Tim Kaine: The Jesuit volunteer

The Virginia lawyer, governor and senator was picked by Hillary Clinton as her running mate to bring American Catholic voters back to Democrats in the November 8 elections. Is he up to the mission? [No, he wasn’t: Catholics – mainly white, not Hispanic – supported Donald Trump over Clinton by a 23-point margin (60% to 37%), according to the Pew Research Center.] (Read more…)

© Joe Raedle | Getty Images

There may be some truth to Richard Nixon’s adage that “the Vice President can’t help you – he only can hurt you”. But Hillary Clinton is hopeful that her running mate, Jesuit-educated Tim Kaine, is a safe choice.

[Neither was a safe choice. While Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2,86 billion ballots, according to the final results, 304 members of the Electoral College voted for Donald Trump, allowing him to be sworn in as president in January 2017. Meanwhile, Tim Kaine “resumed his old role” in the Senate, and ruled out the idea of another White House run in a recent interview with the “Richmond Times-Dispatch”, his hometown newspaper.]

Nixon, who brought power to the V.P. post while serving Dwight Eisenhower for eight years, was right on his assessment. Spiro Agnew, whom he selected to be his Vice President in 1969, became more of a burden than an asset. The former governor of Maryland managed to antagonize allies (conservatives) and enemies (the press). After his reelection in 1972, Nixon trusted him with no responsibilities. He was “unfit to govern”.

Timothy Michael Kaine is not “a relatively unknown” like Spiro Agnew, but concedes to being “a boring person”. He defines himself as “a man for the others” – a motto learnt with St Ignatius of Loyola missionaries that forever changed his personal and political life.

Him being a Catholic is “the key reason” why Hillary Clinton picked Tim Kaine as her running mate in the November 8 presidential elections, says Religion News Service’s editor David Gibson. It has already been the main reason why Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s pick in 2008.

“Since the 1970’s, each party [Democrat and Republican] is “guaranteed about 40% of the Catholic vote”, Gibson added. “But it’s that middle 20% that is in play, and in a close election winning that bloc is crucial” to Hillary and Donald Trump’s chances. “Now it seems almost a requirement to put a second in command who can tick the Catholic box.”

Trump – who studied for two years at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in the Bronx, before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, “to test against the best” – is also aware of that requirement. His running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, “likes to call himself ‘evangelical Catholic’ even though he left the Catholicism of his birth to embrace Protestant evangelicalism while in college.”

Tim Kaine photographed with Nat, his first son, in 1990
© Richmond Times-Dispatch

The eldest son of an ironworker and a home economics teacher, Timothy M. Kaine was born in St Paul, Minnesota, on February 26, 1958, but grew up in the area of Kansas City, Missouri. His parents were “so devout”, Kaine told C-SPAN that, “if we got back from a vacation on a Sunday night at 7:30 p.m., they would know one church in Kansas City that had Mass that we can make it to.”

It was in Kansas that Kaine attended the all-boys Jesuit Rockhurst High School where he became a student leader. Afterwards he entered the University of Missouri to complete a bachelor’s degree in economics before being admitted to Harvard Law School.

At Harvard, he took a year off to volunteer with the Jesuit mission in El Progresso, Honduras. Here, he spent nine months (from 1980 to 1981) teaching carpentry and welding, and also learning Spanish.

“I came back with new lessons in humility and service, and I resolved to devote my talent and energy to helping others”, Kaine told to the Democratic convention, when accepting his V.P. nomination, in July [2016]. “My faith is my North Star for orienting my life. I think of El Progresso everyday. The people, aside from my family, are the most important in shaping who I am today. Since returning from Honduras 25 years ago, I have worked hard to serve my church, my family, community, city and state.”

While friends hail him as a genuine progressive (in Richmond, the formal capital of the Confederacy, Kaine has been a staunch defender of racial equality; his father-in-law, a former governor, faced a massive Democratic white supremacist establishment to impose integrated schools where he enrolled his children), critics underline the omissions in the Honduras narrative.

Tim Kaine teaching carpentry  in the Jesuit mission in El Progresso, Honduras, in September 1980
© Tim Kaine | Los Angeles Times

“In the 1980’s, Honduras was a crossroads of Cold War”, noted Greg Grandin, professor of Latin America History at New York University and author of Kissinger’s Shadow. “A year earlier, next door, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas had won their revolution. Father James Carney, a Chicago-born Jesuit priest who was executed in Honduras in 1983, recalled the moment [in his memoir]: ‘If Nicaragua won, El Salvador could win, and then Guatemala, and then Honduras could win.’”

