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Text of John Kerry's Speech on Faith

John Kerry Campaign
Monday, September 18, 2006 8:00 PM

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.

The Apostles James and John ask their teacher Jesus if they can sit, one at his right hand and one at his left hand, and bask in his glory. They want to be seen as first among the disciples. And Jesus tells them, while they can drink from his cup and share in the baptism, the special position they want isn't his to grant -- it's only for those who are up to the task.

When the other ten disciples heard about James and John's request, they were angry. And so Jesus gathered them all together and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

This is the third time Jesus' disciples have misunderstood the nature of their discipleship in the Gospel of Mark. And I suppose you could say that James and John are trying to become the first political appointees in the New Testament -- trying to get special favors for their proximity to power.

But Jesus responds with an essential lesson. He contrasts greatness in the Kingdom of God with Roman political power. While greatness in the Roman Empire is based on brute force -- lording it over those less fortunate for the worst possible reason -- simply because you can, greatness in the Kingdom of God is based on humble service, on being servant to all."

Those lines in Mark had a profound impact on me: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve." Well, I consider public leadership to be a form of Christian service and an expression of my faith. I believe the most important teaching of the Gospels is that it is not enough just to say one believes in Jesus. Believing in Jesus requires action -- it requires a bona fide effort -- commitment to live in the example of Jesus and nowhere in my judgment is the expectation of service more clearly stated than in Matthew 25:34:

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."

So it is important for me to share with you how we might move from the example of Jesus as a servant into addressing the pressing needs of our time. The Catholic Bishops in their 2004 election guide provided great spiritual wisdom and guidance as they set forth a series of questions about expectations in public life.

I think they are questions any Christian needs to wrestle with:

1. After September 11, how can we build not only a safer world, but a better world -- more just, more secure, more peaceful, more respectful of human life and dignity?

2. How will we protect the weakest in our midst -- innocent unborn children? How will our nation resist what Pope John Paul II calls a "culture of death"? How can we keep our nation from turning to violence to solve some of its most difficult problems -- abortion to deal with difficult pregnancies; the death penalty to combat crime; euthanasia and assisted suicide to deal with the burdens of age, illness, and disability; and war to address international disputes?

3. How will we address the tragic fact that more than 30,000 children die every day as a result of hunger, international debt, and lack of development around the world, as well as the fact that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be poor here in the richest nation on earth?

4. How can our nation help parents raise their children with respect for life, sound moral values, a sense of hope, and an ethic of stewardship and responsibility? How can our society defend the central institution of marriage and better support families in their moral roles and responsibilities, offering them real choices and financial resources to obtain quality education and decent housing?

5. How will we address the growing number of families and individuals without affordable and accessible health care? How can health care better protect human life and respect human dignity?

6. How will our society combat continuing prejudice, overcome hostility toward immigrants and refugees, and heal the wounds of racism, religious bigotry, and other forms of discrimination?

7. How will our nation pursue the values of justice and peace in a world where injustice is common, desperate poverty widespread, and peace is too often overwhelmed by violence?

8. What are the responsibilities and limitations of families, community organizations, markets, and government? How can these elements of society work together to overcome poverty, pursue the common good, care for creations, and overcome injustice?

9. When should our nation use, or avoid the use of, military force -- for what purpose, under what authority, and at what human cost?

10. How can we join with other nations to lead the world to greater respect for human life and dignity, religious freedom and democracy, economic justice and care for God's creation?

I believe these questions can be gathered around four issues where people of faith from every background can work together with other people of good will towards public policies that contribute to the common good.

The first and perhaps most obvious common challenge is to take practical steps to address global issues of poverty, disease, and despair.

The cares of the poor and the troubled should be the focus of all our work.

Today extreme poverty shackles one sixth of the globe's population, one-fifth lack access to safe drinking water. Here in America twenty one percent of our children live in poverty. Eleven million under 21 don't have health insurance. Thirty thousand children worldwide perish each day because of hunger and disease attributable to poverty.

A few weeks ago, we passed the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

And, amidst the howling wind and rushing flood waters, you could practically feel Americans' emotional recognition -- our shock -- at just how far we still have to climb to fulfill our Christian responsibility to care for the worst off among us. Jesus told us "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me," but when the great flood of our time came, we weren't ready. Interestingly, the most rapid and effective response came from the faith community, but as a country, we left people to die on rooftops and in hospital beds. The failure should sting and it should shame all of us, but it should also bring a renewed sense of mission: We've lapsed in our covenant between the people and the government, between rich and poor people and between rich and poor countries, that nobody should be left behind. No American, no country, no human being.

You -- each of you -- can do something about this and get involved in a multitude of ways including joining something like the ONE Campaign. And for those who ask the inevitable question, 'why does that matter to me here at home as a citizen of our country?' With the right political leadership, we can end extreme poverty in your lifetime if we commit the resources to do it.

Evangelical Christians have honored the best traditions of Christianity and of patriotism in tirelessly fighting to end the genocide in Darfur. I've often referred to the words of the Epistle of St. James 2:17: "faith without works is dead" -- and Christian work in Darfur -- day in and day out to make sure that "never again" isn't just a convenient lie we tell ourselves to sleep better at night- is the embodiment of that Christian -- of that American -- ideal.

Christians like Rick Warren are also working to fight AIDS. How can we sit idly by when this plague of our time sweeps across the world? How can we not do everything in our power to make sure that our life-saving treatments are spread far and wide to those in need? There are forty million cases today, and last year 3 million people died from AIDS. Jesus did not "heal the sick" only if they had the money to pay for it, only if they could afford antiretroviral drugs -- no, he sought out people in need. And we need to do the same today.

