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Page last updated at 18:09 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

God, politics and the Kennedys

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

Kerry Kennedy
Kerry Kennedy has come to accept the church as an 'imperfect institution'

How does a modern liberal square their progressive social beliefs with being a member of the Roman Catholic church? After many years of wrestling with this paradox, Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late US senator Bobby Kennedy, has found an accommodation.

While British politicians "don't do God", as Tony Blair's spokesman once memorably put it, in the United States politicians are expected to do God and to do it publicly. Religion is part of the jigsaw of political identity.

Into the current presidential election, Kerry Kennedy, a human rights activist and daughter of Robert Kennedy, has published an account of how she combines her Catholicism with her progressive politics.

"I don't see that there should be conflict between Catholicism and social justice," she says.

With the Kennedys remaining both famously liberal and famously Catholic - not to mention famously famous - the book has been a best-seller, offering an insight into where God and politics meet in modern America.

The Kennedy legacy casts a long shadow over American politics – and presidential contender Barack Obama has been compared to the lost hero of the liberal left, Robert Kennedy, on several counts including fears about his safety.

Obama-watchers have noted that the Democrat candidate sits at Robert Kennedy’s old desk in the Senate and that his campaign oratory has met with a similar fervour. The starched white shirts and the hands reaching out to the crowd seem to echo the photos of that 1968 campaign.


In Kerry Kennedy’s book, Being Catholic Now, the family legacy she explores is her religion, going back to a childhood of ingrained traditional piety.

I remember clearly, praying 'God, don’t let them kill the man who killed daddy'
Kerry Kennedy on her father's assassin

Anyone who suspected that the Kennedys only prayed in public might be surprised by her account of an intensely religious family, with a daily round of devotions, readings and prayers.

"I don’t think it was that unusual for a Catholic family in the 1960s," she says.

But what gave the prayers their urgency was the "horrifying regularity" of deaths among her family and their close friends, including the assassinations of her uncle John Kennedy and her father Robert.

She was eight years old at the time of her father’s assassination in 1968, finding out when a Bugs Bunny cartoon she was watching was interrupted by a newsflash. When his death was confirmed she "instinctively began to pray for my father and mother", but then more remarkably for her father’s assassin. "I remember clearly, praying 'God, don’t let them kill the man who killed daddy'."

Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, the man convicted of the assassination, is serving a life sentence.

Looking back on her reaction - and she must have had a lifetime of fending off other people's amateur psychology - she says that she is grateful that she had so much faith to pray for her enemies.

This was a private childhood nightmare played out in public – and she describes trying to avoid the images of the assassinations endlessly replayed on television or in newspapers.

'Terror and pain'

"I'd recoil over and over again, unable to turn the channel or flip the page fast enough as I watched my uncle and my father shot dead."

The Kennedys
Kerry Kennedy, second left, with her parents and seven of her 10 siblings

From the outside, the Kennedy story represents a kind of doomed glamour, but from the inside, Kerry Kennedy presents a picture of “terror and pain”.

The family found solace in prayer and she describes the church as a "kind of lifeline, the one place that could make sense of all this suffering".

But this religion which had been such a strength for a "child with so much uncertainty and fright" provoked much tougher questions in adulthood.

Going to mass could leave her angry, she says. There were unanswered questions such as the role of women and failings in the response to clerical child abuse.

"It was a source of enormous frustration, impeding my ability to gain a sense of spirituality," she says.

When her brother David died from an overdose in 1984, she describes with irritation how the status-conscious senior clergy tried to muscle in on the funeral ceremony.

Her book is an attempt to "make peace" with her own faith.

How does a modern liberal, a veteran of human rights and social justice campaigns, square all this with a church that won't allow women priests or birth control?

Social justice

Kerry Kennedy’s conclusion is that it’s possible to make a distinction between the church as an imperfect institution, and her commitment to a wider sense of spirituality and truth-seeking within Catholicism.

Ted Kennedy and John Kerry
Uncle Ted Kennedy, attending a mass with fellow senator John Kerry

She interviews a range of prominent figures, including movie actors Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon and speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, about their often conflicted views of Catholicism.

Political writer Andrew Sullivan describes how he reconciles being gay, right wing and Catholic.

There is also an interesting sense in which her Catholicism seems to be a matriarchal force - strongly influenced by her mother and grandmother - and she hopes that there will be women priests in her lifetime.

She says half-jokingly that her identification with the vulnerable comes from growing up in such a male-dominated household. "You soon learn to have empathy with the powerless," she says.

Her own brand of Catholicism is about social justice – which she says she inherited from her father.

"It's something very valued in our househould. My father was a great champion of people who were struggling - and when he was running for president in 1968 he said "peace, justice and compassion, that's what the United States ought to stand for.""