At that same time, Grandin wrote in the newspaper The Nation, an article titled Eat, Pray, Starve: “CIA operatives quietly began to move into the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa’s discreet Hotel Alameda, and began setting up the paramilitary network that would execute the Contra war [against the Sandinistas], that would claim 50,000 lives. (…) CIA agents also began to work closely with Honduras’s security forces, which began their campaign of political disappearances in late 1979”.

Grandin detailed a gloomy timeline: In March 1980, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered. In January 1981, Ronald Reagan took office as President. The ambassador he appointed to Honduras, John Negroponte, “helped cover up the activities of [death squad] Battalion 316.”

On December 11, 1981 another battalion, US trained Atlacatl, “massacred upward of 900 people in the remote Salvador village of El Mozote – six of them were Jesuits.” In the meantime, “thousands of refugees, from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, poured into Honduras.”

“Kaine could not have avoided become immersed in these socio-religious, political currents and crosscurrents”, asserts Grandin. He would have been “exposed” to debates in the Jesuit order, where some missionaries were defending the leftist Theology of Liberation and others, like his mentor, Father Jarrel “Patrício” Wade, committed to a “more pastoral than political ethics”.

“The losing ticket”: Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton
© The New Republic

In his interview to C-SPAN, Kaine was asked about the lessons of the Honduran journey: “Happiness is not correlated with health”, he said. The dictatorship “really taught me things that we take for granted here… having a government that is the rule of the law.”

He didn’t utter a single word about the fact that the dictatorship was installed and funded by Washington. “In 1980, exactly the moment Kaine landed in El Progresso, Honduras was the second largest recipient of US economic assistance to Latin America, despite a sparse population of three million. It has received $35 million in military aid.”

A lawyer in Richmond, Tim Kaine entered public office only in 1994 when he run for and won the City Council. In 2005, he was elected Virginia’s governor. In the presidential campaign in 2008, he acted like a visionary endorsing not Hillary Clinton but Barack Obama (who, in the 2012 reelection bid, won the overall Catholic vote – 50% to 48%).

In 2009 – when a military coup in Honduras forced the elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya into exile – Kaine rose to prominence to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In 2012, he was elected senator (joining the Armed Services, Budget, Foreign Relations and Aging Committees) – becoming the first one to deliver a speech in Spanish from the Senate floor.

While the Jesuits strongly condemned the Honduran coup, Kaine said nothing, except demanding an investigation when indigenous Lenca people leader and environmental activist Berta Cáceres was slain last March [2016]. On the contrary, he has been very active supporting deals that have led to displacement, poverty and migration, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

It seems like Kaine is adopting towards Honduras the same position he applies to issues such as the death penalty or abortion: “personal beliefs come second to legal and political implications.”

© Cliff Owen | AP

As a young attorney in Virginia, he used to offer legal advice free of charge to death row repentant inmates, but during his time as governor he oversaw 11 executions. “I have a moral position against the death penalty, but I took an oath of office to uphold it”, he said to The Washington Post in 2012. “Following an oath of office is also a moral obligation.”

As a heartfelt Catholic, he also opposes abortion, but has maintained a “100% pro-choice voting record” in the US Senate. On same sex-marriage and gay adoption, he used to align with the Church teachings but in 2012 he turned to be a supporter: “I believe all people, regardless of sexual orientation, should be guaranteed the full rights of the legal benefits and responsibilities of marriage under the Constitution.”

Kaine might look “too much of a moderate” to some Democrats, but what will attract voters, says Catholic veteran commentator E. J. Dionne, are his “working class roots and his focus on pocketbook issues like jobs, economic inequality and affordable health insurance.”

“Moreover, the issue that is far and most important to a key Catholic constituency – Hispanics – is immigration”, adds Religious News Service (RNS) editor David Gibson. “On that score Kaine, with his long support for immigration reform and his fluency in Spanish, easily beats Trump and provides a real opportunity for the Democratic vice presidential candidate to score point for Clinton.”

Last August [2016], RNS reported that Hillary Clinton was leading the Catholic vote 56% to 39%, “a sizeable gap unlikely to close much by November.” And if Trump-Pence “hope to persuade swing voters in battleground states such as Ohio and Florida, they must climb a steep mountain”. [Trump took both states.]

