As I sat down to watch Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, knowing that much has already been made of both candidates’ self-professed Christian faith, what I dreaded most was the possibility of the name of Jesus Christ being taken up as a political weapon on both sides. In fact, they almost made it through the debate without doing so – until moderator Elaine Quijano raised a question about how they balance their faith with public policy. We can’t know for sure whether the question was intended as a veiled reference to life issues, but the candidates appeared to interpret it as such, unquestioningly accepting (and further perpetuating) the problematic stereotype that the only grounds for respecting life are religious ones.
Predictably enough, Tim Kaine adopted a JFK-style compartmentalization between his personal faith and his public life, citing from past experience as governor of Virginia how he had not allowed the former to influence the latter regarding … the death penalty. With this example, he appears at pains to demonstrate his willingness to allow existing laws to override his conscience even where his own party does not necessarily require it. Even more predictably, when the discussion turned to abortion, he took the disconnect a step further, from a reluctant acceptance of what the law is to a moralized assertion (contrary to his professed personal views) of what the law ought to be, portraying it as a question of trust, and thus making it politically palatable to set the decision to end a life (whether on the part of “American women” as a handily monolithic political abstraction or, to apply the same principle back to the death penalty, the state) at a higher value than that life itself.
Mike Pence, for his part, made a few truly laudable statements, when taken by themselves, around his invocation of “the sanctity of life.” For purposes of public witness, I find it preferable to refer to “the dignity of life,” a term that is just as deeply rooted in Church teaching while also being more translatable into a secular context. But it doesn’t take much of a cynic to recognize that Pence’s chief concern here was not to translate his beliefs so much as to appeal to a part of his base that already shares them, and in a similarly limited way. When he talks about “cherishing the dignity, the worth, the value of every human life,” when he states, “A society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable,” I couldn’t agree more. I only wish he applied these beliefs more consistently. But right in the middle of all this, he repeated the violent caricature he’d been drawing of those he refers to as “criminal aliens,” revealing a glaring blind spot in his defense of the vulnerable – one that is unfortunately reminiscent of his attempt last year to dissuade the archbishop of Indianapolis from allowing Catholic Charities to resettle a Syrian refugee family, belying his claim to prioritize Christian faith above party loyalty (unlike Archbishop Tobin, thankfully).While I found Quijano’s question and the vice-presidential candidates’ responses mostly cringe-worthy, the whole exchange forces me to grapple with a more vexing underlying question: what is the role of faith in public life in, as Kaine called it, a “first amendment nation”? And how does this relate – and how should it relate – to the way we talk about social issues, especially life-and-death ones?
I believe the separation of Church and State is necessary for the health of the Church. Mike Pence is just one of many politicians whose awkward attempts to baptize the party line only underscore this point when they invariably lead to compromise and counter-witness, notwithstanding any pronouncements that faith comes first: the State is a jealous god and will not docilely accept second place. But neither can I accept Tim Kaine’s privatized notion of faith and morals, to be sectioned neatly away to free the conscience to contradict those morals in one’s public and professional praxis – whatever one’s state in life happens to be – willingly conceding first place to State and party in whatever loyalties they demand, and turning back to practice one’s faith only in one’s spare time.
But respect for life should go beyond the Church in any case. If it were only a matter of religious faith, Kaine would be right, and we’d be on shaky ground trying to “mandate” anything reducible to an article of faith as national law. But if the dignity of human life is truly fundamental, we should be able to trust people of multiple faiths and no faith to come to this conclusion through what we might call natural law, through science and reason and moral intuition and empathy. Better that than to leave the matter of trust, as Kaine did, to decisions to end lives – lives he knows are of value, if we’re to believe what he says about his own beliefs. To build a culture of life, we need to somehow find the language to prove we’re not simply talking to ourselves.