Ramshackle empire

It's no surprise that she's backing the Democrat candidate - and in a way her vision of a liberal God is the flip-side of the religious right that has been so powerful in the United States - an unbuckling of the Bible belt.

[To follow the] road that Bobby Kennedy never finished travelling
Barack Obama's pledge in 2005

Luke Coppen, editor of the Catholic Herald newspaper, says there is a symbolic significance to a Kennedy arguing that individual Catholics can follow their own consciences rather than the rules of their church.

This view was put forward by John Kennedy in 1960, says Mr Coppen, in what was a “watershed moment”. It set the pattern for Catholic politicians to act independently and often against the wishes of the church hierarchy. It's also a reminder, he says, that Catholicism is often more like a "loosely-organised, ramshackle empire,” rather than a "monolith".

Kerry Kennedy says that her book isn't a manifesto or attempt to re-shape the relationship between politics and religion. “I don’t feel any mission," she says.

But the eyes of the world are on two men with a mission to become president – and anyone wanting to check the long-term political compass of Obama might be interested to look at a speech he made three years ago, marking what would have been Robert Kennedy’s 80th birthday.

In particular he commended Robert Kennedy for his peculiar mix of liberal and hawkish instincts – the way that his distrust of big business and big government meant that he didn't fit in either the camps of left or right.

And with little expectation then that the White House might be his next job, Obama committed his political direction to "the road that Bobby Kennedy never finished travelling".

The next day will show whether he's going to get the chance to take that road.

Below is a selection of your comments:

Thank you for a balanced article on Catholicism. It's great to finally see a thoughtful piece in the media that doesn't present Catholics as unthinking and uncaring monsters!
Catherine, Leicester

I would take her words one step further. I am a Catholic first and a Marxist Communist second and both are in keeping with Christ's teachings. Christ was no capitalist and his actions in life were very communistic! It is a pure lie that Marxist Communism forbids church worship we accept all faiths and all colors and are not at all racist like capitalists!
Richard Neva, Norwich, NY USA

The use of the Catholic-in-name-only Kennedy family as a litmus for mating social liberalism with the Church is essentially wrongheaded. Any one, of many, examples of the gap between church teachings on ANY subject and Kennedy family behavior (infidelity, divorce, drugs etc) would give lie to this idea. It's a bad choice as an example. In fact, I have heard it said that George W Bush is, in fact, the first Catholic President of the United States. Now THAT statement is sure to set any number of people's teeth on edge.
Michael, Geneva, Switzerland

Never mind social justice and "liberal" values. How did the Kennedys reconcile their men's gargantuan womanising with their professed good Catholic values?
dubious, Brisbane, Australia

Catholism is your faith and commitment to God your creator and the teaching of the Holy Catholic Church are guidelines to a better and positive living.
Dennis, Nairobi, Kenya

Too often today I see people hanging their hat on a religion that they don't really believe in. That is to say, they cannot or will not follow the tenets of their faith, but they want the label nonetheless. They do it because of fear to break with family tradition or to be deemed an outcast from their perception of society's norm. This begs the question then of what was the point then of the Protestant Reformation then? There are plenty of religions in the world. People should find something they really believe in and not wear a mask. For me, I chose atheism after being raised Roman Catholic. It wasn't easy for my father to accept, but it was the choice I could live with.
Paul, Connecticut, USA

I've always had a problem with the notion that conservatives and Republicans have a monopoly on both faith/piety and patriotism. Kerry's father showed that it is possible to be spiritual and political, to be Catholic and Democrat.
Walt, Boise, Idaho, USA

It is one thing to act independently and against the wishes "of the church hierarchy" and quite another to ignore the teachings of the Catholic doctrine.

Carlos Olivera, San Jose - Costa Rica

I agree with Kerry Kennedy on her solution of being Catholic and the Catholic Church. I was born into a Irish Catholic family and follow their teaching. Then in time I became 21 years and I too was asking question about the church teachings. Now at 79 years I handled it like Kerry Kennedy did.
Francis C. Brewer, Lafayette, Indiana 47905 USA

In the catechism classes of my youth there was a lot of emphasis on the the holy mystery. A lot of questions about our faith was answered with, 'we don't know it is a mystery'. This aspect has now gone and these days the propensity (by all religious faiths) to take what is written as verbatim, is what is really causing the religious conflicts today. I have two thoughts, is discussion really so harmful? And, God does not need our protection, the power he holds is more than adequate to protect himself.
Dominick Reyntiens, Rosebank Australia

Interesting book, and Kerry Kennedy sounds like a really admirable woman. I am curious though that the article made no mention of the Kennedy men's many controversial relationships with women. Today, the Kennedys are better known for their womanising - some would say abuse of women, though the women they bedded were quite willing - than anything else.
Shaun Narine, Fredericton, Canada

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