clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Inside the faith journeys of Kamala Harris and Mike Pence

The vice presidential candidates who debate Wednesday worship the same God but hear different calls

Crews put finishing touches on the stage at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in preparation for Wednesday’s vice presidential debate.
Crews put finishing touches on the stage at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in preparation for Wednesday’s vice presidential debate.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Kamala Harris grew up amid the hallelujahs and amens of predominantly Black Baptist churches in Oakland, California. She married a Jewish man but still attends church and professes a Christian faith.

Mike Pence grew up Catholic in Indiana and went to parochial school, but later found deeper meaning in the evangelical tradition and broke with the faith of his family. His commitment to virtue is both admired and mocked in what has become known as the “Pence Rule.”

Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence profess faith in the same Christian God, and they quote from the same Bible. But the candidates who will debate Wednesday night are separated by much more than a plexiglass barrier.

Harris talks of faith brimming with justice and points to Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan as a standard by which we should live. “It teaches us that my neighbor is not just someone who lives down the block or in my same ZIP code. We are all each other’s neighbors, and we are called to look out for one another,” she wrote in an op-ed published online Monday in the Deseret News.

Pence calls for the rule of law and fixed moral principles, speaking of “God-given liberties enshrined in our Constitution, like the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

In a speech last week in Iowa, he paraphrased a well-known verse from the Old Testament: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

How can two people who share so much in common with their faith diverge so sharply on matters of public policy?

Here’s a look at what each candidate has said about their personal faith and how perceived religiosity — or lack thereof — could affect the coming election.

How Kamala Harris’ faith is viewed differently by voters

Earlier this week, a Yahoo! News poll conducted by YouGov found Harris and Pence matched evenly when registered voters were asked to choose between them in a head-to-head contest. Newsweek reported that 46% preferred Harris and 45% preferred Pence.

But a recent survey of Utah residents found a wide margin between the two candidates when it comes to something that many Americans care deeply about: their degree of religious faith.

In a new poll from Y2 Analytics, 37% of Utah residents said they consider the vice president, an evangelical Christian, to be very religious. Just 3% said the same of Harris, the California senator who identifies as Baptist, putting her at roughly the same level of religiosity as President Donald Trump.

Kamala Harris talks religion and faith at a Corinthian Baptist Church service on August 11, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. 
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at a Corinthian Baptist Church service, Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.
John Locherm, Associated Press

Some analysts believe that Trump selected Pence as his vice president in 2016 to shore up support among religious conservatives.

And even in a nation where an increasing number of people say they have no religious affiliation, faith remains an important part of political discourse within both major parties. That’s especially true in Utah, the state with the highest weekly church attendance and home to the global headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But David B. Cohen, professor of political science and interim director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, did not find the gap in perceived religiosity between the candidates surprising or necessarily telling.

Pence has made his faith and conservative values central to his public persona, while Harris has not, which is true of Democrats generally, Cohen said. “Democrats tend to be more private about their faith; they don’t wear their religion on their sleeves.”

Because Republican policy positions are often entwined with the religious right, “it’s a natural marriage between the two, whereas for Democrats, there’s a little bit more struggle there, there’s a little bit more conflict.”

He added that it’s not necessarily that people don’t see Harris as a person of faith, but it’s not at the front of their minds as it is with candidates who place more emphasis on their religious beliefs.

Harris’ journey in faith and religion

In a 2017 speech at an Atlanta church and in an op-ed exclusive to the Deseret News, Harris, 55, said she grew up in diverse faith traditions. Her mother was from India, her father from Jamaica, and the couple divorced when Harris was 7. As a child, Kamala Harris attended the 23rd Avenue Church of God, in Oakland, California, with family friends.

“There, my earliest memories of the Bible’s teachings were of a loving God, a God who asked us to serve and stand up for others, especially those who were not wealthy or powerful. It was where I learned that ‘faith’ is a verb — that we must live our faith and show faith in action,” Harris wrote.

She has also reminisced about going to a Hindu temple with her mother, where she learned that “all faiths teach us to pursue justice.” (Kamala is another name for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, Yonat Shimron of Religion News Service has reported.)

Harris now identifies as a Black Baptist, and the pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco has said she attends his church regularly. The pastor, the Rev. Amos C. Brown, says on the church’s website that he “has never seen the issues of society as separate from the mission of the church, especially when the members of the church are directly affected by systems of evil.”

Pence: The Evangelical Catholic

Harris’ opponent had a similarly twisting path to his current expression of faith. Pence, 61, was raised Roman Catholic, but at age 19, experienced a life-changing conversion at a Christian music festival that eventually led him away from Catholicism.

He recently described that experience in a speech, saying that he dedicated himself to Jesus Christ “not out of a sense of intellectual agreement, but because my heart was broken with gratitude for what had been done for me on the cross.”

Mike Pence speaks with local faith leaders on resuming in-person church services in Urbandale, Iowa on May 8, 2020.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a discussion with local faith leaders to encourage them to resume in-person church services in a responsible fashion in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Friday, May 8, 2020, in Urbandale, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

For a while, Pence continued to see himself as an “evangelical Catholic” and even considered becoming a priest in his 20s, according to The New York Times. But he eventually stopped attending Mass, which was a source of heartbreak for his mother and five siblings, who remain in the Catholic church, the Times said.

