Faith and the Public Dialogue: A Conversation with Sen. John Kerry
The Pew Forum invited Mass. Sen. John Kerry to discuss the propriety of public inquiry into politicians’ religious beliefs and how those beliefs influence candidates’ views on the issues of the day. Kerry, a 2004 presidential candidate, also addressed the role of faith in presidential campaigns, his perspective on religion in the 2008 election, and the impact of religion on public affairs.
Kerry began his career in public service in 1982 when he was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Two years later he won election to the U.S. Senate and has been re-elected three times since. In 2004 he was the Democratic nominee for president. When he accepted his party’s nomination, Kerry invoked John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan’s public position on the privacy of one’s faith: “I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, but faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday.” However, in recent years the senator, a lifelong Roman Catholic, has discussed his faith more openly, including the connection between his formative Catholic teachings and his work as a public servant.
John Kerry, U.S. Senator, D-Mass.; Democratic Presidential Nominee (2004)
E.J. Dionne Jr., Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution; Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
LUIS LUGO: Good afternoon and thank you all for joining us today. A special thanks to Sen. Kerry for being with us. I’m Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which is a project of the Pew Research Center. The center is a nonpartisan organization. It does not take positions on policy debates.
The forum’s partners in this luncheon series are Michael Cromartie, who is the vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and The Washington Post. Unfortunately Mike had a previous engagement and could not join us today. But we are delighted that the other half of the dynamic duo is here with us today.
DIONNE: It’s very difficult to introduce someone when they are not so well-known as John Kerry is. So I thought, how do you introduce someone -? I think some of you are familiar with the fact that he served his country in Vietnam and was much decorated. What some of you may not know, and why I believe he still may be our president some day, is he has the prime qualification for winning the presidency. In the last four elections, to the win the presidency you had to lose a congressional race in the 1970s. Bill Clinton lost one in 1974. George W. Bush lost one in 1978. John Kerry lost one in 1972.
He didn’t lick his wounds; he went to law school and became a very successful prosecutor in Middlesex County outside of Boston, or what Barney Frank refers to as the Green Book. Then he was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and a couple of years later went to the United States Senate in 1984, where he has been involved in a whole series of issues, which I won’t even bother to name. I keep running into people where there are odd interests of Sen. Kerry that I hadn’t known about. There is an organization called YouthBuild, which is vitally concerned with helping low-income kids be successful in school and enter the workforce. That’s been a John Kerry passion for many years.
The reason we very much wanted to have him at the forum is that the senator, since the last presidential election, is actually engaged in an awful lot of study, a lot of seminars, a lot of discussions about the role of religion in public life. He has given a number of lectures on this subject, including a lecture at that well-known liberal bastion, Pepperdine University. So we really wanted to have him share with you his thoughts on the subject that is at the heart of the Pew Forum’s mission. So as a Red Sox fan and a guy who grew up in Fall River, Mass., it gives me great pleasure to welcome John Kerry.
JOHN KERRY: Well, E.J., thank you for a generous and very, very kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here with all of you. Thank you for taking time to share in this conversation, an important one and an interesting one in so many ways no matter what your perspective or outlook is or where you come from in terms of your religious foundation or lack thereof. Either way, you play in America in terms of the politics of our country.
So where this fits and how this fits is really a discussion that’s gone on as long as we’ve been here. I’m not sure I should make this overly public. It hasn’t been written about much in history, but some folks in Massachusetts have touched on it occasionally. But my, I guess, grandfather to whatever the 10th it is or something was the fellow who actually delivered the sermon on a boat called the Arabella, which has been often quoted by Ronald Reagan and others, about the city upon a hill. It was delivered just before they entered the harbor, Boston Harbor, and as you all know, he was one of the great Puritan leaders. We’ve had – I didn’t know this actually until recently – different phases of different centuries of ministers in the family who have pursued different interests.
So I found a little bit of roots and grounding in all of this discussion, which certainly interested me on a personal level. But it obviously interested me even more so in terms of the 2004 experience and where the country is and has been over the course of the last 25 years probably. It’s been more exacerbated in some ways than others, though of course President Kennedy confronted a question about it. But President Kennedy’s question was very different from the one that we face today in many ways. We can discuss that a little bit later on.
But heading into an election year as we are, it’s appropriate for people to really think about what’s the proper fit here and where do we go. Questions about faith and values are, again, very central to the political dialogue. I think it’s safe to say that this is an area where we have yet to get it right in the country. E.J. is also right when he says that the fault is not one-sided. It lies with people on both sides of the political aisle, and it lies I think with a lot of people’s assumptions about what is religious talk and what is not religious talk and where does it fit into your platform/curricula vitae, if you will, and what is the distinction between an appropriate discussion of that versus a violation of the line we’ve drawn in our country of the, quote, “separation between church and state.”
E.J. wrote something very thoughtful, in particular, at this time. He has written many things that are thoughtful, but this column wrestled with this question of how faith should fit in the public square. He said conservatives typically praise religious activism on abortion and homosexuality, but they dismiss liberal clerics who offer theological insights on economics or social spending. Liberals love preachers to speak out for civil rights and economic justice, but they see a church-and-state problem the instant anyone in the clergy speaks out for vouchers or against abortion or stem cell research. And I think he is right. There is this dichotomy and contradiction, and it doesn’t serve any of us well to sort of be holier-than-thou about that discussion.
The dilemma has been with us for a long, long time, folks. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln described the Union and the Confederacy this way: He said, “Both read the same Bible, pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other.” He goes on to say, “It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of another man’s face, but let us judge not that we be not judged.”
So it’s all there, folks, a hundred-plus years ago, and even until today – strong convictions and the concern about using those strong convictions to judge others and to condemn them and to exploit. That is the dilemma today. Rather than use religion as a weapon or as a ploy, how do you use it to find common ground and where are the lines that you draw between what’s appropriate in the political lexicon and what isn’t?
