Ohio Gov. John Kasich has surprised some people with a first-term agenda that called for expanding Medicaid to serve more poor people, improving mental health services, giving ex-cons a second chance and rescuing women and children enslaved by human traffickers.
The positions seem more the wish list of a social worker than a hard-nosed conservative Republican politician who used to work on Wall Street. And the Medicaid expansion in particular is strongly opposed by many members of his party.
Kasich’s close friends and the governor himself say a deep Christian faith is driving him to take these positions. Critics say Kasich is pandering to voters, and his likely opponent in next year’s governor’s race, Democrat Ed FitzGerald, accuses him of paying mere lip service to the Medicaid expansion while doing little to sway GOP leaders in the General Assembly to follow his lead.
But while some may question his actions, few would have predicted he would become such a vocal advocate for expanding Medicaid, a program often targeted by Republicans as wasteful. And Kasich has raised eyebrows with the way he has urged support, often peppering his comments with references to God, life after death and his own religious experience.
University of Akron political scientist John Green, a national expert on politics and religion, said it is common place for politicians to speak in general terms about religion. But Kasich “also puts these faith-based arguments in a policy context, advancing his particular agenda,” he said. “And that is a little bit unusual.”
Kasich, 61, said in his State of the State address earlier this year that the Bible’s lessons run his life.
“I’m serious, they’re very important to me. Not just on Sunday, but just about every day,” he said. “I got to tell you, I can’t look at the disabled, I can’t look at the poor, I can’t look at the mentally ill, I can’t look at the addicted and think we ought to ignore them. For those that live in the shadows of life, those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored. We can help them. And I want all of you to think about this.”
The governor did not grant an interview to this newspaper about the role of religion on his governorship. But he has mentioned his deep faith often, both in his public remarks and in his 2010 book about his long-standing prayer group. In arguing that Ohio should expand Medicaid to serve 275,000 additional low-income Ohioans — a position at odds with the fiscal conservatives in his own party — Kasich told one of the Republicans in opposition that he needed to help people in poverty or he might not get into heaven.
“I said, ‘I respect the fact that you believe in small government. I do too,” Kasich told reporters in June as he recounted the conversation with a legislator he did not name. “I also know that you’re a person of faith. 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. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.’ ”
FitzGerald, who is Catholic, at first declined to comment but then said, “I’ve never told people that if they don’t agree with me God is going to judge them for that.”
Former Gov. Ted Strickland, an ordained Methodist minister, said he wouldn’t criticize Kasich or anyone else’s expressions of faith. But, he noted: “I think on this earth we should try to do good not because we hope for or expect some external reward in the future. But we ought to do it simply because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think our motivation ought to be centered on ‘Hey this is going to help to help me have a good eternity.’”
In his public pronouncements of faith, Kasich falls short of trying to convert followers but frequently hints that Ohioans should read the Bible and pray.
At a Memorial Day Service for fallen soldiers this year, Kasich told the gathering: “The Lord has a plan. For those that don’t believe, that’s OK. Just check it out. See what you think. … You know the future is coming and it’s going to be glorious. And for your loved one who was taken away in service to another human being, it’s going to be real glory. The Lord promised. He keeps his promises.”
He added: “Those who lay their life down for another will receive the crown. We’re not going away folks. We’re going to move, when you think about it, from life to death the same way that we move from one room to another.”
The heartfelt expressions – along with a social justice agenda – has won over the Rev. Tim Ahrens, pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in downtown Columbus. Ahrens bitterly opposed Kasich on the collective bargaining reforms that spotlighted his first year in office and resulted in a one-sided referendum defeat. But he backs him on Medicaid expansion and some of the other issues.
“When he feels the connection in the call of Christ to serve the poor, he speaks to that. When he doesn’t, he doesn’t. I don’t think he uses that to manipulate,” Ahrens said.
But such religious rhetoric in the public square coming from a sitting governor can be alarming to non-believers, religious minorities and those who are uncomfortable with a blurring of the lines between religion and government.
