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John Kasich’s Compassionate Christianity Could Raise Hell in the GOP Primary

Alex Wong / Getty Images

On Tuesday, Ohio Governor John Kasich entered the 2016 GOP fray. While not an obvious frontrunner in the way of only-adult-in-the-room institutional favorite Jeb Bush or notorious haircut recipient (with Tea Party plaudits) Scott Walker, Kasich may nonetheless find himself possessed of a set of increasingly embattled fans—religiously motivated conservatives. While their fortunes in the ranks of the GOP seem to be dimming, Kasich cuts an interesting figure: Neither out-of-touch culture warrior (à la Mike Huckabee) or raging libertarian with vague Christian leanings (à la Rand Paul), Kasich represents a Christian conservative politics that is both messy and mistrustful of partisan kowtowing. His brand of faith-based politicking may therefore be something of a liability when it comes to pleasing his party and broader Republican base, but it seems to be an overall score for authenticity in Christian political reasoning, a rare find in the world of political theater.

When, in the wake of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Kasich elected to expand Medicaid in Ohio, he endured a firestorm of criticism from fellow Republicans. Not only were his conservative compatriots furious that Kasich allowed the Medicaid expansion, they were equally angry with Kasich’s stated reasoning for doing so. “Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small,” Kasich told reporters in a 2013 discussion of his decision to accept the expansion, “but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer. ” The backlash was immediate: Conservative commentators from The Wall Street Journal to The National Review leapt at Kasich’s Christian case for low-cost healthcare for the poor, a grudge that has simmered on at a low boil ever since

Healthcare isn’t the only battlefield where Kasich’s morals have evidently put him at odds with fellow Republicans. Though originally an immigration stalwart favoring strong border control and harsh dealings with unauthorized immigrants, Kasich said last year that his views have changed over time, and that he now favors a more moderate stance that would meet President Obama’s preferred reforms halfway. “When I look at a group of people who might be hiding, who may be afraid, who may be scared, who have children, I don’t want to be in a position of where I make it worse for them,” Kasich said last year, commenting on Obama’s executive action on immigration, which aimed to ease penalties for undocumented children and their families.

While Kasich’s compassion for newcomers to this country puts him at odds with a slew of Republican contenders for the presidential nomination (most notably Donald Trump), it actually puts him in line with Evangelical voters. As the Pew Research Center found in 2013, more than sixty percent of white Evangelicals feel there should be a way for unauthorized immigrants to remain in the United States. A greater proportion of white Evangelicals (40 percent) feel unauthorized immigrants should be given a path to citizenship than feel they should not be allowed to stay at all (35 percent). In other words, Kasich might not resonate with the immigration hawks in his party, but he does appear poised to strike a chord with the wide religious bloc within the base.

In fact, despite all the weirdness swirling about Kasich—he once suggested God likes the band Pearl Jam, evidently cannot control his temper, and seems somewhat fond of Pope Francis—religious conservatives like him. Among some Republicans, however, Kasich’s reputation appears tied up in the notion that he prefers big government, though he has a history of union busting and general conservatism. But even if that is the case, his Christian supporters seem less interested in his modest gestures toward compassionate conservatism than in the compassion itself. Why? 

Kasich’s Christianity lacks the polish of most Republican presidential contenders. He doesn’t have the on-stage swagger and gravitas of televangelist attaché Mike Huckabee, or Jeb Bush’s well-strategized and focus-group-tested nods to faith and family. Faith is as confusing and difficult for Kasich as it is for anyone: "I've wrestled with it all, and the more I wrestle the stronger I get. The more I wrestle the stronger the foundation I'm trying to build my house upon," Kasich told supporters at last year’s Faith and Freedom Coalition. “I don't believe in shoving my views down anybody's throat. ... C.S. Lewis, in a book I was reading last night, said he can’t even live up to his own principles, and I don’t either. I’m a failed guy.” He went on to explain that his faith was challenged by the death of both his parents in a car crash. Kasich also boldly commented on the way faith normally factors into politics, a convenience Christian voters are not unaware of. “Like many, many young people, the Lord became a rabbit's foot for me: Pull it out on test day, pull it out on Election Day. ‘Come on Lord I got the rabbit’s foot,’” Kasich said.

But if that was his past, it doesn’t have much in common with his present approach to politics. Kasich is by no means a leftist, and he himself says he doesn’t crack open the Bible every time a bill comes across his desk. Nonetheless, when listening to him speak or watching him defend the areas of departure between himself and other Republicans, it is usually easy to trace the lines of Kasich’s religious reasoning. Actions, after all, speak louder than words: Just last week, Kasich signed into a law a bill that will make a medication essential to reversing the effects of opioid overdoses available over the counter. It’s a humane step to take in Ohio’s struggle with widespread drug abuse, and it is certainly easy to imagine less gentle measures. But Kasich, at least for the time being, seems content to start up church- and community-based anti-drug awareness campaigns, and to make treatment easier to receive. As in much of his policy, Kasich is curious for a Republican, but makes a lot of sense as a Christian. Whether that strong strand of Christian reasoning will get him to the White House is another story entirely.