I think it’s important. I certainly probably made some mistakes with respect to this, and I think there are mistakes that one might say have been made by the Democratic Party over some period of time in this sense: Religion has to inform, if you are religious, who you are, or you’re not religious. It has to have something that goes to the foundation of your value system or it hasn’t affected you or you’re not practicing whatever that is.
And it doesn’t have to be a religion, per se; it can be a philosophy, a way of life, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism. There are many different ways in which people choose to have a guiding set of values within their life, and for many it is organized religion; for many it is not. But I will suggest this to you respectfully: that no matter what philosophy or religion, organized or otherwise, people adopt, they almost all have a golden rule within them. And if you are legitimately practicing almost any of them and you are practicing them well, you will tend to be a pretty good citizen and a pretty good person.
What we see today in terms of Islam is a complete aberration. [Former Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto said this the other day in going back to Pakistan. It may indeed have invited some of the violence that took place, but that’s inevitable anyway in that situation. But there’s nothing in Islam, nothing in the Koran that suggests suicide bombers are sanctioned by anything, nor even killing other people or innocent people, or children. So a true practitioner of the faith understands that distinction, and that is a tension within Islam today and it’s something we can talk about later.
But let me come back to the practice here in the context of politics and so forth. Let me just tell you a little bit about myself so you have a sense of the context within which I come at this. I was raised a Catholic. My mother was a protestant; my dad was Catholic. And true to the Catholic Church, if you are protestant, you, generally speaking, if you’re churchgoing, take a pledge to raise your children Catholic. My mother did that and she was the better leader with respect to our family and our practice, frankly, than my dad. And we – my wife, my ex-wife , who has since passed away, and I – did the same thing. She was protestant; I was Catholic, and we did what we do.
But the bottom line is that the Catholicism that I grew up with is quite different from the Catholicism that we have today, and that is partly due to Vatican II and to a reevaluation within the church about how the church would reach out and talk to its flock. When I grew up, as we learned in Matthew, chapter 6, you pray. You go into your room and shut the door and pray in secret, and the Lord hears your prayers in secret and then he rewards you. Nowadays, it’s much more evangelical, and by evangelical, something is evangelical when Christ is at its center and the Bible is at its center. Those are the two, in my judgment, qualifying distinctions.
So Vatican II changed a lot of that. Now the prayers that you have in the church, which didn’t used to be, and the liturgy that you have in the church actually follow the protestant Episcopalian Church much more closely. You have liturgy that comes out of years and years of biblical passages and tradition. It’s, in many ways, made it more relevant and I think more meaningful, and Catholics study the Bible more today than they used to; it’s much more engaged and less separate.
So the church I grew up with was different. Like everybody in life, I went through my ups and downs – you know, college years. Went to Vietnam. In Vietnam had a very necessary and immediate relationship with God: You protect me and I’ll be good. (Laughter.) Get me home and I’ll be okay kind-of-deal. And of course, a return to all of the turmoil of those years and a more difficult relationship. I admired people of the cloth who put into practice the scriptures, like Martin Luther King and William Sloane Coffin, who acted on their values, their principles, as they interpreted their obligations, and it had an impact on me, an impression on me.
Then in public life, ultimately, I came to a much stronger, closer understanding of my own relationship and understanding of my responsibilities and my faith. I’ve been very comfortable with it ever since, until of course 2004 when we saw this exploitation and this wedge process played out in a very open and public and difficult way.
I think we’re all badly served when the debate is reduced the way it was reduced during that period of time, and perhaps we should have just taken it on more publicly at that period of time. Because what I learned as an altar boy – and I was confirmed right over here at Pleasant Sacramento, Chevy Chase. In fact, I even remember leaping up and answering a question for the bishop at the service when he asked those initial questions. I was very engaged. It was a period in my time when I was unbelievably immersed in my religion.
But it seems to me that it is important for us to know how to separate defining who we are – Let me phrase it this way: The presidency is largely about character. And your character has to be informed by your value system, by your beliefs. So what you believe or don’t believe about some of these issues is fair game, in my judgment, in terms of making a judgment about your character and your beliefs and who you are and what you act on and what motivates you, what kind of person are you.
It is not obviously fair game in terms of deciding policies that are transferred directly from religion or on behalf of religion into the public square without regard to other people’s beliefs and structures and where that may indeed wind up crossing a line. I have always had some problems, frankly, with some of the folks who claim to be the most religious and the most legitimate in their expression of their faith and understanding of it, because in many cases, I find them wholly deficient in the expression of that faith, and on occasion ignorant and/or dismissive selectively and purposefully of the real teachings of, in this case, Christianity, but it doesn’t have to be only Christianity about which we’re talking.
So let me focus just quickly, and we can come back to that in a minute. Let me just say it very quickly. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything as this debate began to be engaged. So I went back and reread everything that I thought was relevant, particularly Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and Acts, because those are the heart of the story of Jesus. That’s it, folks; three years of ministry.
All through that ministry, you will find in the quotes of the Lord himself, if you take them at face value, which people say they do in the reading of the Bible, which demand far more of you than simply words that express your faith. It requires allegiance; it requires a demonstration of acts and of behavior. You can find all through the admonitions of the Lord himself as quoted by those gospels – you can find his requirement of people that he states very clearly to the disciples and to people at large about what is required of them in terms of loving the Lord, that you can only get to heaven through him, that you have to behave through him, so forth and so on. Your acts have to surpass those of the scribes of the Pharisees. You have to be out there, far more genuine in your performance.
And of course, if you read, whether it’s Mark, where he talks about not to be served but to serve, and Matthew 5, where he lays out the real heart of I think the Christian mission, which is the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, etc., you cannot but come away from that without a responsibility for poor people, for sick people. You go back and just read the language, which talks about: I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me water; I was naked and you clothed me; in prison I was lonely and you comforted me; I was in prison and you visited me. All of those requirements are at their face value. I think a lot of people miss on that.
This is something I have said at the prayer breakfast of the United States Senate to my colleagues. I’m not here unwilling to say this to people directly.
