Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Beyond Kennedy Catholicism?

Steven Garber


December 10, 2010?
by Steven Garber

One day this week I took part in a morning of conversation with MBA students from one of America’s most prestigious institutions, one in fact known for its stark secularism. Yet we were meeting in a church, of all places, talking with leading executives about   healthy, sustainable political economies in a globalizing world. The vision at the heart of the discussion grows out of almost a hundred years of business practice, but it also reflects 20 years of thinking by the executives about the biblical vision of jubilee, with its complex understanding of the just ordering of common life, and its nuanced vision of a merciful mutuality. With a remarkable moral seriousness they are convinced that “jubilee” offers a way to live in the world, the modernizing, pluralizing, globalizing 21st-century world. Conversations like these—where common grace for the common good is the issue, where conversations about the stuff of life for everyone everywhere must be debated because it matters to all of us—happen more often in our country than one might think.  

Trying to figure out what the relationship is and ought to be between belief and behavior, not only personally but publicly, is horribly complex. The question is not cheap, and there are no cheap answers. At our best we stumble along, socially and politically.  But our unique tradition of constitutional pluralism provides room to muddle through. After centuries of tyranny threaded through civilizations and cultures throughout time, religious and irreligious despots and dictators wrecking havoc on human societies, America set out to be e pluribus unum, a genuinely pluralist society. No mandated religious commitment would be allowed. 250 years ago that meant that Virginians could be Presbyterians and Baptists, as well as Anglicans; generations later the principle of pluralism stands firm, although we are still debating what this looks like in practice.

This past weekend The Washington Post published an essay by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, “What Palin Gets Wrong About JFK,” in which she defended her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, whose famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 still echoes through our political discourse, especially the way that we understand the relationship between personal faith and public life.  The concern of a mostly WASPish society, watching the presidential campaign between Kennedy and Nixon, was this: what would it mean if an Irish Catholic became President? Some even wondered whether he would be his own man, or if the Pope would direct his policies. Kennedy needed to say something, and in sum he said this: “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens to be a Catholic.” 

Now, 50 years later Sarah Palin has written a book in which she criticizes Kennedy’s “privatized” faith, arguing that he ought to have “reconciled” his faith and politics, rather than offered “an unequivocal divorce of the two.”  This is the judgment that Kennedy’s niece responds to in the essay.  

Neither Palin nor Kennedy get it right. Although Palin’s basic instincts are correct—that true faith ought to have meaning for political commitments—her knee-jerk identification of the Christian faith with conservative politics is simplistic. And yet it is also true that President Kennedy set forth a vision of political life informed by Catholic conviction that has poorly served several generations of his own family and the wider world.  Popes, cardinals, and bishops have rightly criticized Kennedy Catholicism for its compartmentalization.  

Not a Christian himself, Czechoslovakian dissident and President Vaclav Havel made impassioned pleas to not leave God out of modern life—in his words, losing “meaning and purpose, responsibility and accountability”  when we do so.  But the best minds and hearts are stretched taut when faced with the task of bringing faith-formed visions of justice into the public square.  

Sometimes, wrestling as we do, we will spend years and years working at an idea like jubilee, and in the push-and-shove of life begin to see it provide traction for the way things ought to be, even and especially when millions of lives and billions of dollars are at stake. Learning to translate transcendence and truth is terribly difficult work—and yet this is our work.

—Dr. Steven Garber is the Director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture and author of The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (Second Ed., 2007). ?

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”