The other night Tim Kaine became a national figure whose true significance has yet to be completely understood. He is the newly elected governor of Virginia, who gave the Democratic response to Bush’s state of the union address. However, his superb performance on national television isn’t the only reason he has been stirring so much buzz in the media and in the blogosphere.
It’s his religion.
Kaine has been heralded by pundits for being a member of the new breed of Southern Democrats, who are unafraid of standing up for their religious convictions and pushing their party to the right on social and cultural issues. It’s a great media line. Only it’s not quite true.
Make no mistake about it, Tim Kaine is very much a man of deep religious commitment, but his faith and his approach to politics and religion are very different from that of some others who are competing with conservative Republicans to win back the South and rural Midwest. And it’s important to look at the very pronounced way that he is different.
To begin, you need to see how two other Southern politicians are using religion to win voters.
In a January 27, 2007 New York Times story, “Democrats in 2 Southern States Push Bills on Bible Study,” David D. Kirkpatrick writes about two Democrats, from different Southern states, who both support bills that would authorize their school districts to begin teaching from the textbook “The Bible and Its Influence.”
The non-partisan and ecumenical Bible Literacy Project produces the textbook, which simply provides a survey of the Bible’s influence on Western history, literature and art. It’s tone, according to Kirkpatrick’s article, is “academic and detached.” In other words, any course using this particular textbook should simply be a dispassionate look at the Bible’s role in Western history and not a tool to evangelize non-Christian students or make them feel uncomfortable and left out.
In fact, it could be argued that it would be difficult for any student to comprehend much of Western history without understanding the influence of the Bible and religion. How else could you grasp the cause of the conflicts and controversies of Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment? After all, how do you explain the rise of the burghers, the decline of the aristocracy, the beginning of democracy, and the defeat of the monarchies without understanding Martin Luther’s religious objections to the practices of the Catholic Church of his time and the Protestant rebellions that followed from it? How do you comprehend the significance of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, or the Renaissance and Age of Reason without understanding the role religion played in European culture? How could you even appreciate the majority of Western art without knowing its religious context? So, a course on the influence of the Bible on Western civilization is not an irrational idea if you want to understand Western history, culture and art.
But it is easy to be suspicious that a dispassionate understanding of history is not the real goal of many of those supporting bible courses in public schools. For some, the motivation is mostly pragmatic politics. It’s tough enough to be a Democrat in Georgia or Alabama right now. So, Kasim Reed, a Georgia state Democrat from Atlanta is proposing the new course in Atlanta’s public schools.
This is a change of direction for Democrats, who only a few years earlier opposed a Republican proposal to authorize the teaching of a different bible course in public schools. Without knowing exactly what the difference is between the two courses, it’s difficult to fault the Democrats for inconsistency. There could, after all, be a very legitimate reason for their opposition to the earlier bible course. The difference is whether it had a hidden agenda to proselytize a specific religious faith.
On the other hand, in Alabama, Ken Guin, a state representative from Carbon Hill, is supporting a bill specifically for the purpose of furthering just such a religious agenda. Since Alabama is a deeply religious state where the governor once sang “Give Me That Old Time Religion” at campaign stops, Guin and his fellow Democrats are making no bones about their agenda, which is exactly the same as the Republicans’ game plan. They support prayer in the public school and are happy to aggressively run away from the national Democratic Party on that issue.
Meanwhile, Indiana Democratic legislators are among the leaders of a bi-partisan effort to preserve opening their daily legislative sessions with specifically – and aggressively – Christian prayer in the statehouse. Again, the point is to very visibly favor one religion over others, and also to run away from what Democratic activists on the national level consider one of their core values: secularism.
But does a candidate really have to choose between secularism and an aggressive form of religion that leaves out those of differing – often minority – religions or no religion?
Perhaps not. And here is where Tim Kaine is proving to be a real leader, not just among Southern Democrats. His way should be a model for the national Democratic Party. He is demonstrating exactly the way that those Democrats who are genuinely, and often deeply, religious should incorporate their faith into their politics, in a manner that is not divisive and that does not exclude those who don’t share their religion.
Those, like Tim Kaine, who speak from a place of respect for others’ religious and cultural differences strengthen America. On the other hand, those Democratic politicians, like the ones in Indiana, Georgia, and Alabama, and like their Republican compatriots, who would trample over the religious rights of the minority, weaken the country and cheapen their own religion.