Why Tim Kaine is Good for the Jews (And It’s Not Because of Israel)

It’s convention season as the major parties gather together to formally nominate their candidates for President of the United States. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton was formally nominated to be the Democratic candidate for President, a week after Donald Trump formally won the nod from the Republican party.

The results of the nomination votes were known, of course, since the victor had been determined by the end of the primary and caucus season (though technically they are the “presumptive nominee”). But leading up the conventions, one of the unknowns, and the source of much speculation and projection, is who the nominees will tap to serve as their Vice Presidential candidate.

Shortly before the conventions each made their pick: Donald Trump picked Indiana Governor Mike Pence, and Hillary Clinton picked Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.

Since it is the Democratic convention this week, attention is being paid to Kaine and his biography, his qualifications and what he brings to the ticket. While he made is way through Virginia politics, he was not greatly known outside the state. Many people, myself included, are beginning to get acquainted with Kaine and learn more about him. He speaks tonight at the convention in Philadelphia.

A recent article in the Forward gave five reasons why Kaine would be the “Jewiest Vice Presidential Pick for Hillary Clinton.” The list includes bringing Sabra hummus to Virginia and his support of Israel. Though there is another reason, alluded to in the article, why Kaine’s views should be welcome to Jews that have nothing to do with Israel: Kaine’s personal and political biography indicates a support for religious liberty that the Jewish community should welcome. (Plus, the assumption that a candidate’s views on Israel are the make or break factor for Jewish support is perhaps misguided, but that is for another time.)

Kaine was raised Catholic, and went to a Jesuit high school. During law school he took a break from his studies and went on a Jesuit mission trip to Honduras. He is still a practicing Catholic. His religious views influence his approach to social issues. Yet at the same time he is able to draw a distinction between his personal views and policy decisions. Two examples:

As a practicing Catholic he is personally opposed to abortion. However, he is committed to supporting abortion rights, even maintaining a 100% voting record from Planned Parenthood. So while he is personally opposed to abortion, he does not seek to impose that personal opposition on those who don’t share it, and believes that abortion should be a matter of personal conviction.

In addition, based on his faith, he is personally opposed to the death penalty. However, as Governor of Virginia, he oversaw executions in the state, maintaining that it was his duty to uphold the law. Again, his personal convictions did not interfere with his ability to make necessary legal assessments.

Both of these issues–abortion and death penalty–are hot button social issues, on which debate is usually based on moral and religious grounds. Kaine’s commitment to hold his own individual opinions based on religious values while at the same time not seeking to impose them on others through legal means could be understood as a true commitment to religious liberty.

As Jews, upholding religious liberty in our country should be paramount. As a minority religion, we have benefited greatly from the First Amendment and the protection it affords. The lack of a formal institutionalization of religion means that we can be free from the imposition of another’s religious values on us, and has allowed for the growth and diversity of Jewish community and practice. It also allows generally for the protection of minorities from the majority.

[At the same time, we need to be wary of the abuse of “religious liberty” as recent legislation passed in the wake of the legalization of marriage equality uses the guise of religious liberty as a sword of discrimination, rather than a shield of protection. In those instances, one’s “religious liberty” is used to trample on others’ individual legal rights, and, by allowing individuals to deny services to same-sex couples based on their beliefs, is ironically just another means of imposing one’s religious beliefs on others.]

Each year when we turn to the election season, regardless of party affiliation, issues of religious liberty and how candidates will uphold it should be on the mind of American Jews. The question that we American Jews need to be asking is not only how a candidate will protect Jews thousands of miles away, but how will a candidate protect Jews at home?

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