He might be the truest believer in the race; and it’s come back to bite him.
The Republican nomination can sometimes seem like a contest to see which candidate is most religious. Ted Cruz touts his born-again faith, and he recalls how he “surrendered his heart to Jesus” as an 8-year-old at summer camp. Marco Rubio, who has at different times embraced Catholicism, Mormonism and evangelicalism, says his faith is the “single greatest influence in my life.” Donald Trump, by all appearances, has never attended church regularly and claims that he has never even asked God for forgiveness, but he nonetheless speaks about American Christians as though they’re a persecuted minority and has earned the widespread support of evangelicals.
There’s good reason to believe, however, that the most religiously driven candidate of all is a man who is remarkably un-theatrical about his beliefs—who even vows, “I don’t go out and try to win a vote by using God. I think that cheapens God.” That would be John Kasich.
There is no easy way to measure how deeply a person believes, of course, or to what degree a politician is driven by faith. But the Ohio governor has gone to Bible study with the same group of men every other week for the past 20 years. He has attended an Anglican church in Ohio for decades because, as he wrote in his book, Every Other Monday: Twenty Years of Life, Lunch, Faith, and Friendship, he likes receiving Communion every week, a practice uncommon in other Christian denominations. When Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau died last year after a battle with brain cancer, Kasich quickly expressed sympathy, offering a prayer on Meet the Press: “I’m going to pray for [Joe] because he’s had a lifetime of tears. God bless you, Joe.” (Cruz, in contrast, trotted out an old joke about the vice president just days after Beau’s death.)
The irony here is not just that the most pious Republican candidate has been largely overshadowed in a campaign for which Christianity is a major calling card. As Kasich makes what could be his last big campaign push to win Ohio’s primary on Tuesday, his devout faith might actually be hurting him. The governor’s faith appears to drive his politically moderate stances on immigration, climate change and gay marriage—positions that alienate him from mainstream conservatives whose support Kasich needs to have a chance at the nomination.
If the role of religion in Kasich’s life isn’t well-understood, that’s in part because his complex faith journey led him to a denomination that most Americans have never heard of. He was raised Catholic with ambitions to be the best altar boy in his parish, earning him the nickname “Pope” among his friends. But around the time he left for college at Ohio State, Kasich’s belief began to wane. He “drifted away from religion as a young adult,” he wrote in his book. It wasn’t until a drunk driver killed his parents in 1987 that Kasich returned to church. But this time, he entered the Episcopal Church, which his parents had joined later in life.
This is where things get a little tricky: He stayed with his church as it broke off with the mainstream Episcopal Church in the United States in protest over the denomination’s embrace of openly gay priests and bishops. In 2011, Kasich’s home church, Saint Augustine’s Anglican Church in Westerville, Ohio, is one of those that split off under a new, more conservative denomination called the Anglican Church in North America. In departure from mainstream Episcopalians, the ACNA gives local churches the autonomy to decide whether to ordain women, and it politically opposes abortion and euthanasia, while the Episcopal churchacknowledges “there may be cases that stand beyond judgment.”
It also supports the traditional view of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and called the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage last year a “stark departure from God’s revealed order.”
At face value, those issues don’t diverge much from a typical conservative family-values platform. But in other ways, Kasich’s religious beliefs appear to have put him at odds with Republican Party dogma. Over the years, he has spoken enough about his faith and quoted Scripture often enough, that it is possible to tie many of his political decisions to tenets of his faith—especially the ones that deviate from GOP orthodoxy.
For example, a cornerstone of Kasich’s governorship has been his expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Expanding Medicaid wasn’t a politically savvy move for an aspiring presidential candidate of a party almost single-mindedly dedicated to repealing Obamacare. But, as Kasich told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “I’m playing for a bigger game.” He cited as his motivation a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus speaks about the importance of kindness: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine,” Jesus tells his disciples, “you did for me.”
That Kasich would link the expansion of health care benefits so explicitly to the Bible upset the conservative establishment, and it wasn’t long before columnists began criticizing Kasich’s betrayal of conservative ideals. Some of his 2016 rivals chimed in too, saying the Medicaid expansion would make “more and more people dependent upon government” (Jeb Bush) and would add to the federal debt (Rick Perry). Kasich, for his part, has brushed aside his critics, and continues to cite his faith as the reason.“When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small,” he said in 2013. “But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”
Kasich also diverges from the GOP base in that he believes people have contributed to climate change, citing religion on that front too. “I happen to believe there is a problem with climate change,” he said in 2012. “I don’t want to overreact to it, I can’t measure it all, but I respect the creation that the Lord has given us, and I want to make sure we protect it.” Compare this with Rubio’s claim that “for all we know, God wants the Earth to get warmer.” Here, again, Kasich’s faith seems to be a factor. His denomination recently acknowledged a “serious global ecological crisis” and “the fragility of our earthly existence,” in contrast to the many evangelical churches that do not address the issue of the environment at all.
While his competitors talk about building walls and sending migrants back across the border, Kasich supports a path to legalization. He also has expressed his reluctance to enforce deportation, saying he couldn’t imagine “how we would even begin to think about taking a mom or a dad out of a house when they have not committed a crime since they’ve been here.” That could be a line right out of the ACNA’s Immigrant Initiative—an effort to help immigrants navigate the complicated American legal system—and it’s earned Kasich his fair share of criticism from the far right. After the governor said that undocumented immigrants are “made in the image of the Lord,” Breitbart fired back: “If being ‘made in the image of the Lord’ provides an exemption to America’s immigration law, then that would mean that all of the world’s 7 billion people would be free to violate America’s immigration laws.”
On gay marriage, most of the Republican field has called for the Supreme Court’s decision to be overturned, and indeed, only 32 percent of Republicans report supporting gay marriage. Kasich doesn’t personally favor same-sex marriage, in line with ACNA teaching, but he is refreshingly gracious and tolerant on the issue, citing religious influences. During the recent GOP debate in Houston, he said, “I’ve always favored traditional marriage, but, look, the court has ruled and I’ve moved on. … If you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce. That’s my view. And if you don’t agree with their lifestyle, say a prayer for them when they leave and hope they change their behavior.” At an earlier debate in August, he told Fox’s Megyn Kelly, “We’ll accept [gay marriage]. And guess what, I just went to the wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean I can’t care about them or love them.” You could call this political pragmatism, but it is underpinned by faith. “God gives me unconditional love,” Kasich told Kelly, by way of explaining his stance on gay marriage. “I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.”
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