Politics & Policy

What Tim Kaine Learned on His Mission Trip to Honduras: Liberation Theology?

Kaine speaks at a campaign event at Temple University in Philadelphia, July 29, 2016. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
The vice-presidential candidate often touts the service trip to connect with traditional religious voters, but its details should make them wary.

Vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine is a Roman Catholic, and also a liberal Democrat—which has caused him to break publicly with the teachings of his church on a number of issues. He is hardly the first Democrat to tout his Catholic identity while disregarding the aspects of it that would clash with his political identity, and these breaks haven’t stopped him from making frequent reference to his faith while on the stump. One incident in Kaine’s history may shed some light on the way in which, for him, the two identities are intertwined: his mission trip to Honduras in the 1980s.

Kaine’s nine months of Catholic mission work in Honduras from 1980 to 1981 were, in his telling, a pivotal moment in his faith journey. They also helped him to win the 2005 race for Virginia governor. During that race, Kaine spoke about the trip as a transformative religious experience in ways that were compelling to Virginia’s conservative religious voters. Kaine’s pollster reported after the election that the candidate’s personal faith, made concrete by his frequent discussion of the mission trip, helped him to win over voters who described themselves as very religious. In his 2010 book What Democrats Talk About When They Talk About God, David Weiss dedicates an entire chapter to discussing Kaine’s strategy in that election, describing his use of the Honduras trip as a means of connecting with religious voters in suburban and rural parts of Virginia.

According to Weiss, Kaine frequently recounted his time as a Catholic service worker “in terms of a personal conversion narrative and missions testimony, a rhetorical form heretofore associated almost exclusively with evangelical Protestants.” By doing so, Kaine was able to connect with religious people, most of whom previously had supported Republicans in large numbers, and in the gubernatorial election, he won not only the liberal suburbs of Northern Virginia, but also the more conservative districts such as Loudoun and Prince William Counties. A large part of that success came from casting “his experience as a volunteer worker in Honduras in an argumentative framework familiar to many Protestant voters: the conversion narrative.” He also related his work in Honduras to the Gospel passages about Jesus’s ministry and emphasized that the trip was a life-changing experience that shaped his future path, something akin to the idea of a “conversion experience,” which figures largely in the Evangelical understanding of faith.

Recent revelations about the details of Kaine’s service trip, however, suggest that Evangelical voters wouldn’t have been so impressed with its similarity to Protestant mission work if they had known more about the beliefs he encountered in Honduras that so radically transformed his perspective. As a recent Daily Beast story and in-depth New York Times piece reported, Kaine met in Honduras with Father James Carney, a radical priest who introduced him to a strain of Catholic thought called liberation theology. This belief system holds that the teachings of the Catholic Church ought to be reconciled with Marxism in order to properly carry out the Church’s mission. But the Marxist elements of this theology have long been condemned by the Church as not in line with authentic Catholic teaching.

RELATED: Is Tim Kaine a ‘Devout Catholic’?

Kaine has also been using his mission work as an element of his rhetoric throughout his involvement in this year’s presidential campaign. He referenced the trip to Honduras several times when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination, as well as during his speech at the Democratic National Convention. During this election, the trip also seems to serve as a means of reaching out to Hispanic voters, as Kaine frequently speaks and tweets in Spanish on the campaign trail. In addition, Carney’s successor, another liberation-theology advocate named Father Ismael Coto, provided commentary about Kaine for Univision’s coverage of the Democratic convention; the two remain friends and allies.

#related#Some Catholics argue that Kaine’s apparent embrace of liberation theology is another troubling indication of an ideological bent that fits with the vice-presidential candidate’s straying from Church teaching on crucial topics such as abortion. Kaine even went so far last month as to suggest that the Church might change its teaching on the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, despite the fact that Catholic teaching on this topic is fundamentally unchangeable.

All this might give pause to the Evangelical voters who backed Kaine in Virginia in such large numbers. They would likely not have identified with the tale of the Honduras service trip had they been aware of exactly how his beliefs were changed in Honduras. And if traditional religious voters were aware of this now, perhaps Kaine would no longer be able to use that particular talking point to his advantage.

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