John Kerry's religion problem -- and the Catholic Democrat who can help him solve it
By Scott Stossel | May 23, 2004
JOHN KERRY HAS a religion problem. Forty-four years after John F. Kennedy defied centuries of anti-Catholic prejudice to become the first man of his faith to be elected president of the United States, Kerry -- set to become only the third Catholic in American history to be selected as a major party's presidential nominee -- is now struggling, as Kennedy did in 1960, to overcome questions about his religious beliefs.
But Kerry's struggle is quite different from Kennedy's. To begin with, Catholic voters as a group are no longer reliably Democratic. In 1963, Kennedy received an estimated 80 percent of the Catholic vote, but today's polls show Catholic voters evenly divided between Kerry and George W. Bush. What's more, whereas Kennedy was attacked by Protestants who worried that his religion would inappropriately affect his politics, John Kerry is being attacked by Catholics who feel that his politics have inappropriately affected his religion.
For several months now, some Cardinals and bishops -- backed by a chorus of Kerry's conservative critics -- have been saying that the junior Massachusetts senator's political stances, most notably his strong support for abortion rights, make him unfit to receive Holy Communion. (Governor Jim McGreevey of New Jersey, like Kerry a pro-choice Catholic Democrat, has bowed to similar pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, saying he will nolonger take Communion in public.) New York newspapers have reported that Kerry might not be invited to the Archdiocese of New York's annual Al Smith dinner in October -- an essential campaign whistlestop, where presidential candidates are the quadrennial guests of honor -- because his pro-choice position deviates from the Church's moral teaching. In response to all this, several dozen Catholic Democrats in Congress signed a letter earlier this month to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., accusing Kerry's more outspoken critics within the Catholic hierarchy of politicizing the Eucharist and "miring the Church in partisan politics."
Kerry has famously styled himself after his political idol Kennedy -- from his wartime valor to his hairstyle to his often-cited initials "JFK." But when it comes to balancing faith and politics, a more instructive model for both Kerry and his critics may be Kennedy's brother-in-law Sargent Shriver. The husband of Jack's younger sister Eunice, Shriver is the man who, among other things, ran the "talent hunt" in the selection of Kennedy's cabinet, served as founding director of the Peace Corps, led the War on Poverty, served as ambassador to France under both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and was George McGovern's vice-presidential running mate in 1972. Though he was never elected to national office, Shriver's career puts the lie to the idea that you can't be both a good Catholic and a good Democrat.
hen John Kennedy ran for president in 1960, the odds against a Catholic winning the Democratic nomination -- much less the presidency -- seemed long. Ever since Herbert Hoover's thumping defeat of the Catholic Al Smith 32 years earlier, it had been an article of faith (among Catholics and non-Catholics alike) that there would never be a Catholic president. Virulent anti-Catholic bigotry was still rampant in parts of the country. Campaigning in the West Virginia primary against Hubert Humphrey, Kennedy was compelled to go on local television and promise that his first loyalty would be to the Constitution, not the Pope.
Several months later, Kennedy gave his famous speech at Rice University to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," Kennedy declared. "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me."
While that speech may have satisfied the Protestant mainstream, Kennedy's Catholicism was still an issue for Catholics -- perhaps the decisive one. In an extremely tight race, the overwhelming support Kennedy received from his fellow Catholics may have been a crucial factor in propelling him to victory over Richard Nixon. By 1960, there were more than 40 million Catholics in this country, and it is estimated that 8 out of 10 of Catholic voters (comprising nearly 40 percent of the total Democratic vote) went for Kennedy, which would easily account for his total margin of victory nationwide.
In part the strong Catholic support for Kennedy reflected a kind of sectarian pride. But Kennedy's overwhelming victory among his coreligionists was also the result of a long-coalescing electoral trend that had accelerated during the New Deal: the emergence of Catholics as a fairly monolithic voting bloc within the Democratic Party. In the 1930s, many Catholics were recent immigrants concentrated in working-class neighborhoods in Northeastern and Midwestern cities, and were therefore a natural part of FDR's New Deal coalition. Moreover, there was a thematic link between Catholic social teachings and Democratic Party views on social welfare. Roosevelt even went so far as to say that some of his New Deal programs had been inspired by papal encyclicals.
Kennedy's victory not only proved that a Catholic can be elected president; it also helped demonstrate how influential the Catholic vote can be in determining election outcomes. With only three exceptions since 1932 (Dwight Eisenhower's victory in 1952, Richard Nixon's victory in 1968, and George H.W. Bush's victory in 1988), as goes the Catholic vote so goes the nation. But today's Catholic voters aren't nearly as monolithic a bloc as they once were. Abortion has splintered the Catholic vote and made it much more difficult for Kerry and other pro-choice Catholic Democrats to negotiate the terrain where politics and faith intersect.
hough it took Roe v. Wade in 1973 to turn abortion into an acute conundrum for Catholic candidates, the issue had begun to arise as early as the 1950s. By 1964, when Bobby Kennedy ran for the Senate from New York and Ted Kennedy was running for reelection to the Senate from Massachusetts, the prevailing social consensus against legal abortion had begun to erode in the face of the dawning sexual revolution and advances in medical technology, most notably the development of prenatal testing for birth defects.
Yet despite some de facto softening of the Catholic view on abortion as a medical necessity, the official stance of the Church had remained essentially unchanged since 1930, the year Pope Pius XI condemned all abortions and forbade Catholic physicians to abort fetuses even to save the life of a mother.