The newspaper reported that Pence and his wife often attend College Park Church, an evangelical megachurch in Indianapolis that says its core beliefs include the “pre-eminence of Jesus,” the authority of the Bible and “extravagant grace.”

Pence’s adherence to biblical values have at times been derided, especially his insistence on not eating out alone with a woman other than his wife, a practice that has become widely known as “The Pence Rule.” And his speeches are sometimes as much preacher as politician. Just last week in Iowa, Pence called for prayer so that God will heal our country.

This outward expression of faith helps to explain why Pence was seen as the most religious person on the president/vice president ticket in the Y2 Analytics poll.

On a scale of 7, with 1 being the least religious and 7 the most, Utahns ranked their own religiosity as 4.7, and ranked Pence even higher: 5.3.

Trump’s religiosity, in comparison, was 2.9, and Harris’s 2.6.

‘Minds are made up’ when it comes to faith and elections

Natalie Jackson, research director for the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization in Washington, D.C., said that the vice presidential candidates’ faith is not likely to matter much in a race as contentious as this one.

“There’s very little space for movement left in Americans’ minds with this particular election. I think minds are made up. We’re seeing very few undecided in polls,” Jackson said.

Even in a more typical election, there is debate over how much vice presidential candidates influence the electorate, she added.

“Certainly Trump choosing Pence as his running mate was a very strategic choice four years ago to shore up that part of the Republican base that is attracted to Pence’s religiosity. We see in the data that people don’t really buy that Trump is that religious; he just says the right thing and stands for the right policies.

“Pence is adding that heft, the thing to make religious voters feel better. That said, there aren’t that many people that vote purely on religious views. White evangelical Protestants are the exception here; they are usually quite political and quite one-sided,” Jackson said.

However, Cohen, at the University of Akron, noted that the ages of Biden, 77, and Trump, 74, plus Trump’s coronavirus infection, heighten the stakes in the VP half of the ticket. “Joe Biden is the oldest nominee in history, and with Trump having COVID, Mike Pence is very much in the spotlight. It shows that presidents are mortal and the vice president is a heartbeat away,” he said.

The report from Y2 Analytics says that Pence “carries a certain appeal to the Utah faithful,” which includes the nation’s largest population of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Fifty-five percent of respondents in the new survey identified as members of the church.

“Among all the top-of-the-ticket candidates, Pence is the most likely to be seen as religiously fervent at levels similar to Latter-day Saints,” the report said. “Pence’s performance in Salt Lake City could move the needle for Latter-day Saint voters not in love with the Democratic ticket.”

Since both vice presidential candidates have long public service records — Harris as a former attorney general of California before winning a U.S. Senate seat, Pence as a former congressman and governor of Indiana — voters can find things to be unhappy about with both candidates with regard to religion.

Writing for The Washington Post, Michael Gerson said while Biden’s pick of Harris is an “inspired” choice, her selection “contributes to a Catholic problem that already existed because of Biden’s pro-choice views and his newly discovered support for federal funding of abortions. And this, by extension, is also an evangelical problem.”

Gerson also noted Harris’s aggressive questioning of a judicial nominee who was a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, a social and charitable organization for Catholic men, and her support of changes to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

As for Pence, he has been the source of controversy, even among conservative Christians because of his affiliation with Trump.

Last year, for example, dozens of graduates and faculty members at Taylor University, a private evangelical college in Indiana, walked out of the ceremony where Pence delivered the commencement address.

Questions to ask about faith-based issues

Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder and senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance in Washington, D.C., said he is concerned that many issues that people of faith care about are getting lost in the tumult of the campaign and the coronavirus pandemic and he wishes they would be brought up on the debate stage or elsewhere.

Among them: What do they think should be done with the White House’s faith-based initiative, now called the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, initially established in 2001?

And what are their views and policy aims with regard to protecting the freedom that faith-based organizations need to be able to continue to make their important contributions in life?

For example, Carlson-Thies asked, “Will a Biden administration protect the Islamic practices of Muslim organizations, and likewise for Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant organizations? When the federal government allocates money to child care, will it continue to use the voucher provisions in the law so that faith-based child care providers can continue to serve low income families with this federal support?”

Previous elections have shown that Utahns want candidates to share their values, though not necessarily their religious faith, said Quin Monson, a partner at Y2 Analytics in Salt Lake City and an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

“When it comes to a general election, what seems to matter most for white evangelical Protestants is not religiosity or religion but partisanship and ideology. That’s generally true of most people in the United States, including Latter-day Saints,” Monson said.

The Y2 Analytics poll found that 44% of likely Utah voters said they will definitely vote for Trump and Pence, compared to 36% who said they will definitely vote for Biden and Harris.

But Monson noted, “There appears to be a significant minority of Latter-day Saint Republicans willing to defect from their partisanship and vote for the Democratic candidate in 2020 and some of it is likely due to perceptions about a combination of factors including religiosity, honesty/integrity, and competence in governing.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at a Corinthian Baptist Church service, Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Associated Press