By now, everyone knows that the last of the Kennedy brothers have died, and while the nation, some of the nation no doubt, will mourn and some will mock, all should remember the Senator’s fight for the poor and equality. This is not a political blog, but I do like to examine the cross-section between religion and politics. So, in that spirit, I present this:
In 1983, Senator Kennedy spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University on “Faith, Truth and Tolerance in America”.
(1:00 into the clip) “A number of people in Washington were suprised that I was invited to speak here and even more surprised when I accepted the invitation. They seem to think that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Kennedy to come to the campus of Liberty Baptist College.”
(2:57 into the clip) “I have come here to discuss my beliefs about faith and country, tolerance and truth in America. I know we begin with certain disagreements; I strongly suspect that at the end of the evening some of our disagreements will remain. But I also hope that tonight and in the months and years ahead, we will always respect the right of others to differ, that we will never lose sight of our own fallibility, that we will view ourselves with a sense of perspective and a sense of humor. After all, in the New Testament, even the Disciples had to be taught to look first to the beam in their own eyes, and only then to the mote in their neighbor’s eyes.I am mindful of that counsel. I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society. I believe there surely is such a thing as truth, but who among us can claim a monopoly on it?”
“There are those who do, and their own words testify to their intolerance. For example, because the Moral Majority has worked with members of different denominations, one fundamentalist group has denounced Dr. Falwell for hastening the ecumenical church and for “yoking together with Roman Catholics, Mormons, and others.” I am relieved that Dr. Falwell does not regard that as a sin, and on this issue, he himself has become the target of narrow prejudice. When people agree on public policy, they ought to be able to work together, even while they worship in diverse ways. For truly we are all yoked together as Americans, and the yoke is the happy one of individual freedom and mutual respect.”
“The separation of church and state can sometimes be frustrating for women and men of religious faith. They may be tempted to misuse government in order to impose a value which they cannot persuade others to accept. But once we succumb to that temptation, we step onto a slippery slope where everyone’s freedom is at risk. Those who favor censorship should recall that one of the first books ever burned was the first English translation of the Bible. As President Eisenhower warned in 1953, “Don’t join the book burners…the right to say ideas, the right to record them, and the right to have them accessible to others is unquestioned — or this isn’t America.” And if that right is denied, at some future day the torch can be turned against any other book or any other belief. Let us never forget: Today’s Moral Majority could become tomorrow’s persecuted minority.”
“People of conscience should be careful how they deal in the word of their Lord. In our own history, religion has been falsely invoked to sanction prejudice — even slavery — to condemn labor unions and public spending for the poor. I believe that the prophecy, ”The poor you have always with you” is an indictment, not a commandment. And I respectfully suggest that God has taken no position on the Department of Education — and that a balanced budget constitutional amendment is a matter of economic analysis, and not heavenly appeals.
Religious values cannot be excluded from every public issue; but not every public issue involves religious values. And how ironic it is when those very values are denied in the name of religion. For example, we are sometimes told that it is wrong to feed the hungry, but that mission is an explicit mandate given to us in the 25th chapter of Matthew.
Second, we must respect the independent judgments of conscience.
Those who proclaim moral and religious values can offer counsel, but they should not casually treat a position on a public issue as a test of fealty to faith. Just as I disagree with the Catholic bishops on tuition tax credits — which I oppose — so other Catholics can and do disagree with the hierarchy, on the basis of honest conviction, on the question of the nuclear freeze.
Thus, the controversy about the Moral Majority arises not only from its views, but from its name — which, in the minds of many, seems to imply that only one set of public policies is moral and only one majority can possibly be right. Similarly, people are and should be perplexed when the religious lobbying group Christian Voice publishes a morality index of congressional voting records, which judges the morality of senators by their attitude toward Zimbabwe and Taiwan.
Let me offer another illustration. Dr. Falwell has written — and I quote: “To stand against Israel is to stand against God.” Now there is no one in the Senate who has stood more firmly for Israel than I have. Yet, I do not doubt the faith of those on the other side. Their error is not one of religion, but of policy. And I hope to be able to persuade them that they are wrong in terms of both America’s interest and the justice of Israel’s cause.
Respect for conscience is most in jeopardy, and the harmony of our diverse society is most at risk, when we re-establish, directly or indirectly, a religious test for public office. That relic of the colonial era, which is specifically prohibited in the Constitution, has reappeared in recent years. After the last election, the Reverend James Robison warned President Reagan no to surround himself, as president before him had, “with the counsel of the ungodly.” I utterly reject any such standard for any position anywhere in public service. Two centuries ago, the victims were Catholics and Jews. In the 1980s the victims could be atheists; in some other day or decade, they could be the members of the Thomas Road Baptist Church. Indeed, in 1976 I regarded it as unworthy and un-American when some people said or hinted that Jimmy Carter should not be president because he was a born again Christian. We must never judge the fitness of individuals to govern on the bas[is] of where they worship, whether they follow Christ or Moses, whether they are called “born again” or “ungodly.” Where it is right to apply moral values to public life, let all of us avoid the temptation to be self-righteous and absolutely certain of ourselves. And if that temptation ever comes, let us recall Winston Churchill’s humbling description of an intolerant and inflexible colleague: “There but for the grace of God goes God.”
“Those who favor E.R.A [Equal Rights Amendment] are not “antifamily” or blasphemers.” And their purpose is not “an attack on the Bible.” Rather, we believe this is the best way to fix in our national firmament the ideal that not only all men, but all people are created equal. Indeed, my mother, who strongly favors E.R.A., would be surprised to hear that she is anti-family. For my part, I think of the amendment’s opponents as wrong on the issue, but not as lacking in moral character
I could multiply the instances of name-calling, sometimes on both sides. Dr. Falwell is not a “warmonger.” And “liberal clergymen” are not, as the Moral Majority suggested in a recent letter, equivalent to “Soviet sympathizers.” The critics of official prayer in public schools are not “Pharisees”; many of them are both civil libertarians and believers, who think that families should pray more at home with their children, and attend church and synagogue more faithfully. And people are not sexist because they stand against abortion, and they are not murderers because they believe in free choice. Nor does it help anyone’s cause to shout such epithets, or to try and shout a speaker down — which is what happened last April when Dr. Falwell was hissed and heckled at Harvard. So I am doubly grateful for your courtesy here this evening. That was not Harvard’s finest hour, but I am happy to say that the loudest applause from the Harvard audience came in defense of Dr. Falwell’s right to speak.
In short, I hope for an America where neither “fundamentalist” nor “humanist” will be a dirty word, but a fair description of the different ways in which people of goodwill look at life and into their own souls.
I hope for an America where no president, no public official, no individual will ever be deemed a greater or lesser American because of religious doubt — or religious belief.
I hope for an America where the power of faith will always burn brightly, but where no modern Inquisition of any kind will ever light the fires of fear, coercion, or angry division.
I hope for an America where we can all contend freely and vigorously, but where we will treasure and guard those standards of civility which alone make this nation safe for both democracy and diversity.