As Democrats continue their careful dance around the issue of religions role in policy and politics, its only fitting that a Kennedy should weigh in on the matter. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, formerly lieutenant governor of Maryland (and eldest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy), in her new book, Failing Americas Faithful: How Todays Churches Are Mixing God With Politics and Losing Their Way, reminds us that the Democrats werent always so skittish on religion as they are today. The two most recent Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, were (and are) devout Baptists who have always been unafraid to evoke their faith or use it as a guiding principle in their politicsmuch as Bobby Kennedy had always done. While John F. Kennedy was careful to put some distance between himself and the Roman Catholic Church during and after his run for the presidency, Bobby never did. Bobbys Catholicism was central to his mission in life, and it fueled his outrage at the injustices he saw. My father walked his days with the suffering of the less fortunate on one shoulder and the Catholic teachings of social justice on the other, writes Townsend. [W]e learned that to be religious was to be part of a community, and the purpose of our faith was to improve the world, [not just our own lives]. She recalls her father returning from trips to Mississippi and West Virginiaplaces in America where he saw children living in Third World conditionsshaken at what he had seen. Families there live in a shack the size of this dining room, he said as the family ate together at a table set with linen and silver under a magnificent chandelier. The children have distended stomachs and sores all over them because they dont have enough food. Do you know how lucky you are? he asked. Do something for our country, he implored, give something back. It was an admonition the Kennedy children took to heart.
For Townsend as for her father, Catholicism has never been an abstraction. It has always been woven into every aspect of life. Bible reading and prayer was a twice-daily occurrence at home. All the children had the pictures of saints and containers for holy water in their rooms. Blessings were asked for everything from the consequential (Please, God, help Uncle Jack be the best president) to the mundane (Please, St. Anthony, help my mother find a parking spot at the movies). The nuns who taught Townsend in Catholic school had taught her mother, her aunts, and the mothers of her friends, and the emphasis on scholarship went hand in hand with a commitment to fortitude, respect [and building] a strong community, notes Townsend. The Church gave shape to our lives.
Thus it is not surprising that Townsend is exasperated with her fellow Democrats, who often seem to regard their religious convictions as something apart from their goals for the country. To her mind there is plenty of blame to go around for this alienation from faith. Mainline Protestant churches are shrinking as they fail to meet the spiritual needs of their parishioners. Toward the Catholic Church, Townsend is by turns despairing and angry. Despite the liberation that came in the wake of Vatican II, the Church has turned inward, remaining reactionary in its views regarding abortion, contraception, and the priesthood for women. The Catholic Church of my youth dealt with issues at the core of the Gospelsuffering, injustice, sickness and poverty, she writes. Today, she says, the Church has allowed its social agenda to be trumped by an all-consuming focus on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem cell researchnone of which are mentioned in the Gospels. And for her it was personal: when she ran for Congress as a pro-choice candidate in 1986, priestsincluding her own pastordenounced her from the pulpit for her views. Her archdiocese blacklisted her from speaking at many public Catholic events, and at those where she did speak, she was often picketed and harassed.
Hard as she is on reactionary Catholics, Townsend is equally tough on conservative evangelicals, and for many of the same reasons. These evangelicals, she says witheringly, have focused their attention on private matterswho has sex with whom, where, and how. She deplores what she calls the privatization of religion in many evangelical churches that stress a personal relationship with Jesus over a devotion to the teachings of the Gospelalleviating suffering, injustice, sickness, and poverty. The religious right, in her view, has focused so completely on judgmental theology that they have forsaken the social-justice traditions of their own faith.
The left doesnt get off the hook either. Some leaders on the left, she says, are [so] obsessed with keeping religion out of the public sphere, demanding a perfect purging of faith from public life far beyond what our Founding Fathers meant by separation of church and state, that the right has basically coopted religion over the last thirty years. She acknowledges that many Americans turned away from religion as their churches moved to the right in reaction to the tumult of the 1960s. But neither the religious left nor the Democratic Party did much to woo them back. The identity politics that splintered the Democratic Party for two decades also drove religion out of its politics. The womens movement in particular, with its radical fringe openly hostile to religion and its absolute focus on preserving Roe v. Wade, left many liberal believers with no place to go.
For those who do not share Townsends faith and the particular social-justice mission with which many Catholics are raised, her earnest tone and frequent scriptural references may seem a bit much. But I, for one, found her style rather refreshingliberals used to talk this way for a reason. The targets of her inquiry are too numerous for a book so short, and yet even so, the book manageslike the liturgy itselfto be repetitious in places.
Townsend is at her most persuasive when she uses beautifully rendered stories about her father for arguing that one of the highest aims of both faith and politics is to take our responsibilities to one another seriously. She writes movingly about Bobby Kennedys famous visit to a black neighborhood in Indianapolis on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Then Mayor Richard Lugar pleaded with Kennedy not to go, saying he could not guarantee his safety. Kennedy went anyway, breaking the news to a horrified crowd as he stood on the back of a flatbed truck, lanky and stoop-shouldered in the harsh glare of a television light, and spoke to their shared grief. Kennedy quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus: Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. Kennedys presence in that neighborhood, and his invocation of the Almighty, had a healing effect. That night riots erupted in over a hundred American cities, but Indianapolis remained calm.