In 1964, it probably would have been easier just to avoid the problem. But the Kennedy family -- wanting to be both good Catholics and good Democrats -- was eager to come up with a stance on abortion that would reflect the changing mores of the times yet still be in keeping with Catholic moral teachings. Or rather, one of them was. In the summer of that year, Sargent Shriver convened a meeting of the country's leading Catholic theologians (as well as at least one expert on obstetrics and fetal physiology) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port to brief his brothers-in-law on the latest Catholic thinking on the issue.
Shriver's role made sense: Not only was he among the most religiously devout members of the extended Kennedy family, but he had himself -- both in his work on the Peace Corps and in the War on Poverty -- been forced to wrestle on occasion with thorny church-state issues that pitted his Catholic faith against his government responsibilities. Though Shriver the Catholic strongly believed both abortion and artificial birth control to be immoral, Shriver the public servant was scrupulous about never imposing his personal religious views on the federal agencies he oversaw.
As director of the Peace Corps, for instance, Shriver had had to testify before Congress in defense of volunteers' teaching contraceptive use in developing countries. And in 1964, shortly after being named head of the War on Poverty, Shriver was asked on "Meet the Press" whether there would be a place in his program for the use of birth control in reducing family size among the poor. This was treacherous ground, yet Shriver responded shrewdly. He acknowledged that there was an obvious correlation between family size and education level (and therefore income level), but said that "this is a program that depends upon local initiative, local ideas, and local solutions." Birth control policy, in other words, would not be dictated by fiat from Washington.
Some 30 years later, when asked to explain his position on family planning as director of the War on Poverty, Shriver would say, "I have been opposed to family planning since they started it. And I'm opposed to it now. But I authorized the funding [for family planning programs]. A lot of Catholics objected. They were disappointed that I would do that. But . . . I could not force upon people the dogma of the Catholic Church through the use of public monies."
At the 1964 meeting in Hyannis Port, sitting on Bobby Kennedy's porch overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Catholic theologians and moralists expressed a wide array of views on how a good Catholic politician should deal with abortion and other vexing issues. Shriver chaired the meeting, and according to Albert Jonsen, then a young theologian at the University of San Francisco, the consensus view that emerged that day was best articulated by Father Robert Drinan, the dean of Boston College Law School, who would go on to serve as a congressman from Massachusetts, and Father Richard McCormack, an influential professor at the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago.
Drinan and McCormack conceded that there is often a wide gap between what is morally right and what is legislatively feasible. Abortion, as McCormack would later write, should therefore be "legally acceptable if the alternative is tragedy, but unacceptable if the alternative is mere inconvenience." This became, in essence, the stance adopted by Bobby and Ted for their campaigns that year. (Ted Kennedy has since adopted a more aggressively pro-choice perspective.)
f this represented a kind of modus vivendi between Democratic politicians and the Catholic Church, it wouldn't last long. The breaking apart of the Catholic voting bloc probably became inevitable when, in the spring of 1967, Colorado, North Carolina, and California became the first states to significantly relax their prohibitions on abortion.
The state-level reforms enacted in 1967 were in fact by today's standards quite modest (permitting abortions only in the case of rape or incest, or when the mother's physical or mental health was threatened, or if there was a serious risk that the baby would be born deformed). But they provoked alarm among socially conservative Catholics -- including Eunice and Sargent Shriver, who in response to these developments convened the first-ever international conference on abortion, held in Washington in September 1967.
The social conservatives' concern was warranted. On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that states could not restrict the right of a woman to abort a fetus in the first trimester of pregnancy. To Catholics who believed that the soul is formed at conception, the idea that a fetus was not a person under the Constitution was morally repugnant. During his 1976 campaign for president, Shriver would declare that "the reasoning of the majority of the Supreme Court decision [in Roe v. Wade] was neither convincing nor even in accord with contemporary scientific information about genetic and biological beginnings of life and its developmental process."
Significantly, however, Shriver also said that although he was "strongly opposed to abortion -- ethically, morally, intellectually, emotionally," as president he would be oath-bound "to uphold the laws the land."
Shriver's skillful balancing of faith and politics did not go unnoticed. "Sargent Shriver is a Roman Catholic candidate of an unfamiliar sort," a reporter commented in 1972, "a man who slips quietly out to Mass many mornings of the campaign and works a little harder because of the thought that a good day's effort can be a form of prayer."
Though Shriver attended Mass every single day and always carried a set of rosary beads with him, and even quoted his favorite Catholic theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his nomination acceptance speech at the 1972 Democratic convention, he never brought up his religion unless he was asked. When he did he would not tie religion directly to public policy but rather would frankly explain the ways in which his religious faith informed his worldview and affected his ideas about social justice.
"Take the phrase, `All men are created equal,"' he said. "The most obvious thing in the world is that they are not. Some men are tall, some are short, some are gifted, some aren't, so the phrase is meaningful only in terms of our ultimate destiny. It's a fraud if you don't believe in the world of the spirit."
During the 1972 campaign, some of Shriver's aides -- and his own wife -- encouraged him to take a tougher stance against abortion. But Shriver dutifully toed the Democratic rhetorical line, arguing that the state should not legislate personal morality. To those who would question the depth of his support of the Democratic position, Shriver would respond, "I do not waver in my belief that abortion is wrong. But nor do I waver in my belief in the separation of church and state, and in the plurality of our society, and will not impose my own moral claims over the will of the democratic majority."
John Kerry may not share Shriver's staunch personal opposition to abortion, and he's unlikely to cite his favorite Catholic theologian in his expected nomination speech in Boston this July. But he would do well to study Shriver's balancing act. And so, especially, would Kerry's critics.
Scott Stossel is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly and the author of "Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver," which has just been published by Smithsonian Books.
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