“I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. For me, that wall cannot be high enough,” said David Sofian, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Dayton. Sofian said he gets nervous when the religious language is more narrow and exclusionary rather than open and inclusive. “America is multi-cultural. I have to side with the politicians who include multiple views,” he said.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said politicians need to respect that constituents have very different views.
If they can’t see the difference between their gubernatorial duties and their pastoral duties, they’re overstepping the line,” she said. “We don’t elect our governors to be pastor in chief. They are entitled to their own religious views but not to use their gubernatorial pulpit like a literal pulpit.”
Kasich grew up attending Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church in McKees Rocks, Pa., where he served as an altar boy and held ambitions to be either a priest or President of the United States. He drifted away from the church as a young man, then was brought back in August 1987 when his parents — John and Anne — were killed after a drunken driver slammed into their car as they pulled out of a Burger King parking lot.
The accident set Kasich on a course of prayer. A member of Congress at the time, he joined a Bible study group on Capitol Hill and then formed a Columbus-based prayer group with a mix of friends and acquaintances.
His regular meetings with the Columbus group over the past 20 years form the basis of “Every Other Monday,” the book he published in 2010 as he launched his first gubernatorial campaign. Over the years, the dozen or so men in the group have “become one another’s closest friends and surest sounding boards,” Kasich wrote.
Bob Roach, who first met Kasich 40 years ago, said Kasich still regularly makes it to Bible study every other Monday. Seeing Kasich apply his faith to his policy decisions doesn’t surprise the Bible study men.
“He has always had a lot of compassion for people who are having a lot of problems and troubles,” Roach said. “He can be callous and speak before thinking and sometimes put his foot in his mouth, but he has a very good heart. He certainly doesn’t lack confidence.”
Tim Bainbridge, a Bible study member who Kasich appointed chairman of the state Industrial Commission, said, “I think he has shocked a lot of people by what he has done. You can’t pigeon hole him. He won’t do 100 percent one way or the other. He just does what he thinks is right.”
In his book, Kasich said he worships at an Anglican church and sends his twin daughters, Emma and Reese, to a Christian school but doesn’t make them attend Sunday services. He wrote that his wife Karen “knows the Lord” but skips church. “She worships on her own, in a variety of ways, and a lot of times, she just plain needs a break on Sunday mornings, after getting up early all week and chasing after our girls.”
Often during public speeches – particularly during solemn ceremonies or milestone events – Kasich recounts a religious experience.
In his augural address in January 2011, Kasich said: “I am a servant of the Lord. He has opened doors all of my life. The Lord has. He has pushed me over the mountain this time. I don’t know why, but I have no doubt that he has. I’ve spent a large amount of my life trying to figure out how he works. I got a message one day driving up-over by the Hoover Reservoir. It wasn’t a telegram. It wasn’t a phone call. It wasn’t a voice. But it was clear.‘Stop trying to figure it out, I’m not going to tell you.’”
Kasich went on to advise the audience members to use their God-given talents and remember that God created everyone equal.
“You know, sometimes I see the scrub lady, and I realize that in the next life, she’s likely to have a bigger crown than I could ever dream of. Don’t go past them quickly; you could be passing an angel. Quiet reflection is necessary every day so as not to get lost,” he said.
Fiscal conservatives balking against Kasich’s expansion proposal say they’re worried about long-term costs and piling onto an unsustainable national debt. Chris Littleton, co-founder and former president of the Ohio Liberty Council, said, “It is neither Christian-like nor charitable to forcibly remove money from one group of people and give it to another. It doesn’t matter the worthiness of the charity. Charity is a purely voluntary act.”
While others see Kasich’s faith-based arguments for Medicaid expansion and other policy changes as sincere, Littleton has a more cynical view.
“He is absolutely pandering to whatever he thinks will endear him to a variety of different voters,” he said. “It is an abuse of religious faith.”
But Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvests Food Banks, gives Kasich credit for staking his political career on Medicaid expansion and other social issues that benefit the poor — policies that most politicians eschew.
Kasich’s actions reflect a “purpose-driven life,” said Hamler-Fugitt, who is not a Republican. “He has staked his political career on Medicaid expansion. There aren’t too many elected officials who would do that….That sets him apart.”
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