Sunday, May 16, 2004

Kennedy and His Church

President Kennedy has been much and often praised lately because he indicated that religion was a private matter and would not affect his presidential decision making.It is the right way to relate religion and politics say the commentators. I think Kennedy's position is profoundly ambiguous and deeply flawed.

Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 at a time when his Catholicism had raised questions about his full adherence to the separation of church and state, John F. Kennedy said that church-state issues were not the most important matters. The real concerns were "the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms -- an America with too many slums, with too few schools." These "are not religious issues -- for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers." He asserted that religion is a private matter. He went on to assure the Baptists in this way:

Whatever issues may come before me as President -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision . . . in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.

To steal from Immanuel Kant, we have here a "nest of dialectical difficulties." Let us analyze these assertions one by one.

1. Kennedy says hunger, health care, war, and the like are not religious issues because they "know no religious barriers." If he means that all great religions urge care and compassion for the needy, that is true. Perhaps he means also that non-religious people may be in favor of feeding the hungry. In any case, that does not mean that they are "not religious issues." Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism all think they are. Jesus certainly thought feeding the hungry was central to faith in God. Matthew 25:31-46 makes it clear that one's eternal destiny depends on just such things.

2. Kennedy further states that religion is "a private matter." If he means that religion is a matter of inward piety and love of God in the hearts of individual persons, that cannot be disputed. But that does not mean that trust in God has no essential connection with morality, social ethics, or politics. Inward, private piety has ethical and social consequences. Individual religion has political implications. The prophets of Israel left no doubt about that.

3. Finally, Kennedy says that he will be guided by his own conscience and that he will not be dictated to by religious authorities. If he means that he will not let Catholic Bishops or the Pope or church dogma dictate his political choices, that is worthy and commendable. But we are entitled to ask what informs his conscience. If it is not in some significant way guided by his religion, then he has some explaining to do about what does inform his politics. Morality and social ethics rest on something, depend on some set of assumptions about right and wrong, good and evil. If his conscience is not guided at all by his religion, then we need to ask what kind of religion he has or is referring to. It does not sound like the Roman Catholic Christianity he professes to believe. Kennedy says he will be guided by what his conscience tells him is the "national interest." But is the national interest totally devoid of moral considerations? I hope not.

Kennedy wants to assert his unqualified belief in the separation of church and state, but he gets tripped up by seeming to confuse this with religion and politics. Given the setting, it may be that the main point he wanted to make was his independence of church authorities and Catholic dogma in governing the country. Perhaps he feared that any mention of a connection between his religious faith and his moral commitments might intensify the problem he was trying to get out of the way. Nevertheless, the statements quoted show little understanding of the complex relation between faith, conscience, morality, and social ethics. They show no awareness that in biblical religion ones relation to God has consequences for how we treat other people, especially the weak, the outcasts, and the sick and hungry. In our time and society that necessarily has a political dimension, since we have to ask what we can do together as a nation to help the helpless, seek peace among nations, and promote justice for all. A purely private, inward piety that does not have social and political implications is not one, I hope, that upon reflection Mr. Kennedy would want to defend.

The missing ingredient, I would urge, is that he should acknowledge that his religion has political consequence but that he would express the implications of his private faith in language and values located in secular American history and traditions, especially those articulated in the founding documents. He should state them as American ideas and ideals not in theological or religious or Catholic terms. This assumes, of course, that there is sufficient congruity between Christian faith and secular American ideals to allow this proposition to work. I assert that there is. In fact, one of the sources of the values enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is the Bible.

These simple distinctions and clarifications are absent in most politicians and journalists. They have simplistic views that will not stand close scrutiny in terms of a sophisticated and defensible understanding of the relation of private religious faith to public political policy.

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