So I think that what’s happened – what E.J. said earlier about people picking one or two issues and driving them as a wedge is something everybody’s got to just work at getting rid of. That is not a true expression of religion. Now, having said that, we can do better in talking about abortion, and we ought to do better. And I’ll come to that in a minute.
So let me just talk about four areas where I think there is huge common ground, where we ought to be talking about the common ground, not the differences. The first of these is on the value of human life and the need to alleviate suffering, and that comes directly out of the passages that I just quoted you and many, many more. It comes out of not just the Christian book. It comes out of the Torah; it comes out of tikkun olam; it comes out of the Koran in the first paragraphs. And it comes out of every aspect of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and other standards guiding life.
So, the need to value human life and alleviate suffering – There are some people who have said life doesn’t begin at conception and end at birth; it goes on through all of life. There’s a lot of absence with respect to that ongoing obligation. It includes feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, treating the sick. We just passed the two-year anniversary of Katrina, and we can all remember the shock of that and the setback of it, but I think we have got a long way to go measured by that standard.
Twenty-one percent of our children live in poverty. One-sixth of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty. One-fifth doesn’t have safe drinking water. There are 40 million people with AIDS today. Last year, 3 million people died from the disease. I know that Jesus didn’t say just heal the sick if they can pay for it. So we’re missing something in this discussion. And you’ve got this genocide taking place in Darfur.
So I think it’s a sad commentary that is missed. And it’s interesting. If you talk to Rick Warren – I went out to Saddleback Church and attended services with Rick and I spent some time talking to him – a really interesting fellow obviously. But he said to me, and he said this publicly on several occasions, you know, I don’t know how this happened. He said, I went to seminary; I spent five years. I studied Greek this, that. I started a church. I’ve preached. I’ve written a book that sold to millions of people. He said, how did I miss poverty? And he is on it now big time and dealing with AIDS and other things, as some evangelicals have discovered.
The other thing I want to talk about is the environment. Let me move to that quickly for a minute. For many of us, respect for God’s creation translates into a duty to protect and sustain the first creation. Before God created man, God created heaven and Earth. And as a graduate of St. Paul’s School, I will tell you I am well acquainted with what our school’s namesake wrote in Corinthians: “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything on it.” You can go to Genesis, you can go to any number of books, Isaiah, others, and find references to our obligations and responsibilities with respect to the Garden of Eden, nurturing, taking care of things around us.
Finally, evangelicals are starting to talk about creation care, and that is a very important and legitimate component, it seems to me, of that respect. They are espousing the principle that any damage you do to God’s world is an offense to God. So whatever your faith, the scientific facts are clear. You don’t have to be faithful to understand the facts: the droughts, the famine, the ice melting, the increased evidence. It’s dramatic what is taking place – asthma. Twenty-five percent of the kids in Harlem have asthma. You can go any number of places. I can compound that case for you in a moment.
But I’ll just summarize it by saying there was a recent headline in Time magazine that said, “How Do You Prevent the Next Darfur? Step One: Get Serious About Global Climate Change.” So confronting manmade climate change is in the long run one of the greatest challenges we face, and I think there are religious implications in it that are very serious: stewardship and so forth.
The third area that we can find common ground is on the issue of abortion. It’s been one of the most emotional and one of the most divisive of all, and I’ve seen that very up close and personal. I believe very deeply that it is not contradictory to be pro-choice and to be anti-abortion. I think many people are anti-abortion and legitimately so. The question is how do you talk about it? How do you lay this out to people?
I think we have been guilty in the party and individually at times of being overly pro-choice and this is the way it is and we’re not going to do x, y or z, without honoring the deeply held beliefs that are legitimate that go to the question of the killing of a human being, depending on what you believe. And I understand it depends on what you believe. But if you believe it, I think you do have an obligation to say so in terms of wanting fewer abortions, of trying to say abortion is not good, it’s not a good alternative, and what we need to do is make sure people have other alternatives and other options. That’s where you can find a lot of common ground because there are 1.3 million abortions in this country, and I don’t think anybody would disagree that that is too many.
As Bill Clinton framed it, I thought so effectively, in 1992, it ought to be rare, legal and safe. Rare has been missing from the debate. I think we need to figure out how we’re going to do that, and do it in a more effective way.
I think it’s important to honor those beliefs. You may never get over that hurdle. The science is going to move, and is moving already, to narrow the window that people can legitimately make some claims about life and non-life, incidentally. I think you have to be intellectually honest about this too. You can’t say, oh, it doesn’t matter, the science hasn’t changed, viability is not necessarily narrowing in its window. I think you’ve got to have an honest discussion. But that doesn’t mean that that becomes a legislative effort that men ought to make for women instead of women and their doctor making that decision in the light of those questions that still remain out there, legitimately, with a lot of people.
So you can be honest and true to the notion that you want to try to minimize abortion and you don’t think abortions are a great option, but it’s not up to us legislatively to dictate that. That is the traditional and honest pro-choice position, but it has not allowed for us to find the common ground on other things. We can talk a little later, if you want, about the partial-birth deal, which I’d be happy to get into a little bit.
Let me just wrap this up quickly. The fourth and final thing I’d mention, which is a big opportunity – I’ve mentioned three already on the poverty and opportunity issues, on the abortion issue, we clearly can find better ground. On the environment we can find huge common ground. And the final one is that people of faith need to accept the common challenge on issues of war and peace. Whatever your philosophical differences all of us of different faiths have a universal sense of values and ethics and moral truths that honor and respect the dignity of all human beings, and that applies too when you go to war.
I mentioned earlier that everybody shares some version of the Golden Rule. Go look at these different faiths – you’ll see it leaping out at you. But the struggle to balance the legitimate self-defense need against those highest ideals of justice and morality have been with us for thousands of years, folks. One of the greatest early Christian sources of wisdom on this was Saint Augustine, who laid the foundation for a very compelling philosophical tradition, which we actually apply, no matter what your religion, in many ways to the public debate of our country about war.
