The Humanism of Senator Edward Kennedy

August 27, 2009

The death of Edward Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver within two weeks of each other brings back my memory of a fascinating meeting that I had with them in 1972; and how grateful I was for their many expressions of humanism.

I was invited to spend three days with Eunice and Sargent Shriver at their home. At that time Sen. Edward Kennedy was considering a possible run for the presidency and there was a meeting in Washington in which he gave a memorable talk to many journalists and friends. While there I also visited the home of Ethel Kennedy, the wife of Robert (Bobby) Kennedy.

At that time I was editor of The Humanist magazine, and I was invited because the Kennedys knew about humanism and expressed general sympathy with its moral and social principles. We discussed humanism in general terms as a progressive philosophy of individual freedom and a concern for social justice, and they shared a commitment to these values.

Although the Kennedys are officially Roman Catholic, they nevertheless supported a liberal social agenda. Eunice was a sponsor of the Special Olympics for the disabled. Sen. Edward Kennedy often deviated from the Church’s doctrines, as he was divorced and most recently came out in support of stem cell research (although the Vatican vehemently opposes it). Known as the Lion in the Senate, he has battled for human rights. He has been a strong proponent of the current legislation on universal health care. He was a supporter of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act of 1968; he was a consistent defender of civil liberties, and an early opponent of the Vietnam War.

I surely do not deny the fact the Kennedys were members of the Roman Catholic Church; but at the same time they shared important values with secular humanists. The mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was of course devout, but her children were generally either nominal or liberal in their faith.

The purpose of the 1972 meeting at which liberal journalists and thinkers were invited, was to gauge Sen. Kennedy’s possible chances for a run for the presidency-coming only a few years after the unfortunate drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969. Edward Kennedy and Ms. Kopechne were together in the car that went off the road. A cloud of suspicion overhung Edward Kennedy’s role in that accident; for he did not report the incident until 10 hours later. One purpose of our participation, I gather, was a trial balloon to "test the waters," so to speak. That was a long time ago, and Sen. Kennedy has had a distinguished record in the Senate ever since.

The point that I wish to make here is that secularists and humanists have many allies among religious people; and that although unbelievers may not be happy with their supernaturalism, there are many other bonds that tie citizens together, and we should be willing and able to work with them on issues of common concern.