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Tolerance and Truth

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.

Religious values cannot be excluded from every public issue--but not every public issue involves religious values. . . .

Second, we must respect the independent judgments of conscience.

Those who proclaim moral and religious values can offer counsel, but they should not casually treat a position on a public issue as a test of fealty to faith. Just as I disagree with the Catholic bishops on tuition tax credits--which I oppose --so other Catholics can and do disagree with the hierarchy, on the basis of honest conviction, on the question of the nuclear freeze.

Thus, the controversy about the Moral Majority arises not only from its views, but from its name-- which, in the minds of many, seems to imply thattonly one set of public policies is moral--and only one majority can possibly be right. . . .

Let me offer another illustration. Dr. Falwell has written: "To stand against Israel is to stand against God." Now, there is no one in the Senate who has stood more firmly for Israel than I have. Yet I do not doubt the faith of those on the other side. Their error is not one of religion, but of policy--and I hope to persuade them that they are wrong in terms of both America's interests and the justice of Israel's cause.

Respect for conscience is most in jeopardy-- and the harmony of our diverse society is most at risk--when we re-establish, directly or indirectly, a religious test for public office. That relic of the colonial era, which is specifically prohibited in the Constitution, has reappeared in recent years. After the last election, the Rev. James Robison warned President Reagan not to surround himself, as presidents before him had, "with the counsel of the ungodly." I utterly reject any such standard for any position anywhere in public service. Two centuries ago, the victims were Catholics and Jews. In the 1980s, the victims could be atheists; in some other day or decade, they could be the members of the Thomas Road Baptist Church. Indeed, in 1976 I regarded it as unworthy and un-American when some people said or hinted that Jimmy Carter should not be president because he was a born-again Christian.

We must never judge the fitness of individuals to govern on the basis of where they worship, whether they follow Christ or Moses, whether they are called "born again" or "ungodly." Where it is right to apply moral values to public life, let all of us avoid the temptation to be self-righteous and absolutely certain of ourselves. And if that temptation ever comes, let us recall Winston Churchill's humbling description of an intolerant and inflexible colleague: "There but for the grace of God--goes God."

Third, in applying religious values, we must respect the integrity of public debate.

In that debate, faith is no substitute for facts. Critics may oppose the nuclear freeze for what they regar Jr.,d as moral reasons. They have every right to argue that any negotiation with the Soviets is wrong--or that any accommodation with them sanctions their crimes--or that no agreement can be good enough and therefore all agreements only increase the chance of war. I do not believe that, but it surely does not violate the standard of fair public debate to say it.

What does violate that standard, what the opponents of the nuclear freeze have no right to do, is to assume that they are infallible--and so any argument against the freeze will do, whether it is false or true.

The nuclear freeze proposal is not unilateral, but bilateral--with equal restraints on the United States and the Soviet Union.

The nuclear freeze does not require that we trust the Russians, but demands full and effective verification.

The nuclear freeze does not concede a Soviet lead in nuclear weapons, but recognizes that human beings in each great power already have in their fallible hands the overwhelming capacity to remake into a pile of radioactive rubble the earth which God has made. . . .

I am perfectly prepared to debate the nuclear freeze on policy grounds, or moral ones. But we should not be forced to discuss phantom issues or false charges. They only deflect us from the urgent task of deciding how best to prevent a planet divided from becoming a planet destroyed. . . .

Fourth and finally, we must respect the motives of those who exercise their right to disagree.

We sorely test our ability to live together if we too readily question each other's integrity. It may be harder to restrain our feelings when moral principles are at stake--for they go to the deepest wellsprings of our being. But the more our feelings diverge, the more deeply felt they are, the greater is our obligation to grant the sincerity and essential decency of our fellow citizens on the other side.

Those who favor the Equal Rights Amendment are not "anti-family" or "blasphemers" and their purpose is not "an attack on the Bible." Rather we believe this is the best way to fix in our national firmament the ideal that not only all men, but all people are created equal. Indeed, my mother--who strongly favors ERA--would be surprised to hear that she is anti-family. For my part, I think of the amendment's opponents as wrong on the issue, but not as lacking in moral character.

I could multiply the instances of name-calling, sometimes on both sides. Dr. Falwell is not a "warmonger"--and "liberal clergymen" are not, as the Moral Majority suggested in a recent letter, equivalent to "Soviet sympathizers." The critics of official prayer in public schools are not "Pharisees"; many of them are both civil libertarians and believers who think that families should pray more at home with their children and attend church and synagogue more faithfully. And people are not "sexist" because they stand against abortion; they are not "murderers" because they believe in free choice. Nor does it help anyone's cause to shout such epithets--or try to shout a speaker down--which is what happened last April when Dr. Falwell was hissed and heckled at Harvard. So I am doubly grateful for your courtesy here today. That was not Harvard's finest hour, but I am happy to say that the loudest applause from the Harvard audience came in defense of Dr. Falwell's right to speak.

In short, I hope for an America where neither fundamentalist nor humanist will be a dirty word, but a fair description of the different ways in which people of good will look at life and into their own souls.

I hope for an America where no president, no public official, and no individual will ever be deemed a greater or lesser American because of religious doubt--or religious belief.

I hope for an America where the power of faith will always burn brightly--but where no modern Inquisition of any kind will ever light the fires of fear, coercion or angry division.

I hope for an America where we can all contend freely and vigorously--but where we will treasure and guard those standards of civility which alone make this nation safe for both democracy and diversity. . . .

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