A second common challenge arises from the deep concern virtually all people of faith are enjoined to maintain toward sustaining and protecting God's first creation. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians 10:20 says, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything on it." The Prophet Isaiah (66:2) says, "has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?"

These days we face problems on a biblical scale -- floods, storms, plagues, the destruction of entire cities. And it is my belief that confronting manmade climate change is, in the long run, one of the greatest challenges we face.

Evangelicals talk about "creation-care" -- that any damage that we do to God's world is an offense against God. God called us to be stewards of the earth and its creatures, and since most of the climate change problem is human induced, its' pretty clear that we haven't done that good of a job.

The warnings are loud and clear for all to see -- rising waters, melting caps, storms of ever-greater proportions, and ironclad scientific evidence.

Surely this is an issue where people of faith can come together and demand action. I can assure you, when I cast a vote in the Senate on environmental issues, I try to act as a steward of the earth.

A third area where we can find common ground is on one of the most emotional cultural issues of all: abortion. Obviously the issue of abortion has been enormously divisive, but there is also no denying there is common ground. There are 1.3 million abortions each year in America.

Everyone can agree that that is too many and on a shared goal of reducing the need for abortion in the first place. And I believe our first step is to unite and accept the responsibility of making abortion rare by focusing on prevention and by supporting pregnant women and new parents.

Even as a supporter of Roe V. Wade, I am compelled to acknowledge that the language both sides use on this subject can be unfortunately misleading and unconstructive. Unfortunately, this debate has been framed in an overly partisan setting with excessive language on both sides -- none of which does justice to the depth of moral conviction held by all. There's been demonization rather than debate. Distrust rather than discussion. Everyone is worse off for it. Instead of making enemies, we need to make progress.

What would progress look like? Many people are surprised to learn that the most dramatic decline in America's abortion rate took place under the last Democratic administration when poverty declined, more people graduated from college, employment grew at record rates, and the economy grew at record levels. Unfortunately, the economic policies of these last six years increase the pressure on women with unplanned pregnancies to seek abortions.

In addition to focusing on policies that will prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place, I believe we should also embrace and expand a proven set of economic measures to again make significant progress on reducing the number of abortions in America. This would mean raising the minimum wage, expanding educational opportunity, giving tax credits for domestic adoptions, providing universal health insurance, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and expanding federally funded child care.

The fourth and final example of where people of faith should accept a common challenge is perhaps the most difficult and essential of all:

rekindling a faith-based debate on the issues of war and peace. All our different faiths, whatever their philosophical differences, have a universal sense of values, ethics, and moral truths that honor and respect the dignity of all human beings. They all agree on a form of the Golden Rule and the Supreme importance of charity and compassion.

We are more than just Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims or atheists: we are human beings. We are more than the sum of our differences -- we share a moral obligation to treat one another with dignity and respect -- and the rest is commentary. Nowhere does this obligation arise more unavoidably than in when and how to resort to war.

Christians have long struggled to balance the legitimate need for self-defense with our highest ideals of justice and personal morality.

Saint Augustine laid the foundation for a compelling philosophical tradition considering how and when Christians should fight.

Augustine felt that wars of choice are generally unjust wars, that war -- the organized killing of human beings, of fathers, brothers, friends -- should always be a last resort, that war must always have a just cause, that those waging war need the right authority to do so, that a military response must be proportionate to the provocation, that a war must have a reasonable chance of achieving its goal and that war must discriminate between civilians and combatants.

In developing the doctrine of Just War, Augustine and his many successors viewed self-restraint in warfare as a religious obligation, not as a pious hope contingent on convincing one's adversaries to behave likewise.

Throughout the centuries there have been Christian political leaders who argued otherwise; who contended that observing Just War principles was weak, naïve, or even cowardly.

It's in Americas' interests to maintain our unquestionable moral authority -- and we risk losing it when leaders make excuses for the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo or when an Administration lobbies for torture.

For me, the just war criteria with respect to Iraq are very clear:

sometimes a President has to use force to fight an enemy bent on using weapons of mass destruction to slaughter innocents. But no President should ever go to war because they want to -- you go to war only because you have to.

The words "last resort" have to mean something .

In Iraq, those words were rendered hollow. It was wrong to prosecute the war without careful diplomacy that assembled a real coalition. Wrong to prosecute war without a plan to win the peace and avoid the chaos of looting in Baghdad and streets full of raw sewage. Wrong to prosecute a war without considering the violence it would unleash and what it would do to the lives of innocent people who would be in danger.

People of faith obviously don't have to agree with me about how we keep America safe, how we prevail over terrorists, or how we end our disastrous adventure in Iraq. But I do hope people of faith step up to the challenge of rejecting the idea that obedience to God somehow stops when the fighting starts. We need a revival of the debate over what constitutes Just Wars and how they must be conducted, and all people of faith, whatever their political allegiances, should participate in the debate.

I lay out these four great challenges -- fighting poverty and disease, taking care of the earth, reducing abortions, and fighting only just wars -- as godly tasks on which we can transcend the culture wars and reach common ground.

And for all the anger and fear so often expressed about the intersection of politics and religion, I believe that a vision of public service based upon serving rather than being served is ultimately a vision of hope and not despair. The Scripture says, again and again, "be not afraid." God is not through with humanity. Shame on us if we use our faith to divide and alienate people from one another or if we draft God into partisan service.

Shame on us if we sow fear for our own advantage. As God gives us the ability to see, let us take up the tasks associated with loving our neighbors as ourselves. We can take up God's work as our own. The call of Jesus, and of every great religious leader, to everyone is one of service to all and not the pursuit of power. Each of us needs to do our best to answer that call, and help each other hear it in a common spirit of obedience, humility and love.

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