Gov. John Kasich doesn’t hide his religious convictions, talking about them frequently in speeches and at other public gatherings.
Ed FitzGerald holds religious values but rarely talks about them.
Although they espouse many of the same principles, the contrast in how Ohio’s gubernatorial candidates apply their Christianity to their public life and policies is stark.
While Democrat FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, favors abortion rights and supports same-sex marriage as public policy, the lifelong Catholic won’t say how he feels about those issues personally.
“What I don’t do is I don’t have conversations where I kind of critique my own denomination. I understand the teachings of my church, I’ve gone to Mass for 46 years and I’m Catholic, but I don’t see my job as a public official to impose everything the church teaches as a matter of law,” he said.
“There’s a difference between, in my opinion, what the church that I attend happens to teach and what I am going to be comfortable imposing on everybody else. ...
Catholic politicians have a right to have all types of different views about what public policy should be. In terms of personal beliefs, that’s a matter of personal conscience to them.”
Kasich, a Republican who was raised Catholic but became a Protestant after his parents were killed by a drunken driver in 1987, cites God regularly in public, such as in justifying the building of a Holocaust Memorial on the Statehouse grounds, expanding Medicaid to more than a quarter-million Ohioans, in graduation speeches, in his State of the State addresses and even during an event launching a campaign to prevent the elderly from falling. (“The Lord wants you to be strong and healthy.”)
“My faith is part of me. In terms of how it affects my public policy ... on my best days, I sort of have an eternal perspective, which is really a great thing to have, because it frees you up. You don’t get caught up in some of the things that can get in your way when you make decisions.”
The governor said one purpose of his job is to lift people up, give them a chance to succeed, and help those “in the shadows” of society, such as drug addicts and the mentally ill.
“I try to realize that every single individual is made in the image of God; everyone is to be respected, even the ones that don’t like you. No one is better than anyone else.”
David Kinnaman, president of the California-based Barna Group, which conducts frequent polls and research on religious issues, said the role of faith in politics can be a double-edged sword.
Religion often represents “longstanding divisions in our culture” and thus “politicians have to find ways of speaking about that,” Kinnaman said.
“For conservatives, that is a major issue to see faith at the center of a politician’s decision-making, whereas for others, that’s a very scary proposition, because it literally suggests, in their terms, a theocracy kind of thing,” he said. “There’s a powerful movement against separation of church and state.”
Despite the risks, Kinnaman predicts a resurgence in discussions of faith on the campaign trail.
Both Kasich, who attends a three-year-old Anglican church that meets in a Westerville conference center, and FitzGerald, whose home church is in Lakewood, were asked whether America should be a Christian nation.
“That phrase is not something that I have ever used because it has all kind of connotations to people of other faiths,” FitzGerald said.
Christians and non-Christians have made great contributions to America and what it is today, he said.
Kasich said, “At our roots we were founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic. ... That’s part of the foundation of our country.”
He said he shies away from talk about multiculturalism, adding, “I think that the Judeo-Christian ethic is still important.”
In 2010, Kasich released a book titled Every Other Monday about the semi-weekly gatherings he attends in a Westerville Italian restaurant to talk about life and faith. It’s not exactly a Bible study — he relates in the book that one week they wanted to look up something in Scripture and realized that nobody had a Bible.
After nearly 30 years, the group is still strong and healthy, said Kasich, who was dubbed “the pope” when he was a kid because he didn’t just want to become a priest.
“It’s a great time for people to talk about their concerns and the important things in life,” he said. And it’s a place where “my friends don’t really care whether I’m governor or not.”
FitzGerald said the active faith of his parents continues to shape him.
“My interpretation of Christianity requires that you try to live a life where you’re of service to other people and that you should have an aspiration for a just society that cares for every person no matter what circumstances they are born into, and I think that’s reflected in the types of policies I try to advocate,” he said.
Still, he’s not comfortable talking about his faith in public settings, especially on the campaign trail.
“I would just say in general — and my wife is the same way — we’re pretty private about religion. I don’t inject it into a lot of political discourse. I don’t dwell on that. I think that people want to know what you’re going to do if you’re elected.”
Kasich has taken fire from the right and the left for his outspokenness on religion.
“Elected officials are supposed to protect the health and safety of the people they serve, not impose their personal beliefs on them,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, in June 2013 after Kasich signed a state budget containing several restrictions on abortion.
Conservatives challenged him after he went to a food bank this year to sign an off-year budget bill that included a more generous state earned income tax credit. “I believe the Creator says, is that ‘There is a rule here about the poor, the disabled, the infirmed. Ignore them, it’s at your peril.’ I’m not doing that,” he said at the time.
The Ohio Liberty Coalition, a tea party group, responded: “It’s uncomfortable to listen to a man sanctimoniously take credit for helping those less fortunate while using other peoples’ money — but it has become a regular thing with John Kasich.”
Kasich said he has no interest in imposing his beliefs on anyone or trying to convert them, but that he brings up God frequently so that people know a key source of his motivations.
By Darrel Rowland - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
Dispatch Reporter Joe Vardon contributed to this story.
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