetic to his party's economic policies, they distrust it on social issues such as marriage, abortion and the practice of faith. Reassuring these "dislodged Democrats," he writes, is essential if the party ever expects to win back the White House.

One way to prosper, Democrats evidently have decided, is to discuss their own faith in public. For next year's U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, for example, Democratic powers are backing state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., hoping that Catholicism (including a pro-life position on abortion) will neutralize the doctrinally stricter incumbent, Rick Santorum.

Strategists in both parties have concluded that any expression of Judeo-Christian devotion, if seen as genuine, can reassure culturally traditional voters. In Connecticut, where nearly half of the electorate is Catholic, Sen. Joe Lieberman's enduring appeal is based in part on his allegiance to Orthodox Judaism. In Virginia, where only 15 percent of the electorate is Catholic, the Democrats' goal is to win over--or at least calm down--rural Bible Belt voters. The incumbent Democratic governor, Mark Warner, did it in 2001 with a campaign of cultural semiotics. "Warner won them over by being the guy who knew hunting, NASCAR and country music," said Democratic consultant Jim Jordan. "Kaine reached them with his faith."

Still, there are land mines for Democrats on that country road--especially on the issue of abortion. In the NEWSWEEK poll, 67 percent of Democrats express sympathy with the pro-choice view, and even 51 percent of Catholics do so. In Pennsylvania, pro-choice Democrats remain influential, especially in the Philadelphia suburbs, and they haven't yet warmed to pro-life Casey. In Virginia, Kaine nearly was caught--as John Kerry was in 2004--between his pledge to support Roe v. Wade as governor and his faith-based opposition to it. Kaine supports legal limitations on abortion--including parental notification and a ban on so-called partial-birth procedures--that pro-choice activists view as anathema. "I'm not convinced they have found a way out," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "They've got Kaine going one way and the national Democrats going in the opposite direction."

But Kaine says there is a middle way. "A lot of Democrats, if you try to get them to say, 'I want there to be fewer abortions,' their mouths just won't move," said Kaine. "The fact is, that is what most Americans want." Polls show that he is right, but the next time he goes to mass, he might want to pray that his fellow Democrats get the message.