Senator Kerry on the Place of Religion in America
by John Shelby Spong
July 30, 2004
For my column this week I have written a speech on the place of religion in American life that I would like to see Senator John Kerry make as part of his campaign for the presidency of the United States. I also delivered this speech in this format to a gathering of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in the Old South Church in Boston on Tuesday, July 27, 2004.
Because this column is longer than usual, I will omit the question and answer feature this week only.
-- John Shelby Spong
My Fellow Americans:
In this campaign it has become apparent to me that most people in our country take seriously the faith and religious convictions of the candidates seeking the presidency. I cannot imagine it to be otherwise when those beliefs have an enormous impact on how either one of us will relate to the great moral choices of our day and the context out of which we will make the decisions of government.
As most of you know I was raised as a Christian in the Roman Catholic tradition. My faith has been a central part of my life, from my childhood days as an altar boy to my service in Vietnam, to the shaping of the values of my public life both as a prosecuting attorney and as a senator. At the heart of those values is the call to recognize the image of God in every person I meet and every citizen I serve. My wife and I are today active participants in our parish church. But while I respect, honor and seek personally to live by the teachings of my church, I think it is important to assure all Americans that I will never seek to impose my church's teachings upon the body politic of my nation. My respect for the pluralistic nature of American society is far too great for that. There are even some in the hierarchy of my own church who are uncomfortable with this commitment of mine, but it is to me an unwavering principle that I will never compromise. I am confident that most people even in my own Church understand and appreciate that position.
From the earliest days of America's discovery, this nation's Christian roots have been clear. No one should ever seek to deny or to diminish this part of our heritage. These welcoming shores have always been a haven for the persecuted. The first Christians who came to settle this land were religious refugees seeking a place where they were free to worship as they believed they should. They were Puritans in Massachusetts, Anglicans in Virginia, Catholics in Maryland and Quakers in Pennsylvania. Almost always what they were fleeing was some governmentally imposed religious authority. This nation promised these people that in this new world of hope, freedom of religion would always be guaranteed. Even though most of our citizens at that time were Christians, there has never been a desire to impose any one version of that faith on our people.
As the world has grown smaller, that promise has served us well since religious diversity today means something more than choosing between competing Christian denominations. In the last two centuries our country has been privileged to welcome and incorporate into our expanding and free society, people who worship as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus as well as people of no religious persuasion at all. We also absorbed some of the spirituality of our Native American population. Our ability to accommodate this wonderful diversity, was a result of the genius of our founding fathers who created a constitution which established no religion but which guaranteed to all religious freedom. I am deeply committed to that principle, because it is basic to my vision of America.
Because religion is at the heart of our identity as human beings, religious issues are always emotional. That has been true since the dawn of time. It is still true today. Sometimes these issues have been so intense that they divided not just our communities of faith, but the whole nation as well, creating passionate controversy. Today we think of the debate that revolves around reproductive rights, birth control, family planning and abortion. Another fierce conflict is present in the current political and ecclesiastical discussions about how our gay and lesbian citizens are treated before the bar of justice and how they are welcomed and included generally in our society and churches.
Religious division also swirls around the place of prayer and sex education in our public schools, the use of capital punishment and even the proper way to seek to build a peaceful world. Many of our citizens, led by their deep and honorable convictions, challenge our nation today about basic fairness in all areas of our corporate life: fairness in the payment of taxes, fairness in the opportunities available to all our citizens in education and fairness in our willingness to provide health care for all our people. They believe, as I do, that both the burdens this nation imposes and the freedoms this nation offers should be equally available to all our citizens. Each of these issues has profound religious significance. The first thing a competent, as well as a compassionate government, must do is to be aware that these strong feelings exist, then to listen to the voices of those who raise them and finally to work to bring, if not consensus, then at least civility to our debate about how this nation will proceed on each of these questions. My guiding principle as your President will be to recognize that while some values may from time to time be in conflict among our citizens, the ultimate value of human dignity for all people must never be allowed to be compromised in anything that we do.
When one moves to the world scene one does not have to look far to see that religion has sometimes been used in the past, and is still being used today, in very destructive and life-denying ways. In the September 11th, 2001, attack, this nation experienced the violence and even the evil that can sometimes be found in religion. In the Middle East today, where three of the world's great religions have their origins, a brutal and bloody struggle goes on in which people, in the name of God, kill one another and themselves as a mandate of their worship. To the degree that religion feeds such attitudes and fuels such conflicts, we have to say that something has gone seriously wrong, for violence and hatred can never be the fruits of the spirit. As the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, we cannot avoid engagement in this part of the world. Nor would I want to do so. This venomous hatred, however, must be addressed through a foreign policy in which our strength is tempered by cooperation, by fairness and by mutual respect.