He laid out the principles that No. 1, wars of choice are generally unjust wars. War should always be the last resort. War has to always have a just cause. War and those waging war need the right authority to do so. And when he talks about authority, he’s not just talking about a bill that’s passed or a declaration of war; he’s talking about the moral authority of the people and the general authority of the population and the nation.
He also wrote about how the military response must be proportionate to the provocation, and indeed in our military theory we have proportionality as part of our thinking today. Finally, war has to have a reasonable chance of achieving its goal, and it must discriminate between civilians and combatants. I think more than ever, those principles are at issue in terms of what is going on in the world today, and we can see value in Saint Augustine’s principles and the vision behind it.
So for all the division that comes out of mixing religion inappropriately and not being able to draw that line between what’s the appropriate inquiry about where religion fits in somebody’s life rather than its excessive impact on politics itself – and I think there is a distinction – public service in the end is based on the notion of coming to serve, not to be served. And it goes to the very roots of that teaching.
I think that it’s really important for people to have a legitimate discussion about this as we go forward, not one of these totally self-serving, unbelievably ideologically driven, exploitative and in many cases co-opted efforts that does a disservice to the foundations of all religion and its relationship to our society but also to that particular religion that’s being wedged and exploited in the process.
So hopefully we’ll be smarter about it in ’08 as we go forward, and hopefully everybody will right the distinction between making a judgment about somebody’s formative years and character and value system and who they are versus the state and religion issue itself.
So let me throw it open for some questions and comments and thoughts.
DIONNE: Thank you, Sen. Kerry. First of all, I always admire effective pandering, especially when it applies to me, so I want to thank you for those remarks at the beginning. (Laughter.) I’ll return the favor by noting that it can’t be an accident that the Pew Forum decided to invite you to address these matters on Nov. 1st, which on the Christian liturgical calendar is All Saints’ Day. Also, you gave us a title for your –
KERRY: A holy obligation.
DIONNE: Yes, indeed. You gave a title to your spiritual biography, if you just decide to write it: “A Necessary and Immediate Relationship with God.” A little long, but I think it works.
I’m going to try to comply myself to one single question before I open it up. Why do you think you didn’t give a speech like this in, say, May or June of 2004?
KERRY: Well, first of all, in May or June it wasn’t an issue.
DIONNE: July, August. (Laughter.)
KERRY: And in July or August –
DIONNE: You know what I’m getting at.
KERRY: In July it wasn’t an issue. In August we had a – probably I should have, and the bottom line is I think people needed – I did go out and I spoke to the Baptist convention and spoke at many different places; I spoke in pulpits across the country. It wasn’t covered as much. I did talk about some of this, and I remember going down and giving a speech in Florida on faith and values in American politics. I thought it was a strong and good speech, important. It contained a certain amount of some of the thinking I laid out today.
And I do remember going to the National Baptists Convention and talking about some of this, not in as quite a depth and certainly not with the in-your-face challenge that I think is contained as part of this. I probably should have. I think there was a little bit of a reluctance to get on that ground because within the context of the last months of a presidential race if you start doing that, you are really putting religion on the table in a way that just could detract from the ability to talk about the other things, and suddenly make it seem like you’re trying to, I guess, in a sense pander and reach too far.
The time to do it is not in the heat of the last three months of the presidential race. The time to do it is now, and before you get into it. And the bona fides of it have to be absolutely legitimate and unassailable. I think a speech like that in August would not have been unassailable and therefore would have been subject to gross misinterpretation and distortion and probably become problematical.
DIONNE: Thank you.
PETER CANELLOS, THE BOSTON GLOBE: I’ll ask a very non-Boston question. It seems to me, and I just want your views on this, that there may be a risk in a lot of politicians, particularly on the Democratic side, where Republicans had already been talking a lot about their religion, or predominantly Christianity, post-9/11 the message that we’re sending to the world concern that Muslims, particularly, feel that the United States just is not on their side at all. It seems like at exactly that moment, suddenly, we have USAID giving grants to Christian groups in predominantly Muslim countries that are kind of operating under dangerous conditions there. Politicians on both sides, both parties, talking very openly about being Christian and how their Christianity defines them.
What is the larger foreign policy concern in the messages that we’re sending in proclaiming yourself to be Christians?
KERRY: Well, to do it correctly, Peter – It’s a very legitimate question. But I was very clear about how I would do that, and I’m very clear about it now. I just talked to you about legitimate Islam. I’ve spent time meeting with mullahs and imams, clerics. I went to Egypt; I met with the top imam in Egypt, who is very moderate and very much somebody available to the Western world to help begin to define this real interest, as are many other people. I’ve met with these folks all through the Mideast.
I’m now chairman of the Mideast-South Asia Subcommittee, and I spend quite a lot of time at this. I was in Lebanon and Syria earlier this year; there’s an enormous ability to tap into a majority moderate Islam, which regrettably has been pushed to the sidelines because of the extremism of our foreign policy and the arrogance of our foreign policy, as well as the lack of inclusivity and the language about which many of these Christians you just talked about talk.
Now, I’m a Christian, but I always talk in the context of the Torah and the Koran and the universality of those teachings, and there is a great universality of it. And you can always find a paragraph in any of these religious tomes because they come out of an oral tradition. Look at our own tradition. It wasn’t written down until 70 years after the death of Christ, and the most real, immediate and personal writings were the writings of Paul, which is why those letters are so fascinating, is we absolutely have authenticated – we know them. But the Bible itself is a collection of these stories, which, centuries later, a whole bunch of men sat down in a church council and decided this is in and this is out. So you have to look at all of these things in that context, and I think the minute you begin to become more reality-based about where you’re coming from in that sense, and inclusive, there’s room for a real dialogue.
Had I been elected president, I had major plans to create an interfaith dialogue at the highest level bringing Jews and Christians and Muslims and others all to the same table to help discover the universality of these principles. That’s when we’ll begin to find some common ground. What’s happened in the alternative is this bellicose language and unitary assertion of rectitude by certain Christian figures has given an impression that is denying the United States of America its full recognition for the values that we do espouse, and has allowed radical extremists who are co-opting a religion to isolate us, rather than us isolating them. It’s absurd how self-defeating it is.
