The Late Ted Kennedy on Church and State

August 26, 2009

Last night America lost one of the most effective lawmakers ever to serve in the United States Senate.  Edward M. Kennedy was a devout Catholic who understood the constitutional limits on religious intrusion into government.  Like his brother John, Ted held a deep appreciation for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.  On this issue he was by no means perfect; he sponsored the ill-advised, so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 with Orrin Hatch.  But Senator Kennedy generally held a thorough understanding of religious liberty, church-state separation and the intersection of piety and politics. 

That understanding was on display in his October 1983 speech to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University).  Many of today’s lawmakers would learn from a careful listening to this speech ( available online here ).  Some choice remarks include the following:

Respect for conscience is most in jeopardy, and the harmony of our diverse society is most at risk, when we re-establish, directly or indirectly, a religious test for public office. That relic of the colonial era, which is specifically prohibited in the Constitution, has reappeared in recent years. . . . Two centuries ago, the victims were Catholics and Jews. In the 1980s the victims could be atheists; in some other day or decade, they could be the members of the Thomas Road Baptist Church.

[I]n applying religious values, we must respect the integrity of public debate. In that debate, faith is no substitute for facts.

I hope for an America where neither "fundamentalist" nor "humanist" will be a dirty word, but a fair description of the different ways in which people of goodwill look at life and into their own souls. I hope for an America where no president, no public official, no individual will ever be deemed a greater or lesser American because of religious doubt — or religious belief.

Rest In Peace, Senator.  Although the Jerry Falwells of the world will not miss you, we humanists surely will.