With George Voinovich, religion seems more than mere political expediency, running through his private writings and public actions. Allies and opponents alike say they respect his openness.
This story appeared in the December 1996 issue of Columbus Monthly.
It was a standing O. At the March 29 Governor's Prayer Breakfast, George Voinovich had just treated the audience to an a cappella performance of his favorite hymn, "God's Blessing Sends Us Forth." The room was hushed as the governor sang-his pipes pretty solid for a politician-and then the crowd burst into hearty applause as he left the podium.
An unusual spectacle, even in an era when religious organizations have almost unprecedented influence in the political arena in general and the Republican Party in particular. But George Voinovich is in many ways an unusual politician. A Catholic, Voinovich sometimes sounds more like Ohio's spiritual leader than its chief executive. "Every day I offer up my prayers, works, joys and sufferings to the Lord and reparation for my sins and ask him to help me carry the crosses he sends me," he said in his opening remarks at the March prayer breakfast. "Jesus said that our journey would never be easy, but he promised to be with us as we make it."
"George obviously does speak about his religious beliefs often," says Ohio House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, Republican of Reynoldsburg. "I think it's a very significant part of his life." Ohio Senate president Stan Aronoff, a Cincinnati Republican, agrees. "In his instance, it is simply part of his personality," Aronoff says. "Without his religion you don't have the whole person."
While national political figures from Jesse Jackson to Jesse Helms will invoke Christianity to advance their own political agendas, it appears to be the other way around with Voinovich: He seems to see his political position as a vehicle for serving God. This, after all, is a man who is at the forefront of a crusade to have "With God all things are possible" inscribed on the Statehouse.
"I look at my work as doing what I think God wants me to do and as being redemptive; i.e., by doing God's will and carrying my cross (hopefully with a smile as often as possible." Voinovich wrote in a private 1992 letter to Billy Inmon, who made the letter public after the governor fired him as manager of the Ohio State Fair. "It is the way I can accomplish the following three things: 1) demonstration of my love of God by offering that work up to him every day, 2) demonstration of my love for my fellow man, 3) preparation (hopefully) for eternal happiness." Similarly, Voinovich told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in July that his daily goal is "to witness [for God] and to make people feel good. Sometimes I'm successful and sometimes I'm not, but I do try."
Voinovich invokes God not just to score an occasional political point or at religious ceremonies, but in regular conversation. All the time. "I've heard George Voinovich say on a number of times that he sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit," says State Sen. Bruce Johnson, a Columbus Republican who worked on Voinovich's unsuccessful 1988 U.S. Senate campaign. "I've heard him say that on a number of occasions. "
Unlike many others in the political arena, when Voinovich puts his faith on the table, his political opponents aren't likely to accuse him of divisiveness. Even many of those who take a more low-key approach to religion-or hold different religious beliefs altogether-say they are comfortable with Voinovich's openness about his faith. In fact, they admire it. "I think that a lot of people thin perhaps when people refer to their religious beliefs they think they're doing it for political reasons or to curry public favor," says Davidson. "I think sometimes you feel that it's a planned kind of comment, where with George it's likely to come up in casual conversation."
"I've not seen him do anything that I saw as inappropriate," says Lee Fisher, the former Democratic attorney general, who is Jewish. "I certainly think it's appropriate for any public official to talk about their religious values and to apply those values to public life."
"It's useful to know it," says Benson Wolman, an attorney and former director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. "I think it is desirable that he lets us cause everybody is entitled to make their judgments as to how he will function in terms of some issues that come before him."
The stereotype is that a politician with strong Christian ties is sure to be a hardline conservative. Voinovich, however, is widely viewed as a moderate Republican. In fact, too moderate for some. Voinovich is a regular whipping boy for the conservative Wall Street Journal and is derided in some GOP circles for his liberal views on taxes, gun control, immigration and affirmative action. Curiously, he's even eyed with suspicion by some factions of the religious right. In 1994, Ohio Right To Life declined to endorse Voinovich for a second term. Inmon, who ran for governor as an independent in 1994, chided Voinovich for being soft on homosexuality.
This, say some fellow Republicans, can be a good thing.
"I think that is a strength. Nobody owns George Voinovich," says Johnson. "I think he has a long history of telling people who are normally strong allies of his that he doesn't agree with them and I think that's a huge character strength."