So I’m not intimidated by that at all. I think we should go out there, boldly and bravely, understanding what the diversity and pluralism – and that’s the bottom line, you’ve always got to put the diversity and pluralism of our country up front; it’s the No. 1 thing. And you don’t assert a primacy, and you don’t assert an exclusivity, which some people like to do. You’ll find that the great preachers, whether it’s Billy Graham and others, have been able to do that very effectively. They still believe what they believe, and they believe that they will be saved through Jesus and somebody else needs to learn that, but they have enormous respect for the tradition and the unifying principles of these other religions. That’s how you march down this road together, but it’s the absence of that kind of willingness to find that common ground.
So I don’t think it’s a problem, ultimately, if we get off this kick we’ve been on for the – which I talked about in the end. I said exploitative and co-opting, and it is purposefully so for political purposes, not religious purposes.
RUTH MARCUS, THE WASHINGTON POST: Hi, Senator.
KERRY: Hello, Ruth, how are you doing?
MARCUS: Great, thank you. There’s another politician from Massachusetts who’s running for president this time around who has a religion issue, if not a religion problem. I’m wondering what you make of the apparent skepticism or even hostility toward a Mormon candidate for president in this race and, given your own experience wrestling with a different version of the issue, what you might suggest to him, and really to others involved in the dialogue, to do. Does he need to take on this issue? Do we all need to have a conversation about it in a broader context?
KERRY: Let me just say I’m not in the business of giving advice to presidential candidates publicly, and I’m certainly not in the business of giving it to Republicans in any form whatsoever. (Laughter.)
That said, I think that the challenge is really for anybody running for president, whether it’s Mitt Romney or anybody else, they’ve got to explain who they are. I could have done a better job of doing that, and should have. I think that the lesson is, yeah, you’ve got to take these things on. Certainly the lesson to me is don’t leave anything hanging out there.
So I would say that everybody has got to explain how they became who they are, that person that wants to lead a very diverse, very complicated, multicultural, multilingual, multi-religious-based nation. People have to be comfortable that the person they’re going to make president is going to honor who they are and where they come from. That is the distinction between defining who you are through your religion versus giving people a sense that somehow there’s more coming with the package, and you’ve got to draw that line no matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what religion it is either.
DIONNE: Thank you. Ray, who is the author of The Holy Vote.
RAY SUAREZ, NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER: Coming out in paperback this month. (Laughter.) Senator, good to see you. A lot of your remarks had to do with what the candidate or officeholder does outward: the message they present, the campaign that they craft, the subjects they choose to talk about and the context with which they try to explain them.
But a lot of things are put on candidates from externalities, from reporters, from issues that come out of the day’s news. Earlier this year, John Edwards was asked at a candidates’ forum what the biggest sin he had ever committed was. Also earlier this year, Mitt Romney and his wife were asked in a joint interview if they were wedding-night virgins. Neither of them took the opportunity to say, that’s an absolutely stupid question and I refuse to answer it, because they have to make a calculation in the moment about what people hear when they answer that question.
So how much of this is really in your control? When the Catholic bishops decided – well, when some Catholic bishops decided to pronounce you persona non grata at the rail, that was something that was put on you rather than something you chose to talk about publicly. I don’t know how candidates, if they’re fighting against each other for one office, can agree to handle this in a different way, but so far we’ve got people twisting themselves into all kinds of pretzels trying to answer these questions when they come up.
KERRY: Well look, it’s an individual judgment by a candidate as to how you’re going to answer. I didn’t know what John Edwards said to that, and I didn’t even hear about the question to Mitt Romney, but my instant reaction would have been – Obviously on the sin one, my instant answer would have been, that’s between God and me and you have no business asking such a stupid question. I just would positively have said that.
On the other – If you think somehow you’re going to win some votes because you’re going to tell people what a good person you were up until then, that’s your judgment. You can make a judgment about that, I guess. But I think those kinds of questions you ought to, by and large, just deny.
Now, on the Catholic thing, yeah, there are externalities that – there always are; that’s the nature of politics. That’s no surprise, of course there are externalities. You can’t plan what’s going to happen the next day. The biggest externality of all is Friday before the election, we were raging ahead and all of a sudden, Osama bin Laden inserts himself in the race. Externality had a profound impact. So you can’t control some of these things.
But you can, on the Catholic bishops thing, we could have again probably done – I sort of always take responsibility for some of the things that maybe we could have done or not done because I think we could have. But you never know at the time; you’re moving 100 miles an hour and you’ve got all kinds of externalities affecting those options. But only four bishops out of 180 said anything.
And in fact, Cardinal [Theodore] McCarrick and others were very clear in the letter that came from Rome. It was very clear that it is not in canon law that you can deny people [communion]. That is an argument made by Bishop [Raymond] Burke, a fellow down in Missouri, and you’ve got about four – [Bishop John] Myers in New Jersey and a bishop out in Chicago, and then [Bishop Charles] Chaput in Colorado.
They make the argument, but it’s not a church position. What we didn’t do was make sure that the church position was out there and known to people as effectively as it should have been. We did have a Catholics effort; we did have a religious outreach effort. We had something that was unprecedented in campaigns; we had a whole religious outreach effort and a person specifically hired and people engaged in this.
And we did pretty damn well, folks, by and large, except for that one crunch with respect to what was perceived to be the reality of the bishops. I think the church also was uncomfortable with some of what went on. I’m not sure it wants to have that kind of a dialogue again that way. But it’s important for us to help them not feel compelled to by making sure we’re drawing those distinctions appropriately between what we do believe, and why and how, and what’s legitimate to talk about, without translating it into some kind of legislative effort.
I will share with you that I went and met, after the election, with a number of cardinals. I had a discussion with one of them who is now in Rome, and I don’t want to reveal who it was. I think it’s inappropriate. But I said to him you have a position on abortion but you don’t have a policy. My obligation is to have a policy. I have to deal with the 15-year-old daughter of a parent, single parent, who is raped by her uncle and pregnant, and I’ve got to have a policy for that. You don’t; you have a position that life begins – And I tell you, he said that’s true, you’re right. Our job is to teach, and our job is to assert the morality. You have to go out there and sort out how you apply it on a day-to-day basis.
