September 19, 2018

Kasich on faith

Two years ago, at a Palm Springs conference sponsored by the Koch brothers, a wealthy Republican donor challenged Ohio Gov. John Kasich on his decision to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Kasich’s temper flared.

“I don’t know about you, Lady,” he said, according to a report in Politico. “But when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”

Some 20 donors and politicians rose and left the room, appalled by Kasich’s impudence. The following year, Kasich was not invited to attend the next Koch conference — held in Columbus, Ohio.

If Kasich was punished for adhering to a version of Christianity that emphasizes duty to the poor — you know, Jesus’ version — then his Republican opponents are being rewarded — in votes and in donations — for a version that is more exclusionary and judgmental.

And every four years, this faceoff repeats itself. As much as our presidential elections are a referendum on candidates, they are also a referendum on religion. More precisely, on which version of religious belief appeals to the broadest swath of the electorate. We’re not just electing a president, we’re electing a faith.

In 2016, the choices couldn’t be clearer. Marco Rubio, who has practiced as a Catholic, a Mormon and an evangelical, has made public protestations of faith a centerpiece of his campaign.

“Well, let me be clear about one thing: There’s only one savior, and it’s not me,” he said during a Jan. 28 televised debate in Des Moines, Iowa. “It’s Jesus Christ, who came down to Earth and died for our sins.”

Rubio’s stump speech is steeped in culture-wars rhetoric — anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage. One of his television ads actually said, “The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan” — reassuring evangelicals that A) there is one, and B) Marco Rubio knows what it is.

Ted Cruz, son of the preacher who directs the Purifying Fire Ministries of Dallas, is even more fiery in declaring his faith.

“We can turn our country around, but only if the body of Christ rises up,” he said in a speech at Liberty University in Virginia.

In Cruz’s version of Christianity, there is a one-to-one correspondence between what is right according to his faith, and what is right for all Americans: no IRS, no gun control, no abortion, no Common Core. To Cruz, these are matters not of policy, but of faith.

As for Donald J. Trump — who has actually outperformed Cruz and Rubio among evangelicals — his appeal is clearly not his personal morality. The man who bragged to radio host Howard Stern about [insert expletive] another man’s girlfriend behaves like a foul-mouthed, small-handed lout. But as a religious leader, Trump’s appeal is unparalleled.

In a 1987 survey of evangelical voters, social scientist Steve Mitchell found that what evangelicals looked for in a candidate was not where the candidate stood on social issues or even abortion.

“They got involved in politics for the same reason they got involved with their church — because they were looking for someone to help ‘show them the way.’ Evangelicals were drawn into politics by messianic leaders,” Mitchell wrote.

If Trump presents a version of Christianity that is authoritarian, and Cruz’s and Rubio’s version is fundamentalist, where does that leave Kasich?

He has repeatedly framed his decision to expand Medicaid despite conservative orthodoxy as a religious one. In (another) tense confrontation with evangelicals, he told them that while he opposed gay marriage, the Supreme Court has ruled and, “it’s time to move on.”

Kasich has said publicly he doesn’t often attend church, but finds God “wherever he is.” In his book on faith, “Every Other Monday” — the title refers to a regular Bible study group Kasich attends — Kasich said he approaches scripture with “an open heart and an open mind.”

And, while his beliefs may grate against many liberal sensibilities, such as his anti-abortion stance, there is something recognizable and approachable in his viewpoint of religion.

In Kasich, you hear echoes of progressive Christian clergy like Rev. Jim Wallis, who said, “You can’t be evangelical and associate yourself with Jesus and what he says about the poor and just have no other domestic concerns than tax cuts for wealthy people.”

In Kasich, you also hear echoes of Hillary Clinton’s discussions of her own Methodism, and even Bernie Sanders’ affirmation this week that his Jewish faith is “very important” to him, though he hardly wears it on his sleeve (just, you know, in his accent).

But is this the Christianity that America believes in? Is it possible that Kasich’s far more mainstream, thoughtful and less strident approach to faith will, in the end, have a broader appeal to Republican primary voters? By now, have they seen through Trump’s messianic dream of a stronger, whiter America, Cruz’s promise of a Grand Inquisitor-in-Chief and Rubio’s I-know-exactly-what-Jesus-wants self-righteousness?

As this column goes to press, the results of the Michigan primary are still not in, and Ohio is a week away. But more and more, Kasich appears as a real alternative.

Maybe that’s because, as the media and pundits keep saying, Kasich is “the only grown-up in the room.” But maybe it’s also because he’s a simple man of faith. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.