Voinovich hasn't always been as testimonial as he is these days. "I grew up believing that religion was a kind of private matter, and I felt awkward about talking about my faith and the role that the Lord has played in my life," Voinovich said at the March prayer breakfast. "I was also a little suspicious of public officials who wore their religion on their sleeve, and I was also concerned that it held myself out as a follower of Jesus Christ that I would fall and perhaps scandalize our Christian faith. I now realize from reading the Bible that Christ expects and commands us to be apostles and to give witness. Without my personal acceptance of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life, I could not keep going."
Bishop Antony Pilla, a friend of the governor from his hometown of Cleveland, says Voinovich's religious faith was strengthened in the wake of personal tragedy. During his successful campaign for mayor of Cleveland in 1979, his 9-year-old daughter, Molly, was killed in a traffic accident. "I think his religion comes into play in the ever-present memory of his child that was killed," says Aronoff. Roosevelt Coats, the Democratic majority leader for Cleveland City Council, mentions the connection, too: "I knew that he was a religious man when I came here as a council member. I knew the governor had gone through a lot. He had just lost his daughter."
Voinovich is hardly the only prominent Catholic in American politics. In fact, he was one of at least four Catholic Midwestern Republican governors considered as possible running mates for Bob Dole. (Originally said to be campaigning hard for the job, Voinovich withdrew his name a week before Dole settled on Jack Kemp). But you get the feeling Voinovich takes his Catholicism more seriously than, say, Ted Kennedy takes his.
While the governor doesn't go to Mass every day, it's not because he wouldn't like to. He told the Cleveland Catholic Universe Bulletin a year ago he attends Mass anywhere from two to four times a week. When he misses a day it's because he's-you guessed it-doing the Lord's work. "It's part of my religious faith to do the work," he told the Universe Bulletin. "Is it more important to God that I do this important work that has come upon me, or is it better for me to go to Mass? And sometimes the answer is to stay here and work on this, because it's faith and love of God and love of man. I think they have to go hand in hand."
So what has Voinovich done for God lately? Well, for one, there's his high-profile advocacy of putting "With God all things are possible," Ohio's state motto, on the Statehouse. Voinovich loves that phrase. He even worked it into his address to the Republican National Convention in August. That's one area where he and Benson Wolman part company. "The state motto is from the New Testament," says Wolman, who also has tangled with the governor over having a Christmas tree and menorah on the Statehouse lawn. "'With God all things are possible' is clearly a religious message," says Wolman. "I think it's perfectly fine for the governor to subscribe to the motto as a matter of personal faith., I do not think it's fine to have the motto engraved on the Statehouse as an expression of his personal faith."
Voinovich has another clash with the American Civil Liberties Union over his leadership of the National Day of Prayer in 1994. Voinovich defended his role and referred to a recent trade mission to Mexico, where he saw religious shrines set up in factories. "Now some might argue about bringing religion in the workplace," said Voinovich, quoted by the Associated Press in May, 1994, to a crowd assembled in front of the Statehouse. "But I can assure you that Mexico is a much better place for their devotion to the Mother of God and her son Jesus Christ." The governor did, however, acknowledge another criticism by the ACLU had merit: A promotion for the National Day of Prayer was included in state employee paychecks.
Stan Aronoff suggests that Voinovich's willingness to admit a mistake may be as much an example of his faith as the mistake itself. "I think his religion comes into play when he has made a decision that he thinks may be wrong," Aronoff says.
On political issues, probably the most obvious example of Voinovich's religion influencing policy is his opposition to abortion. Aronoff, who describes his Cincinnati senatorial district as "Worldwide right-to-life incorporated," says his own opposition to abortion "is more of a practical scenario for me. I think it is more of a conscience scenario for the governor."
Janet Folger, legislative director for Ohio Right To Life, quotes Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan when talking about the importance of conviction over consensus-and says those quotes apply to Voinovich's pro-life stance. Yet, as Folger knows as well as anyone, Voinovich is a pragmatist. In fact, it was a pragmatic decision by Voinovich that cost him the endorsement of Folger's group when he ran for reelection in 1994. When Mike DeWine, Voinovich's anti-abortion lieutenant governor, secured the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, the governor chose Nancy Hollister, who favors abortion rights, as his running mate.