I think if we can find an understanding about the complexity of some of these kinds of choices, honoring life and respecting how difficult it is and having a language that’s a little more conducive to that –
I’ll give you another example of where this falls apart, on the partial-birth abortion thing. I don’t like partial-birth abortion; it’s a terrible, horrible kind of procedure. It’s not even a real procedure, in a sense, because the term partial-birth is a conjured-up term to deal with a specific medical procedure that never had that name. It was done specifically to kind of help drive the issue. But anybody who’s had a child or is a parent, who’s listened to that first heartbeat five weeks, six weeks in, or who’s seen the ultrasounds and goes through that, who’s been present at a birth, you can’t come away from that without a sense of the miraculous and the extraordinary nature of it, and what it means in terms of the development of that child. And to think of it in third trimester as something that you can just go and – I tell you, is anathema to most people.
But the difficulty for us in the Senate was we wanted a compromise. We were trying to find a way to honor that difficulty and say it isn’t our choice as a legislator to tell the doctor what he can or can’t do and the woman what she does or doesn’t need if she faces the prospect of never having a child again or dying. They ought to make that choice, recognizing its complexity and their own relationship to God in the process.
Well, we wanted to codify that by having two doctors with separate opinions and a grievous bodily injury standard. We couldn’t even get a vote on it. We weren’t allowed to have a vote because it was reasonable. It sort of murkied it up, and they just wanted that clear-cut, you’re for it or you’re against it. Ask [Sen.] Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.] what a horrible vote, a difficult vote that was, or me or other – [Sen. Dick] Durbin [D-Ill.] or any of us, [Sen.] Barbara Mikulski [D-Md.]and people; very, very tough and complicated.
So these aren’t light things that just pass off us, and I think the key is for us to try to find a way to make sure people understand that.
DIONNE: Well, I think Edwards’ answer was something like, I’ve committed so many sins I can’t figure one out. He asked for forgiveness, which I thought was a rather Christian way of saying, that’s a dumb question. (Laughter.)
PATRICIA ZAPOR, CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE: Senator, the sort of speech you’ve given here today, had it been a speech during the campaign, is it possible for a Democratic candidate to do that, given the realities of campaign machinery and the way the Democratic Party works? And by the same token, can a Republican candidate give a “we need to seek common ground on these issues.”
KERRY: Sure, I think that would be very welcome. A Republican could do it more easily than a Democrat. And it would be very, very welcome if somebody did do that. But I think it’s very difficult to do it in midstream. As I said to you earlier, when you’re in the battle with six, seven, eight other people, inevitably, people are going to try to chew it up, spit it out. So it’s not the kind of thing that’s necessarily going to have the purpose that you want it to have.
It’s not unlike the decision we have to make in July or August: Can you do this now legitimately and not just wind up in a morass on it? I think it would be pretty complicated in these next two months for somebody to do that. You can just hear the hue and cry. Why are they doing this? What vote are they going after? What’s the motivation? Why didn’t they do this earlier? I wouldn’t counsel somebody to try to go do that now.
I think five months ago somebody could have done it in definition of who they are and their candidacy and so forth. I think that would have been more easily done. But as the field sort of solidifies, it’s harder to get away with that.
JODIE ALLEN, PEW RESEARCH CENTER: First principles – constitutional principles, not religious ones. Unlike some members of the Supreme Court, I don’t purport to be able to see into the minds of the Founding Fathers. But I do remember what they wrote in the Federalist [Papers] pretty much, and am very sensitive to the fact that they, being very well aware of the fact that if you had to count up all of the good done in the name of the Almighty and compare it against all the evil, it’s not quite clear how the balance would turn out. I think it’s sort of interesting that when E.J. asked you if you should have spoken out sooner on the questions of faith and so on, you agreed.
But my question is, is there no chance that we will ever go back to a period not so long ago – I’m thinking of John F. Kennedy – when we worried that the cardinals would be trying to talk into his ear – he assured us they would not – rather than as we apparently worry now that you didn’t listen closely enough to the cardinals. Can’t we ever go back or is it too late?
KERRY: Well, no, I think that we’re working out that equilibrium. As I’ve said here earlier, I think there will be a difference now. There is that distinction. President Kennedy’s challenge was to prove that he was not so Catholic that he could be president. My challenge was to prove that I was Catholic enough that I could be president. And believe me, we were well aware of the distinction between the two.
But I think there is a bigger distinction between what we enshrined in the Constitution in terms of separation of church and state and the legitimate inquiry of who somebody is. That’s what I said earlier. I think if you’re framing what you believe in the context of your gut – who you are, what you believe, what motivates you, what you fight for, what are the principles that guide you – I think it’s fair to go out and say here’s how my religion has informed my life.
But that is different from carrying the agenda of your particular religion into your legislative agenda and into the halls of Congress and the law. That’s what the Founding Fathers didn’t want. Look at the phraseology. Look at how they approached things. They may not have all been churchgoing, but they were God-fearing and God-asserting folks who understood what America was, which was a country founded under God and with this belief and highly religious. But they wanted it to be tolerant, and they wanted it to be pluralistic and diverse and so forth.
believe that this kind of forum and what happened – the excess of ’04 – is going to drive us back to a place where there’s an equilibrium here, where people will not be oblivious to what your foundations or your value system are. But I also don’t think that’s all they’re going to judge you by. I think you are seeing some of that transition among evangelicals who are now broadening the standard, and who also are expressing a very real disappointment in the folks who have been there, and in how they haven’t lived up to the fundamentals that they had entrusted to them. So I think you’re going to find some of them even moving back from the process a little bit.
I think we’re going to reach a better equilibrium. That’s my belief. I may be proven wrong. But I do believe that. I think I see it. I feel it now among churchgoing folk in the country and religious leaders and others. They want to have a more intelligent discussion about this.