The America I see evolving today upholds its traditional religious heritage, but is still open to the emerging realities of our century. I believe we are a better society and a richer society because we honor and respect our diversity and recognize that people of every religious tradition have made major contributions to our nation's life. I note that this country has had Protestants and Catholics serving in almost every branch of our government as well as in the White House. We also have Jews serving this nation at this moment in the Senate, in the House of Representatives, on the Supreme Court and in every other walk of life. I am proud that my party nominated an Orthodox Jewish man and a great American, Connecticut's Senator Joseph Lieberman, to be our candidate for Vice President in 2000. That was a tribute both to him and to this nation's openness. But as our religious diversity keeps expanding, our willingness to embrace differences must also expand with it. That has not always happened. There are today, for example, more practicing Muslims living in the United States than there are adherents of some of our best-known Christian dominations. Hindus and Buddhists have come primarily from Asia in great numbers drawn by their participation in our high tech industry, and our capital markets. America must stand ready to honor these venerable world religions as they are added increasingly to the mix of our life. We must also in the name of decency and fairness honor those people who are not practitioners of any organized religion. They are also valued contributors of our land. None of our citizens is to be regarded as second class because of an adopted pattern of worship. All are Americans who work hard, pay taxes and exercise the privilege of the ballot. They stand ready to serve our nation and to defend our liberties with their lives in our armed forces. They are Democrats and Republicans and members of smaller political parties that express their convictions as this country has always allowed. They are political conservatives, moderates and liberals. They love this country and they do not want to see religion become a divisive force in our nation. Neither do I. Neither do the great majority of our citizens.
To balance our own deeply held religious convictions with the levels of tolerance and the mutual respect, that it takes to live in a pluralistic society, takes individual and national maturity. But I believe the people of the United States are capable of that. Most extended families in America have their own examples of religious diversity. One of my near ancestors, for example, was Jewish. Theresa and I have both Protestant and Catholic family members that we love and honor. We count among our friends Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus as well as adherents of no particular religious tradition. That is what America is. It is the job of the President of the United States not to set us against one another, but to keep us open and respectful of one another. That is accomplished, I believe, by the example the President sets. So let me make some specific pledges to you.
I will never try to divide this nation for my own political gain by playing one religious group off against another or playing religious people off against non-religious people.
I will never seek to use religion to gain votes.
I will never use our constitution to discriminate against any citizen of this land.
I will seek to develop a corporate life in the United States where mutual respect is real and where we honor God in one another and in our common humanity even as it stretches across great religious divides.
My experience in my own religious life encourages me to believe that very few traditions or religious practices are finally ever set in stone. They are rather always evolving. We are all aware that things have been done in our history with the blessing of religion of which we are today deeply ashamed. I do not need to remind you that Christians practiced slavery for centuries. Christians supported segregation and apartheid. Christians condemned Galileo and set up the battle that still goes on between science and religion, a battle that has not served America well. The debate over stem cell research is the modern form of this old debate. In the history of our Western world violent religious wars have been fought dividing nations and people. Those of our fellow human beings who have had religious convictions different from the majority have, in Christian history, been persecuted and even burned at the stake. With the encouragement and even the blessing of our various churches we have systematically treated women as second class citizens. In my own State of Massachusetts we executed women as witches in the 18th Century. We have oppressed people who were thought of as different out of our irrational fears. We have allowed homosexuals to be victims of great discrimination, physical abuse and even murder. We are not proud of these things today and most of them, thank God, are no longer saluted anywhere in this land. But they still reside in our memory so that we know that even religion, which is dedicated to the highest ideals and values, can nonetheless turn destructive and when it does we need to remember that it brings out the very worst that is in us.
The way I seek to guard against these tragedies ever occurring again in our nation is to recognize that the mystery and wonder of God is something we all seek, but no one ever possesses it. In the moment that we claim to do so, religion turns demonic. When we fully appreciate the fact that all religious people are finally pilgrims in search of the Truth of God rather than those who have arrived at some promised land of certain belief, then we will be a stronger nation and we will live in a more peaceful world.
I also note that throughout history change has occurred when great spirits have arisen to expand our understanding, to teach us new lessons, to provide new insight and to enhance our vision of who God is and where God can be found. Mother Theresa was one of those change agents. She opened our eyes to see the face of God in the faces of the poor. Martin Luther King Jr. was another. He helped us to see the image of God in those who were the victims of our racial discrimination. There have been modern day martyrs whose lives and deaths have served to raise our consciousness to changing realities and new definitions of what it means to be human. One thinks of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and Harvey Milk in San Francisco. Surely the God we all seek can be found only when we dedicate ourselves to the task of building a world that will affirm the kind of openness to one another that will preclude violence at every point.
I am very happy to tell you that when I am privileged to serve as the President of the United States I will seek the wisdom of God and I will both allow and encourage a dialogue to take place inside me between my deepest religious convictions and my public duty. My goal will be to honor God in every person, to leave no life behind and to see to it that none of our citizens is allowed to live outside the boundaries of human dignity. I will therefore oppose anything that diminishes the life of any child of God. I will impose the standard of fairness on every piece of legislation I encourage. These are my values. They come out of my religious faith. I will not talk of these things publicly, but they will be at the heart of my presidency.
I want America to be a beacon of hope in a broken world, even in a religiously torn world. I want America to be the proverbial shining city, set upon a hill, where the light that radiates from us speaks of openness, tolerance, fairness, love and justice. That, I believe, is what religion at its best is all about. That is also what I believe America should be all about. At this point and at this point alone Church and State are not divided.
Is that too idealistic to dream, to advocate? I do not think so. I hope that you will join me in lifting high these principles and upholding these standards for the sake of our nation and in the service of the God who each of us deems to be ultimately holy and ultimately real.
John F. Kerry
as interpreted by John Shelby Spong
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