Both Clinton and Kaine tend to avoid detailed discussions of abortion and faith. As Kaine pointed out, Clinton comes from a Methodist background—a church that tentatively accepts abortion, but only in certain, rare cases. Kaine is a Catholic who has said he is personally opposed to abortion, as Pence pointed out. While it’s not quite accurate to say that Clinton supports partial-birth abortion—“I have been on record in favor of a late pregnancy regulation that would have exceptions for the life and health of the mother,” she said in March—over the years, she has shifted her language and policy positions to support the procedure. This year, she became the first Democratic nominee to run on a ticket that proposes a repeal of the Hyde Amendment—a budget provision that bans the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions.
As Pence pointed out, Kaine is publicly opposed to repealing the Hyde Amendment. He has said he fully supports Clinton’s platform, but as he said during the debate on Tuesday night, he sees abortion as a “fundamental issues of morality.” The Clinton/Kaine ticket is well-designed to appeal to pro-choice supporters, including the women voters who will be crucial for bringing them victory in November. But their split on Hyde, and their religious backgrounds, suggests they see abortion as clear-cut public-policy issue that’s also a challenging moral question.
This was the deeper significance of the exchange, which illustrated how much faith, and notions of morality, underpin American politics.
Many Americans see abortion as a complicated moral question, too, including many religious conservatives. Mike Pence spoke about the sanctity of life softly and directly.* His tone stood in contrast to the way Trump has spoken about abortion in the past—he once said women should be “punished” for having abortions. Pence denied this during the debate—“Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that would punish women who made the heartbreaking choice,” he claimed—but it was a reminder of just how different the Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates are. Many of those conservatives who have declared themselves Never Trump have pointed to this very issue: “There is nothing in [Trump’s] campaign or his previous record that gives us grounds for confidence that he genuinely shares our commitments to the right to life,” wrote more than a dozen conservative Catholic leaders in an open letter published in National Review last March.
This one question from this one debate, which focused in major part on questions of national security and foreign policy, likely won’t change the minds of many voters, not even the conservatives who have long hoped to hear a more convincing pro-life case out of the Trump campaign. As Alan Noble, a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and a founder of the group Public Faith, put it, “I doubt any Never Trumpers will be swayed. Pence was known as being very pro-life before the debate. Nothing new there,” he said. “And if you are opposed to Trump and pro-life, Pence's views and assurances that Trump really is pro-life probably won't affect you.”