SALLY QUINN, THE WASHINGTON POST: You just touched on the question that I was about to ask, which is how important religion is in campaigning for president. When you ran, there was a kind of cultural difference. People said, well the Southerners know how to talk about religion. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and George Bush can get up and say, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior; I’ve been born again. And that culturally, you or Howard Dean, that would be really an invasion of your own personal privacy and sort of embarrassing to get up and talk that way. Yankees don’t talk like that.
But now we see that religion, even though it appears that the evangelicals and the fundamentalists did go a little far in the last election, religion is playing a really large role in this campaign. Jim Wallis and the Sojourners had a panel where the candidates talked only about their religion. That kind of thing is new. I can’t imagine anyone who says that he or she is an agnostic or an atheist even thinking about running for major office in this country.
So I wonder what you think about the importance of actually being religious, having a religion, and talking about religion is in this particular race?
KERRY: Let me begin by saying to you that, first of all, as one of those, quote, “Yankees,” I think it’s fair to say that’s where we were 10, 15, 20 years ago. I don’t think we were brought up that way, and I described that. It was very private. Catholicism, it was pretty private, and secret and guilt-ridden. But it’s changed.
I think it really has changed. And I changed. I changed partly by being a senator and sharing the prayer breakfasts. I spoke at the 1992 prayer breakfast for the Senate, for our side. I guess it was when Bill Clinton first came in. I wasn’t shy about it. In fact, Chuck Colson responded to what I said by writing me a letter of apology for what had happened during the 1970s when he was with Richard Nixon. So over a period of time, I’ve gotten much more comfortable, not only in talking about it, but with the reality of what I believe and feel. I’m not huge on every aspect of liturgical process, etc., but I’m honest about my faith. And my wife, Teresa, is very religious and always has been.
And so, if it’s honest – if what you’re doing is honest – you have to make your own choice about what you want to do, and I think it fits. If it’s not honest, people are going to know it, and you shouldn’t, and it doesn’t fit. I think people are the best read on where that fits.
I’ll tell you this. I wouldn’t hesitate to go anywhere in the South, to any audience, any church, any group, and talk about where my faith comes from, about what it is, and I’ve done that. Nobody has ever challenged the authenticity of it. So I don’t agree with that anymore. I think it has changed significantly. And that’s partly because, as I said, now within the church, within the Catholic Church, people are much more biblically oriented, much more aware of the scriptures than they used to be. It was not something we were raised with. It is something now that has become very much part of the church.
The language itself of the Mass, etc., and of the church comes right out of there. So I think that there is a much greater capacity to be – As I said, it’s a little more evangelical in reality. Now, that said, Sally, I think that it is true that maybe back in 1990, when Bill Clinton ran, I don’t think that was as true. There would have been that distinction more clearly. But the bottom line is, it just has to be real. If it is, I think you can go anywhere, anybody, and talk about it.
QUINN: But what about if you don’t have beliefs, if you’re not –
KERRY: That’s fair. That’s the other part of the question that I didn’t answer. The vast majority of America says they believe in God. The vast majority of America at some time goes to church. And I think it matters to people. When you’re choosing the president of the United States, people vote on the things that matter to them. So it is probably unlikely that you’re going to find somebody who stands up and says, well, I don’t believe in anything, that a whole bunch of people are going to be excited about voting for that person. Just a fact.
LISA MILLER, NEWSWEEK: Half of American Catholics are pro-choice.
KERRY: Maybe even more. More than half practice birth control.
MILLER: My question is, do you think those Catholics are paying attention to what the bishops are telling them, part one. And part two, do you think that what the bishops are telling them has changed either in tone or intensity over the past five years?
KERRY: No, I don’t think it’s changed particularly in tone or intensity in the last five years. I think it’s been pretty consistent. Normally there are pastoral letters that come out prior to the election guiding people as to what they ought to consider as they go to vote, not telling them who to vote for. I don’t think that those letters have changed that much. They’re pretty similar. In terms of do people listen and pay attention, I think sure.
Any Catholic, if you’re Catholic, you listen to the bishop. And people wrestle with it. I know a lot of Catholics – I’ve got colleagues in the Senate who have expressed their anguish over their relationship because they’re doing what they feel the Constitution and their rational duty require them to do in terms of policy. But they know it’s eliciting negativity from the moral guide that they should be listening to, and that’s hard for people if you believe something.
But nevertheless, everybody settles that somehow. People always have. People have settled on how venal a venal sin is and how mortal a mortal sin is, and how much they’re going to carry into confession and not. That’s just something everybody wrestles with. Do you swear or don’t you? All those other things that you were told not to do, people put in their various places. Do you covet something? You’ve got to figure that out, and everybody does and that’s part of life. The bottom line is that it creates a tension.
The bishops are doing what they should be doing. They’re teaching the foundation of the belief of the church. Everybody always has to wrestle with the beliefs. Jews go through this too. You have Reform and Orthodox and whatever, and people struggling with how much do you take it literally, at face value. Some people whose only time in a temple is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and that’s it, or the bat or bar mitzvah of a relative. Everybody goes through this.
Let’s come back to the key here. The key is that the media and the church and the public don’t allow this to get distorted and taken out of proportion. It’s fair to ask what informed you; what do your religious beliefs tell you about anything you have to decide in public life; what does your religion tell you in terms of what you might or might not do in terms of women or children or war or whatever. That’s a fair question. But how has it informed your basic character and your values and your morals and so forth?
I think though you have to really draw the line from disqualifying somebody exclusively because of their religion, or someone who is running has to separate themselves from some of the things that a particular church they belong to or a belief structure they belong to that isn’t a shared value of our country and that shouldn’t appropriately be put in front of the country in the context of legislation or a law.
ANTHONY BIRCHLEY, BBC: Senator, thank you. I think I might be going over Sally’s question a little bit –
KERRY: Does anybody go to church over there anymore?
