Ted Kennedy on Tolerance

By Edward M. Kennedy
Wednesday, August 26, 2009; 7:37 AM

Editor's note: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy delivered an extended version of this speech at Liberty Baptist College on Oct. 3, 1983. The Post published these excerpts later that week. We republish them today, along with several Kennedy opinions, on the occasion of Kennedy's death.

A generation ago, a presidential candidate had to prove his independence of undue religious influence in public life--and he had to do so partly at the insistence of evangelical Protestants. John Kennedy said at that time: "I believe in an America where there is no (religious) bloc voting of any kind." Only 20 years later another candidate was appealing to an evangelical meeting as a religious bloc. Ronald Reagan said to 15,000 evangelicals at the Roundtable in Dallas: "I know that you can't endorse me. I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing."

To many Americans, that pledge was a sign and a symbol of a dangerous breakdown in the separation of church and state. Yet this principle, as vital as it is, is not a simplistic and rigid command. . . .

The separation of church and state can sometimes be frustrating for women and men of deep religious faith. They may be tempted to misuse government in order to impose a value which they cannot persuade others to accept. But once we succumb to that temptation, we step onto a slippery slope where everyone's freedom is at risk. Those who favor censorship should recall that one of the first books ever burned was the first English translation of the Bible. As President Eisenhower warned in 1953, "Don't join the bookburners. . . . The right to say ideas, the right to record them, and the right to have them accessible to others is unquestioned--or this isn't America." And if that right is denied, at some future day the torch can be turned against any other book or any other belief. Let us never forget: today's Moral Majority could become tomorrow's persecuted minority.

The danger is as great now as when the Founders of the nation first saw it. In 1789, their fear was of factional strife among dozens of denominations. Today there are hundreds--and perhaps thousands of faiths--and millions of Americans who are outside any fold. Pluralism obviously does not and cannot mean that all of them are right; but it does mean that there are areas where government cannot and should not decide what it is wrong to believe, to think, to read and to do. . . .

The real transgression occurs when religion wants government to tell citizens how to live uniquely personal parts of their lives. The failure of Prohibition proves the futility of such an attempt when a majority or even a substantial minority happens to disagree. Some questions may be inherently individual ones or people may be sharply divided about whether they are. In such cases-- cases like Prohibition and abortion--the proper role of religion is to appeal to the conscience of the individual, not the coercive power of the state.

But there are other questions which are inherently public in nature, which we must decide together as a nation, and where religion and religious values can and should speak to our common conscience. The issue of nuclear war is a compelling example. It is a moral issue; it will be decided by government, not by each individual; and to give any effect to the moral values of their creed, people of faith must speak directly about public policy. The Catholic bishops and the Rev. Billy Graham have every right to stand for the nuclear freeze-- and Dr. Falwell has every right to stand against it.

There must be standards for the exerecise of such leadership--so that the obligations of belief will not be debased into an opportunity for mere political advantage. But to take a stand at all when a question is both properly public and truly moral is to stand in a long and honored tradition. Many of the great evangelists of the 1800s were in the forefront of the abolitionist movement. In our own time, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin challenged the morality of the war in Vietnam. Pope John XXIII renewed the Gospel's call to social justice. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was the greatest prophet of this century, awakened our national conscience to the evil of racial segregation. . . .

President Kennedy, who said that "no religious body should seek to impose its will," also urged religious leaders to state their views and give their commitment when the public debate involved ethical issues. In drawing the line between imposed will and essential witness, we keep church and state separate--and at the same time, we recognize that the City of God should speak to the civic duties of men and women.

There are four tests which draw that line and define the difference.

First, we must respect the integrity of religion itself.

People of conscience should be careful how they deal in the word of their Lord. In our own history, religion has been falsely invoked to sanction prejudice and even slavery, to condemn labor unions and public spending for the poor. I believe that the prophecy--"the poor you have always with you"--is an indictment, not a commandment. I respectfully suggest that God has taken no position on the Department of Education--and that a balanced- budget constitutional amendment is a matter for economic analysis, not heavenly appeals.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company