When an atheist asked Tom Perriello how his Catholicism would affect his approach to governing Virginia and whether he could keep the two separate, the former Democratic congressman answered carefully.
Faith, he said, is both “one of the most powerful forces for justice in the world” and a vehicle for “repression and dehumanization.”
“My relationship with my church is complicated,” Perriello told the crowd in a small room at a Richmond LGBT community center in mid-March. “And my faith is complicated.”
Once a leading light of the religious left who made faith-based outreach a key feature of his successful 2008 run for Congress in the conservative 5th District, Perriello’s political comeback bid has focused more on the secular than the sacred.
Summing up his political calling in past campaigns, Perriello often quoted the biblical prophet Micah’s description of what God asks of his followers: “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
When Perriello talks about what motivated him to make a surprise run for governor and challenge Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam for the Democratic nomination, the story has been a little more ominous.
And it starts with the election of President Donald Trump.
“I think you saw with Trump’s election that people are willing to overlook all of these behaviors that I grew up certainly being taught were un-Christian in order to get a particular party elected,” Perriello said in a recent interview. “I think it has been a wake-up call to many that we perhaps need some more prophetic voices out there.”
In one of the first major elections of the Trump era, Perriello’s candidacy presents an early test of how faith may or may not factor in to Democrats’ efforts to reconnect with rural and small-town voters who sank Hillary Clinton’s candidacy last year.
Despite Trump’s defiance of the traditional pieties of Republican politics, he won a majority of Christian voters, particularly white evangelicals, while Clinton drew more support from those with no religious affiliation.
Trump’s “racist and sexist language,” and the decision by leaders of the religious right to embrace him anyway, Perriello said, create an opportunity to continue the mission of the faith-based progressive groups he helped organize in the mid-2000s.
Those groups tried to nudge religious voters away from issues related to sex and sexuality while elevating poverty, the environment and social justice.
“It was about trying to return the moral conversation in the United States back to love of neighbor,” Perriello said.
A case study
Sociologist Rebecca Sager, who shadowed Perriello’s congressional campaigns in 2008 and 2010 as a case study of faith-based Democratic politics in action, concluded that Perriello’s first campaign stemmed “from beliefs held by some in the Democratic Party that by abandoning faith and ceding what it meant to be a religious or moral voter to the Republican Party, Democrats had lost the soul of the country.”
“Their goal was to create an intensely faith-saturated campaign, moving away from merely doing some level of ‘god talk’ to doing a ‘god walk,’ ” Sager writes in the upcoming book “Religion and Progressive Activism: New Stories about Faith and Politics.”
In his earlier campaigns, Perriello asked his staff and volunteers to “tithe” 10 percent of their time through charitable work at homeless shelters and food banks.
The faith that Perriello says fuels his fervor for caring for the poor, his readiness to travel to foreign hotspots like Sierra Leone and Darfur to promote peace and his admiration for Catholic leaders like Pope Francis and the late Bishop Walter Sullivan of the Richmond Diocese, could take more prominence in the general election’s broader appeals.
But in a June 13 Democratic primary shaping up as a battle over who has the strongest claim to progressive purity, Perriello’s religious convictions are, in some ways, a potential liability.
His nuanced earlier stance on abortion — saying he was personally opposed, but fully supportive of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe V. Wade court decision that enshrined abortion as a constitutional right — has resurfaced as opponents try to paint him as a political shape-shifter.
“He tried to masquerade as being a conservative,” said former 5th District congressman Virgil Goode, a Democrat-turned-independent-turned-Republican who lost his seat to Perriello in 2008 by a little more than 700 votes.
In many ways, Perriello’s challenge mirrors that of another Catholic Democrat from Virginia: U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. Like Perriello, Kaine, a Northam backer, is an Ivy League-educated lawyer whose faith took him overseas.
Kaine took a year off from law school at Harvard to be a Catholic missionary in Honduras. Both men say they believe in demonstrating faith through action, and both have delicately tried to separate the political from the personal.
Ties to advocacy group
The Northam campaign has sought to highlight Perriello’s involvement with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a progressive group he co-founded in 2004 whose website includes abortion among racism, violence, human trafficking, the death penalty and torture on a list of affronts that further “degradation to human dignity and to life.”
“We are pro-life,” said Christopher Hale, the alliance’s executive director. “We think that life begins at conception, but it doesn’t end there.”
The group’s political advocacy prompted a 24-page criticism from a pro-choice Catholic group.
“From the beginning, a central tactic of CACG was to play down abortion rights and reframe the debate in terms of reducing the number of abortions as a way to assure Catholics that they could safely vote for Democratic candidates,” read the introduction to a 2009 publication from Catholics for Choice.
A mention of Perriello’s former group in the so-called “Catholic Spring” messages released last year after Clinton campaign chief John Podesta’s email account was hacked cuts against the notion that the group had right-wing motives.
“We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this,” Podesta, who has endorsed Perriello, wrote in a 2012 email. He was responding to an associate who asked him who could “plant the seeds of the revolution” to push the Catholic church in a more progressive direction on gender equality and contraception.
Hale said Perriello was never a staffer at CACG and was not involved in the day-to-day operations.
“It would be unfair to associate our views with Tom Perriello’s views,” Hale said.
Asked if he still personally opposes abortion, Perriello said his own beliefs aren’t particularly relevant when it comes to policy.
“That’s not something that is mine to judge,” he said, adding later that he has no “constitutional or moral problem with when a woman decides to start or expand a family.”
Though Perriello has said he believes he can win over Trump voters with a message of economic populism, it remains to be seen how faith will factor into that calculation. “Authenticity and values” helped him break through in 2008, he said, and he believes that’s what Trump supporters and other voters care about.
Religion is at its best when it’s used to overcome divides, he said, stressing that the search for common values must include people of all faiths and “secular brothers and sisters as well.”
The “Catholic guilt” that Perriello says fueled his interest in public service and politics has led to an “incredibly meaningful” life.
“I got into this for the guilt,” he said. “And stayed for the joy.”