Kaine’s faith vs. that new guy’s faith

Before the explosion of news from Fort Hood, there was another comment I wanted to make about the election of Virginia’s new governor, Robert F. McDonnell. So please allow me to dip into tmatt’s GetReligion Guilt folder and pull this one back out.

When the state’s current governor, Timothy Kaine, ran for office, his Catholic faith was a huge part of the story. There was a valid hook for this, since some of his views on social issues clashed with the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Still, Kaine was comfortable talking about his faith and, thus, he incarnated a crucial issue — the Democratic Party’s attempts to reach out to believers in pews and, in particular, to Catholic swing voters.

Now flash forward to the current race and the press coverage focusing on McDonnell, especially the coverage in the region’s all-powerful Washington Post.

It got to the point where I could ask people here inside the Beltway, “What church does McDonnell go to?” and people would almost always answer, “I assume he’s an evangelical Protestant of some kind.” The reason, of course, was the flood of coverage about the candidate’s master’s thesis at Regent “Pat Robertson” University.

So now McDonnell has won, becoming the state’s second Catholic governor. Surely, one would think, the facts about his faith have received more attention. Maybe they have, which means you’ve had a little wave of coverage of the Catholic issue. Then again, maybe not.

After the election, the Washington Post offered the following piece focusing on the challenge that is ahead for the new governor. Go ahead, search this news story for the word “Catholic.”

What did you get? Zero, right?

Once again, the emphasis here is on you know what and you know who. Near the top we read:

… McDonnell began the campaign with a record of conservatism acquired during 17 years in the state legislature and as attorney general. A graduate of the conservative Regent University in Virginia Beach and a friend of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s, McDonnell has made abortion restrictions, the prohibition of same-sex marriage and a tough stance on illegal immigrants top priorities at various times in his career. As a result, he has a strong base of support among grass-roots conservatives, allowing him to win the Republican nomination without challenge last spring and to focus on courting the middle during the general election campaign.

Reconciling those two aspects of McDonnell’s candidacy will be a central tension of his term as governor. Conservative activists are already pressuring McDonnell. The group Virginians for Life sent out an e-mail urging supporters to push McDonnell to defund the abortion provider Planned Parenthood. Last week, at the Richmond Convention Center, Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, told 1,300 supporters that McDonnell must reverse Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s decision last year to ban state police chaplains from using Christian prayer at department-sanctioned events.

And later we read, once again:

McDonnell might be able to avoid some difficult choices, at least initially, because he will be busy managing a deep state budget crisis while trying to fulfill a campaign promise to identify new money for road improvements. He has also promised not to raise taxes, a challenge that will give him a reason to avoid dealing with social issues such as abortion that could turn off moderate supporters.

“He’s got one big excuse, the economy, and he’ll use it frequently,” said Larry J. Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “He’ll say: ‘Gee, I’d like to do this. I want to do this, but we’re not going to have the money.” Sabato also predicted that McDonnell “will avoid social issues like the plague” because of his controversial graduate school thesis, in which he criticized working women, single mothers and homosexuals. After the thesis was widely publicized, he spent several weeks during the campaign defending himself against accusations that he is a right-winger.

One would think that nothing happened after that in the campaign, including McDonnell’s statements about his own family, his eldest daughter serving as a platoon leader in Iraq, etc., etc.

However, the key point is that the dominant force in McDonnell’s life — his Catholic faith — continues to be a smaller part of his press profile than that one brief stop for a master’s degree at Regent. For that matter, it would be nice to know why a traditional Catholic would choose to study there. That would be an interesting subject for research. How do you get from the University of Notre Dame and Boston University to Regent?

But no, Virginia’s second Catholic governor remains a bit of a Catholic mystery, as opposed to the state’s first Catholic governor.

Why is this? Is there some chance that McDonnell is the wrong kind of Catholic? Is it wrong to ask what active, frequent Mass and confession-attending Catholics think of him? That could be an interesting story. It could be.

After all, if the purpose of the Post report was to talk about the new governor’s attempts to move to the middle of the political spectrum, wouldn’t that make it crucial for the newspaper to include his Catholic faith? After all, part of the template for Kaine coverage was that his Catholicism made him more of a centrist. Doesn’t McDonnell’s Catholicism make him more of a centrist? Shouldn’t that issue be covered?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    Reading the story, what lept out at me was the tendancy of the press to just grab bits and pieces of RC teaching and apply them to their subject. I wanted to know if McDonnell had grown up in a particularly devote RC home, and what the faith journeys of his parents and siblings were like. Just putting him in 1989 and 2009 does not give any texture to his life and believes. I guess I would have prefered a more biographical treatment. One question I have is did he ever study to be a priest?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I noticed that when McDonnell was interviewed on cable news this week-end he apparently was at Notre Dame University. And he made no apologies for his traditional stands on social issues when pressed.
    He probably was only too happy to let people in Virginia think he was some sort of evangelical–I doubt if there are nearly as many Catholics in Virginia as there are evangelicals–and many Catholics have had their faith and their politics warped leftward by media propaganda.

  • will47

    A lot of this is because McDonnell himself has downplayed his Catholic roots. The bio on his campaign website notes only that he went to Catholic grade school, and otherwise does not discuss his affiliation, not even in discussing his pro-life views. His campaign was very good at staying on message, and for whatever reason, his Catholic background was not part of that message, which strikes me as odd. It gives the impression that either he does not attend church regularly, or that the polling the campaign did found that Catholicism turned an important sector of the voting populace off. The latter would be a more interesting story than the former.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Considering who McDonnell needed to get votes from to win, Evangelical Christians, and considering how they treated Mitt Romney, mentioning that he has a belief other than that the Bible is the total and authoritative word of God is unwise on McDonnell’s part. True, the denouncing of Catholics for accepting Tradition is not equal to the denouncing of Mormons, but Evangelicals do not fully accept Catholics into their fold.
    On the other hand, from Moderates leftward Catholics who accept the teaching of their religion are distrusted as mindless Papists who have the wrong loyalties, who will follow the direction of the Pope. The complaints about the Catholic Alito being put on the Supreme Court show the truth of this, although those who feel this way never fully explain it. Closely related to this is a hate of the Catholic Church in some circles for not ordaining women.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JP Lambert:

    That’s a simplistic view of evangelicals.

    But what does that have to do with the Post and the MSM covering Kaine’s faith and not the new gov’s? What does that have to do with the press?