Text of John Kerry's Speech on Faith
The following are remarks on faith and values prepared for delivery by Senator John Kerry on Monday, Sept. 18 at Pepperdine University.
Thank you. It's wonderful to be here. For some time, I have looked forward to this opportunity to come here to talk about my faith, and the role of faith in public life. And I'm very grateful to Pepperdine -- an institution explicitly founded to shine the light of God's truth through the service of its graduates -- for giving me this opportunity.
There will always be those bent on corrupting our political discourse, particularly where religion is involved. But I learned how important it is to make certain people have a deeper understanding of the values that shape me and the faith that sustains me. Despite this New Englanders' past reticence of talking publicly about my faith, I learned that if I didn't fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me. I will never let that happen again -- and neither should you, because no matter your party, your ideology, or your faith, we are all done a disservice when the debate is reduced to ugly and untrue caricatures.
I was born, baptized, and raised a Catholic. Needless to say, my first and formative sense of religion came from my parents, Richard and Rosemary. My mother was a Protestant but went out of her way to see that I learned my catechism, attended Church, and prepared for First Communion. Both my parents taught me early on that we are all put on this earth for something greater than ourselves. Later, I was an altar boy at my Church. My parents taught me my faith and they taught me to live by it.
I went to a high school called St. Paul's, an Episcopal school where we attended chapel every morning and twice on Sundays in addition to the Catholic service in town which a group of us would go to. I studied religious studies and as you would imagine at a school called St. Paul's, became more than familiar with St. Paul's letters to just about everybody.
The Catholic church that I grew up with didn't focus on scripture the way we do today. The Mass was in Latin. But with the Second Vatican Council, that changed. Now, revised prayers for the Sacraments and other parts of the liturgy use Biblical language almost entirely. It elevates both our practice and our understanding of our faith. And despite our continued historical and theological differences, it has helped to emphasize what unites Christian churches rather than what divides them. The long and short of it is that today we are far more "Bible"-focused and knowledgeable based on several clear principles, chief among them the centrality of Jesus.
I confronted my own mortality head-on during the Vietnam War, where faith was as much a part of my daily life as the battle itself. But I have to say that in retrospect my relationship with God was a dependent one -- a "God -- get me through this and I'll be good" -- relationship. As I became disillusioned with the war, my faith was also put to the test. For me, war was a difficult place for faith to grow. Some of my closest friends were killed. I saw things that disturb me to this day. Theologians often talk about "the problem of evil," the difficulty of explaining why terrible and senseless events are part of God's plan. In combat, you confront the problem of evil in an up-front and personal way that is hard for others to fully understand.
So, yes, I prayed hard while I was in Vietnam and I made it back, but the experience, the "problem of evil," took some time to reconcile. When I returned stateside, I went through a period of alienation. I was inspired by the Christian moral witness of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement, Reverend William Sloane Coffin in the peace movement and other voices of Christian conscience. But still I was searching -- somewhat spiritually adrift, unsure of my relationship with God and the Church.
Within the Catholic Church, we talk about being born Catholic -- but as in any faith community, there's a moment when you first consciously choose whether to fully participate in your heritage, or look elsewhere. For me that came a number of years later after the war.
For twelve years I wandered in the wilderness, went through a divorce and struggled with questions about my direction. Then suddenly and movingly, I had a revelation about the connection between the work I was doing as a public servant and my formative teachings. Indeed, the scriptures provided a firmer guide about values applied to life -- many of the things you are wrestling with now today.
I remember how difficult it was to be your age -- so many decisions to work out, such a tangle of choices and possibilities, whose consequences seem unknowable -- and yet life-shaping. For you here at Pepperdine, it's a time when you're exploring your commitment to God, embarking on a journey to figure out how to lead a good life, how to translate your values -- who you love, what you are passionate about, how you worship -- how you translate that into the daily fabric of your existence.
One of my favorite passages from scripture, a familiar story from the Gospel According to Mark 10:35-45, sheds a lot of light for me on how to translate my faith into action.