For the second time in as many gubernatorial elections, Virginia has elected Roman Catholics to its top two posts.
Amid the media-generated hullabaloo over Virginia Governor-elect Bob McDonnell’s master’s thesis at Regent University, an evangelical Christian graduate school, is the overlooked fact that McDonnell is indeed a Roman Catholic influenced as much by his undergraduate alma mater, Notre Dame, as he has been by Regent and its founder, Pat Robertson. Virginia’s next attorney general, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, also a Catholic, rode McDonnell’s conservative coattails to an easy victory last week.
In 2005, voters chose Tim Kaine, a Catholic and a Democrat, to be governor and McDonnell, a Republican, to be attorney general. Prior to that, the only previous Catholic statewide official in Virginia was former Lt. Gov. Richard Davis, who served from 1982 to 1986.
According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Virginia is 31 percent evangelical Protestant, 20 percent mainline Protestant and only 14 percent Catholic.
The denominational affiliations of the candidates was not much of an issue in the campaign (even though McDonnell’s Regent thesis was), so what, if anything, does this mean? Three things:
1. For voters in Virginia, it’s another positive sign that the anti-Catholic bigotry once so prevalent in many southern states is fading away. Forty years ago this would have been unthinkable.
2. For religiously conservative candidates, it is a recipe on how to run a campaign. McDonnell never backed down from his faith and the way it has informed his positions on social issues—but he focused more on broader issues, such as jobs and transportation, that impact all voters.
3. For the mainstream media, it is an opportunity to cover McDonnell’s Catholicism, and its impact on his political governorship, with the same fairness and respect it gave Gov. Kaine, now head of the Democratic National Committee.
Kaine has been positively portrayed as a faith-friendly Democrat who openly links his Catholicism to his opposition to the death penalty. It will be interesting to see if McDonnell gets similarly sympathetic coverage if he opposes abortion or gay marriage in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching.