(RNS) Tim Kaine, who describes himself as “boring,” may not be the running mate choice for Hillary Clinton that Democrats on the far left wanted. But his Jesuit spirituality may make him an ideal candidate for one crucial progressive Democratic constituency: the ‘nones.’
‘Nones’ are people who tell pollsters they have no institutional religious affiliation. Since they emerged in the election of Barack Obama as an important voting bloc, politicos have been struggling to figure out how to mobilize them. They comprise some 20 percent of registered voters and more than 25 percent of registered voters who favor Democrats. The Pew Research Center recently reported that nearly 70 percent of nones support Hillary Clinton.
That’s good news for Democrats. That is, if nones get to the polls on voting day, which is by no means a sure thing for a population more opposed to Trump than for Clinton. Keeping nones plugged into the election is strategically important for the Clinton campaign.
Here’s the rub: most nones don’t think religious views of political candidates matter. They’re far less likely than the religiously affiliated to think organized religions can “contribute to solving social problems,” according to Pew. Given this, candidates seeking to mobilize them based on their non-religious status face challenges that those courting evangelicals and other religiously affiliated voters don’t.
Still, while nones are not, by definition, engaged by institutional religion, the majority do believe in God or a higher power, sometimes pray, and otherwise find the spiritual throughout their lives. Strikingly few of them are atheists or hard agnostics. And a majority believe religion can “strengthen community bonds” and “play an important role in helping the poor and needy.”
So, does Tim Kaine’s Jesuit Catholic background offer anything that might appeal to spiritual nones?
Between the last election season and this one, I talked with more than 100 nones across America about their spiritual lives and surveyed several hundred more. My research shows that the Jesuit values that shape Tim Kaine’s politics correspond in many ways to the spirituality of nones.
Nones tend to take relationships with family, friends, and, for many, pets or other animals as the starting point for experiencing the spiritual. Their spirituality unfolds in appreciation of the sacred within the ordinary. Care for others, rather than any strict moral code, grounds their ethics.
For their part, Jesuits are challenged to be “men and women for others,” which means striving for greater achievement not for oneself, but in order to do more (magis, in Jesuit terminology) with your life so that the lives of others are improved. Greatness, that is, comes not from personal accomplishment per se but in helping ordinary people through the hardships and tragedies of life. We see Kaine’s embrace of magis in his representation of victims of housing discrimination as well as his equanimity, despite his personal religious convictions, in voting for women’s reproductive choice. This relational, service-oriented Jesuit spirituality is likely to be appealing to nones.
Nones who shared their stories with me were cosmopolitan. They embraced diversity, and preferred even fleeting spiritual connections over long-held religious traditions or doctrine. They were open to sharing spiritual experiences with others even when they did not share religious beliefs.
The Jesuit concept of cura personalis—“care for the whole person”—makes religious commitment a matter of valuing the distinctiveness of each, individual person and of diversity among people. This has marked Jesuit spirituality itself as a cosmopolitan spirituality that sees difference as a gift from God, not as a blemish on some imagined cultural or religious uniformity. This value is reflected in Kaine’s work as a Jesuit volunteer in Honduras and in his work on civil rights issues as a lawyer, a governor, and a senator.
It’s almost certain that Kaine would never mispronounce a book in the Bible, but bumbled biblical citations don’t matter to Jesuits -- as they surely don’t to nones. What does matter to nones is cultivating diverse relationships of mutual respect and genuine caring, and appreciating and preserving the beauty and wonder of the world. Jesuits tend to express this ethical, activist spirituality in the ideas of “finding God in all things” and being “contemplatives in action.”
We’re unlikely to hear these Jesuit phrases in the campaign, but they are the spiritual backstory of Kaine’s politics and much of what he offers to a Clinton candidacy dogged by ethical questions. In choosing Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton has shifted the religious narrative of the election away from the false equation of “religion” and “Christianity” with radical, conservative, evangelicalism. She’s found a way to speak spirituality to nones and also to lift up the moderate-to-progressive Christian faith of millions of religiously affiliated American voters.
(Elizabeth Drescher is adjunct associate professor of religious studies and pastoral ministry at Santa Clara University and the author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones. Follow her on Twitter at @edrescherphd)