“It’s not only Latino Catholics who are turned off by the blustery billionaire – unsurprising given these voter’s Democratic leanings and Trump’s toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric. More intriguing (…) is the fact that many moderate and conservative Catholics also don’t seem to buy what Trump is selling.”

In 2015, Pope Francis had already given his opinion about “The Donald” when he stated: “A person who thinks only about building walls [Trump promised to erect one on the Mexican border], wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

“It doesn’t take a high-priced political consultant to tell you that being on the wrong side of a widely popular Pope who has captivated people far beyond the Catholic Church is a bad place to be”, said John Gehring, author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.

[According to a Pew Research Center report, “the 2016 presidential exit polling reveals little change in the political alignments of U.S. religious groups. Those who supported Republican candidates in recent elections, such as white born-again or evangelical Christians and white Catholics, strongly supported Donald Trump as well. Groups that traditionally backed Democratic candidates, including religious “nones,” Hispanic Catholics and Jews, were firmly in Hillary Clinton’s corner.”]

JFK: The only Catholic President

John F. Kennedy's meeting with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican - July 2, 1963 - was historic: the first Roman Catholic President of the United States was seeing the Church's pontiff only days after his inauguration © All Rights Reserved

John F. Kennedy‘s meeting with Pope Paul VI (L.) at the Vatican, on July 2, 1963, was a historic event: the first Roman Catholic president of the United States was seeing the Roman Catholic leader only days after his inauguration
© www.pinterest.com

It is estimated that 70 million of the 350 million residents of the United States are Catholic. So why hasn’t there been a Catholic president since John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK, 1961-1963), the only one since the United States was founded in 1776?

John Forbes Kerry was, in 2004, the only one Catholic presidential candidate among the 28 party nominees since Kennedy. And while there have been six Catholic vice presidential nominees, the first elected nationwide was Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008.

“There’s no simple explanation but prejudice doesn’t seem to be the case”, said Newsweek’s Matthew Cooper, one of many commentators puzzled by this subject. America already had one Mormon nominee, Mitt Romney (Republican), and a Jewish V.P. nominee, Joe Lieberman (Democratic). “They didn’t fail because of bigoted views about their faith.”

“Part of the reason,” according to Cooper, “may be that the two [main] parties have tended to nominate from the South, which has been growing, and few from the Northeast, which is the most Catholic region and has lost population. Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, both Bushes and Bill Clinton all hail from Southern states. There hasn’t been a president from the northeast since Richard Nixon.”

Whatever the reasons, there is a certainty: Catholics in politics are no longer regarded as a liability.

In the 1960’s, JFK was compelled to publicly stand that he “wouldn’t take orders from Rome or let his faith affects his decisions in the Oval Office”.

In September 2015, in what would be unthinkable before and during Kennedy’s tenure, Pope Francis addressed a Joint Session of Congress, where 30% of all members are now Catholic. Moreover: six of nine Supreme Court justices were Catholic, the Vice President, Joe Biden, is Catholic, the then-Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was Catholic, and the Secretary of State, John Kerry, is Catholic.

Francis’ visit was not the first papal trip to the US, but it was the most important ever.

“It’s no secret that the Catholic Church in the United States faces a ‘best of times, worst of times’ moment in the early 21st century,” says John L. Allen Jr., editor of the Catholic website cruxnow.com. “New waves of immigration, principally from Latin America, are providing the Church with new energy and new human capital. But the Church’s existing base in the country is in decline. (…) The number of Catholics has dropped by 3 million since 2007 [now comprising 20%], and Catholics are now only one-fifth, rather than one-quarter, of the [total] American population.”

“At one level”, added the analyst, “the measure of Francis’ success in America will be whether future studies suggest at least some of that decline has been arrested, and whether the Pontiff inspires the Latino wing of the Church to take a more visible leadership role in American Catholic affairs.”

If the Pope succeeds, Catholics hope that there will be more many successors to JFK and Joe Biden on the top jobs.

President Barack Obama and Pope Francis stand together on stage during a state arrival ceremony for the pope, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (On September 23, 2016, Pope Francis became only the third pope to visit the White House. © Andrew Harnik | AP

President Barack Obama and Pope Francis stand together on stage during a state arrival ceremony for the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, on September 23, 2015, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington
© Andrew Harnik | AP

These articles, now updated, were originally published in the WORLD MISSION magazine (Manila, Philippines), October 2016 edition

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