BIRCHLEY: Well, this is actually one of the things I was going to bring up. A colleague of mine once went to ask Tony Blair about his religion and whether he had prayed with George Bush. And the prime minister’s press secretary took him aside and told him in no uncertain terms that “we don’t do God.”
KERRY: We don’t what?
BIRCHLEY: We don’t do God. Do you think in this country, politics would be easier, efficient, if this country didn’t “do God”? (Laughter.)
KERRY: Well, I don’t think we do God. I don’t know, I sort of resent – I don’t like the cynical, casual dismissal that is contained in that. I think that globally, there are unbelievable numbers of people of faith. And incidentally, there are many leaders from Europe and from Asia and elsewhere who come over here to our prayer breakfasts who may not be viewed as publicly – in Russia I’ve met with them, Russian leaders, others, who wish they had a greater level of practice of religion in their countries.
Does it complicate things? Of course it does; it always has. Since the beginning of time, it has complicated things. Go back to the Romans and their gods or the Greeks and their gods or the Aztecs or the Incas or anybody. Civilization has always struggled with the issue of creation.
It was very interesting – the Chinese have no theory of creationism. I don’t know how many of you know that. There is no theory of creationism in China or in Confucianism; it just isn’t there. We have always struggled with it. It’s one of the things, incidentally, that most convinces me personally about the existence –
Universe defined by God – I think people get all caught up in sort of the, is God truly interpersonal, and does he or she or whatever make a decision about every single prayer and every single thing that goes in? You can struggle with all those things. I have a different vision about it. But I have no question but that the forces of nature in their totality and the unanswerable questions of physics –
In fact, it is very interesting that many physicists, astrophysicists and others, who spend a lifetime trying to study the origins of the universe and the Big Bang theory and creation, etc., actually become more religious as they study rather than less because of the power of these unanswerables. Black holes in space with matter rushing 350,000 miles an hour into it that nobody knows where it goes; and it’s going on every minute, every day, all the time while you’re sitting here. Or the concept of beauty, or a host of other things, love, all these things that distinguish between people. I think they are very powerful arguments.
So I don’t get trapped into the sort of do we do it or don’t we do it? I’d rather have a better discussion about it. I know there are cynical people around who view it that way. Europe, obviously, has increasingly become a place with fewer practitioners, empty churches. I’ve been in some; I’ve seen them. It’s not the first go-around Europe has had with this kind of reaction. Nietzsche and early thinkers in the 19th century in Europe killed God abruptly and totally.
This has been a great tension in many parts of the world. It will continue to be long after we have gone. People make their bet. You can decide what you believe or don’t believe. But I don’t think one should question the legitimacy of people’s beliefs that way or be sort of dismissive of them.
BIRCHLEY: No, forgive me. I wasn’t trying to be that cynical, actually. I was just suggesting that when you are campaigning, would it not be easier if, in the back of your mind, you weren’t constantly – as Ray said – having to think about people’s religious views? Why can’t they just listen to the policies that you’d implement if you were president? Why can’t they just – what you are going to do rather than what you are –
KERRY: I didn’t think about that on an everyday basis, and I don’t think the people who are running out there now are either. I think that most of this is about policy, and most of the race is. There are these moments where it flashes up. It may be one question in a forum. Obviously, the abortion issue is the most contentious with respect to that particular possibility. But by and large, I just don’t see that. I don’t see it as a constant in the way that you’re framing it. I don’t think that it’s there.
ALLEN: But Senator, when you said, I think it’s perfectly legitimate for them to ask me what is my faith and what does that mean for policy. But isn’t the right answer when they ask it that way, my faith is my personal thing, but I will tell you what my policies will be however I’ve decided them.
KERRY: I think it depends on what they say to you, Jodie. If they ask you your faith in the context of that being the qualifier for your vote, I think there is a way to answer it. But if they’re asking you, are you a person of faith, or how does your faith inform your life, I think I was asked that question in a presidential debate as a matter – I think we were. It’s a fair question.
ALLEN: But it seems to me the answer you gave the cardinals was the right one. I have to decide on a policy. Here is the policy I’m going to decide on for a whole host of different reasons, both empirical and spiritual and so on. But don’t ask me what my faith dictates, because I’m a policymaker, not a religious leader.
KERRY: Well, faith shouldn’t dictate; faith should inform. And you make your choice with respect to what you do or don’t do. But coming back to the other, I think in my answer, I remember in the debate in Missouri I was asked by a young woman – it was the only question on abortion I think we had in three debates, incidentally. I would have loved to have had more than 90 seconds to explain my position to America why this is complicated and how we feel.
But I made it very clear that I separated that, what the faith said from the policy that I felt we had to do. It’s incumbent on a person running to draw those distinctions clearly so people aren’t confused about where you’re coming from. That’s a constant in the process. You can’t avoid that.
But I will tell you that I still think it’s perfectly legitimate for somebody to ask you, are you a person of faith? And how does that inform what you may or may not do as a president? Whether it’s war or the environment or women or children or whatever it is, I think that could be kind of interesting how it might inform you. It doesn’t mean you’re going to take the agenda and translate it into legislation. That never came up in my race, and I don’t see it coming up. I think most of the questions are what are you going to do about Iraq? How are you going to deal with the budget, Social Security, Medicare? That’s the things they really want to know.
But you’re asking somebody to be the leader of the free world and of your nation for four whole years. There is a lot of trust involved in that, and it is very legitimate for somebody to have a comfort level with your character in making that judgment. I tried to impress this in some of the folks working with me in that race – I always believed it was more about character than it was about a particular position on something. In the end mine was challenged through the Swift Boat stuff, and we could have done a better job of answering it.
DIONNE: I want to thank Sen. Kerry. I was sitting here thinking, it’s too bad Luis couldn’t have arranged in 2004 a debate between Sen. Kerry and President Bush just on religion. That would have been a lot of fun. Maybe you can do it in 2009. I was going to thank Sen. Kerry for doing God with us today. But instead, I will go to the scriptures where the believer is required to give an account of the faith that is in him. And I thank Sen. Kerry for doing that with us today. Thank you so much.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar by Amy Stern.