This has been an unusually a-religious election, with Hillary Clinton rarely discussing her Methodist faith and Donald Trump bumbling buffoonishly in his (successful) attempts to woo the religious right. Tim Kaine and Mike Pence have both proven comfortable speaking about their Christian beliefs, however, so Tuesday’s debate held the promise of delving into both religion and traditional culture-war topics in a way we haven’t seen much of this year.
It took almost until the end of the night, but moderator Elaine Quijano finally asked the candidates to “discuss in detail a time when you struggled to balance your personal faith and public policy position.” Kaine spoke about squaring his personal opposition to the death penalty, based in his Catholic faith, with his commitment to Virginia voters to uphold it if they elected him governor in 2006. But Pence used the question as a way of pivoting to a stickier topic for Kaine: abortion.
Kaine has said he is personally opposed to abortion. He also personally supports the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal Medicaid funds from paying for abortions except in rare cases. This puts him at odds with the Democratic Party platform and with his own running mate. However, Kaine has spent the last several years tacking left on abortion, and he now boasts perfect ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood. But the topic is still an awkward and muddled one for him.
Kaine’s advantage is that the topic is muddled for many Americans, too. In a Vox poll on abortion policy last year, 18 percent of Americans said “both” when asked if they were pro-life or pro-choice; another 21 percent said “neither.”
Kaine’s other advantage is that Pence’s own position is so extreme and Trump’s position is so incoherent. As Mark Joseph Stern pointed out on the Slate debate live-blog, one of the measures Pence signed in Indiana would have banned abortion on the basis of fetal disability, including fatal abnormalities; any doctor who performed an abortion for that reason would have been held liable for wrongful death. A federal court struck it down as unconstitutional. Trump, meanwhile, spit-balled in March that women should be “punished” for having abortions, then had to walk it back when it turned out the idea appalled both pro-life and pro-choice crowds.
“I think you should live your moral values, but the last thing—the very last thing—the government should do is have laws that would punish women who make reproductive choices,” Kaine said Tuesday night. “That is the fundamental difference between a Clinton/Kaine ticket and a Trump/Pence ticket.” Pence sputtered that he and Trump would never support such a thing; it’s just that Trump is “not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton.”
Tellingly, both men quoted Bible verses by memory in their answers to the question on religion. Pence recited a verse from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah that is a favorite in the pro-life movement: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Kaine quoted from the New Testament book of Luke to refer to Trump’s habit of insulting women, minorities, and anyone who crosses him: “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”