"I'm still trying to figure out what happened there," Folger says. "I spoke with him prior to the decision and explained to him the importance of a pro-life lieutenant governor," she says. "What was he thinking? I still do not know."
Still, many say Ohio Right To Life's decision not to endorse Voinovich was a protest statement and not a severed relationship. "Obviously, there was disappointment from a number of people from the pro-life movement, but I don't think that it was intentional on his part," says Republican State Rep. Jay Hottinger, a self-described "right-winger" from Newark who holds a weekly Bible study meeting for legislators. "That's the only grip I think [Ohio Right To Life] had with him. He's a hundred percent with the movement and I think they're very happy."
"He's, at heart, also a practical politician," says Aronoff. "I've been at annual events where Ohio Right To Life and National Right To Life have showered him with adoration, so I don't think he's really, at the core, worried that he's alienating a friend."
Bishop Pilla says Voinovich's support for the death penalty is at odds with the Catholic Church, although that issue hasn't been a defining one for the governor and he tends to avoid the kind of lock-'em-up rhetoric used by other governors of both parties. "I think that the fear of God, obeying the Ten Commandments and remembering the second great commandment-love thy neighbor as thyself-would do more to treat the crime plague than any new laws or prisons," Voinovich said at a 1994 prayer breakfast. It was this softer side of Voinovich that emerged during the 1993 Lucasville prison riot, says Aronoff. "where his religion comes in, for example, is in Lucasville, where I think he quite sincerely prayed for the strength to handle the situation and not get carried away with compulsive retaliatory actions," Aronoff says.
Harvey Hook, who organizes both the Governor's Prayer Breakfast and the Columbus Leadership Prayer Breakfast, names Voinovich's opposition to legalized gambling and state-controlled liquor sales as other issues where faith comes in to play. "I would think that the governor would say that was prompted by his faith," Hook sys. Indeed Voinovich, who has criticized even the Ohio Lottery as a scheme that separates poor people from their money, brought up gambling at the March prayer breakfast. "Help us keep anti-family, anti-jobs casino gambling out of Ohio," the governor said. "It's like a plague sweeping this country and destroying the lives of families of Americans."
Johnson says Voinovich's Christian beliefs weigh in on other issues that affect the poor. He recalls when, early I the governor's first term, people-including religious groups-protested the decision to eliminate the state's General Assistance program. Voinovich, insisting he cared about poor people, cried publicly before the protesters. "I think the welfare reform thing bothered him," Johnson says. "I think he wanted to, on a very conscious level, understand that he wasn't throwing the poor out on the street."
"As you recall, that decision four years ago drove me to tears," Voinovich told the Universe Bulletin last year. "It weighed pretty heavy on my conscience. It wasn't easy."
Naturally, not everyone describes Voinovich as a holy man. Ohio Democratic chairman Dave Leland says Voinovich is not unique when it comes to religion. "Every politician wants to portray himself as God-fearing," Leland says. Some come close to questioning Voinovich's sincerity. Former U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, a Democrat who withstood a challenge from Voinovich in 1988, refers to a couple of television advertisements run by the Voinovich campaign that year. Voinovich didn't spend much time talking about God in that race, notes Metzenbaum dryly; "As a matter of fact, he talked more about my being soft on child pornography."
Voinovich already is gearing up for his next campaign-for Democrat John Glenn's U.S. Senate seat. Glenn hasn't said yet whether he'll seek reelection, but his staff already is working to immunize the senator from a potentially pious opponent. "If a politician attempts to come off as holier than thou, I think that that is a negative," says Glenn spokesman Dale Butland. He says he isn't criticizing Voinovich, but, "I will tell you that Senator Glenn feels more comfortable being a bit more private about his religion," Butland says. "He doesn't feel compelled to bring that into the political arena."
Other Democrats, however, like Lee Fisher and Roosevelt Coats, maintain Voinovich is sincere. The governor has a deep, heartfelt Christian faith, they say. Politics has nothing to do with it. That's not to say being openly religious doesn't have its political advantages. Even though he's not on the Dole ticket this year, Voinovich is open about his political ambition as he prepares for the 1998 Senate race. And if being religious helps, so be it.
"He's one of the most popular governors that I can remember," Coats says. "He was a popular mayor. So there's something there."