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Religion Takes Center Stage in Virginia Governor’s Race

Taking a cue from last November, when religious voters were viewed as a key to President Bush winning a second term, candidates of both parties are reaching out to social conservatives in Virginia’s 2005 gubernatorial race.

Former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore has united what one columnist described as a Republican Party divided into “conservative and even-more conservative wings” in an effort to succeed Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who is ineligible for another term.

Kilgore emphasizes education, transportation and taxes as campaign issues. He believes life begins at conception and opposes abortion in all cases except rape, incest or if the mother’s life is in danger. He supported laws for parental notification and informed consent for abortion and for a ban on the procedure called “partial-birth” abortion.

He is credited with helping Virginia pass a version of “Conner’s Law,” which makes it a felony to kill an unborn child, except in cases of legal abortion. A major defeat of his term as attorney general was a bill that would have tightened regulations on abortion clinics. He supports a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

According to a news story on his Web site, Kilgore was brought up as a Methodist but now attends Grove Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, a self-proclaimed “Bible-believing New Testament Church” affiliated with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia.

Kilgore’s supporters include religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, who has given a total of $37,500 to his campaign for governor, and Jonathan Falwell, the son of Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell and heir-apparent to his father’s pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.

“Faith does shape my views on public policy, from prayer in school to other issues,” Kilgore says. “I don’t believe in gay adoption—it’s a faith issue for me.”

Reflecting a new trend among Democrats to counter claims that religion is exclusively Republican territory, Kilgore’s chief opponent, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, is also talking openly about faith and values.

“I’m a Catholic. I was a missionary. I think life is sacred,” Kaine told Fox News. “I’m against the death penalty and abortion. I’m not apologizing for my religious view and I’m not changing it for politics.”

Kaine is among Democrats who, in light of exit polls showing President Bush carrying nearly three-fourths of evangelical votes and half of Catholics, believe the party’s reluctance to talk about faith has become a liability.

Kaine says politicians should not come across as proselytizing, but it is also important to tell voters what shapes a candidate’s judgment.

“I should just be authentically who I am,” he said in the Frederickburg Free Lance-Star. “I talk about my family. Why wouldn’t I talk about my faith?”

Kaine says he opposes both capital punishment and abortion on moral grounds, but he wouldn’t attempt to change laws allowing either.

Kilgore is trying to raise doubts about that, saying if elected Kaine could impose a “backdoor moratorium” on executions. “If you have true moral convictions, I don’t see how you could go against those moral convictions on a routine basis,” Kilgore told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Kilgore plays up his differences with Kaine over the death penalty. While sharing President Bush’s goal of building a “culture of life,” Kilgore supports capital punishment, even in some cases for juveniles.

“I grew up in a church that taught the difference between right and wrong–and that when you committed a wrong, you were punished,” he said. “I believe the death penalty ought to be considered as a penalty for the most heinous crimes.”

In one of his first radio ads, Kilgore attacked his opponent as a “liberal who is trying to hide it” and said Kaine supported raising taxes and would allow homosexuals to adopt children. Kaine said the commercial was inaccurate.

Kilgore also said Kaine didn’t say his reason for opposing the death penalty was his faith until it was politically popular to do so. Kaine called it “a personal attack on the authenticity of my religion.”

Kaine highlighted religion in his own radio ads in rural and suburban areas of the state. “My family and Christian faith are the core values that guide me,” he said in one ad.

Kilgore won the race for attorney general in 2001 with strong backing from anti-abortion groups. But he raised eyebrows in 2003, when he advised that colleges could dispense “morning after” contraceptive pills to co-eds without violating Virginia’s parental-notification law on abortion.

Some pro-lifers who believe that life begins at conception say “morning after” contraception is really a form of abortion, because in some cases the pills work by preventing a fertilized ovum from implanting in the wall of the woman’s uterus.

“A so-called fertilized egg is an embryo,” said Ben Mitchell, a consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “An embryo is a very young human being.”

“The morning-after pill is another technological fix for a sexually promiscuous and anti-natal culture,” said Mitchell, an associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. Primary users, he said, are “sexually active women who do not want the responsibility that goes along with having sex.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.