A Further Perspective

Kennedy Catholicism and Palin

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend isn't much of a theologian.

By 12.15.10

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Sarah Palin loves the limelight. Despite that and the limitations that she shares with other people who rely more on instinct than on study to answer political questions, Palin also has an impressive talent for living rent-free in progressive heads. That talent has little to do with her appearance or her willingness to coin words like "refudiate," but lots to do with the way she embraces life and faith publicly. No one else with comparable name recognition demolishes progressive dogma just by getting up in the morning.

Without ever leaving her comfort zone, Palin introduced a corollary to Ramesh Ponnuru's assertion that "abortion corrupts everything it touches." Ponnuru wrote that more than ten years ago, in a career-making 1998 essay called "Dead Reckoning" that rocked both National Review and First Things. Whether Sarah Palin ever read the piece matters not at all.

Palin can be every bit as prickly or superficial as her enemies claim, but together with son Trig and daughter Bristol, the winsome Wasillan and her underrated husband bookend Ponnuru's point by reminding anyone paying attention that pro-life witness refreshes some people and infuriates others. You might even say that there are echoes in the deceptively pedestrian Palin lives of what C.S. Lewis once called "the weight of glory." (I'll pay no attention to criticisms of overreach or "dysfunctional karmic antennae" from people who said nothing when a San Francisco newspaper columnist described our current president as a "lightworker" before his ham-fisted attempts to treat 300 million people as a community in need of organizing went kablooey ).

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend can't claim the Palin cachet, but the former lieutenant governor of Maryland is not above calling for close air support in her country-club battle with Palin-style conservatism. Townsend took to the pages of the Washington Post earlier this month to defend her uncle John against charges of malpractice that Sarah Palin had leveled against him in her book, America by Heart. Ironically, although her essay suggests that Townsend found the Palin book title saccharine, and its content fey, twee, or manipulative, she read the book anyway. They all do.

Long before shooting a moose on camera to send at least one leftist into "late night fist-pumping delirium," Caribou Barbie wrote, in effect, that John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association subverted American principle rather than expressing it. As even younger readers may have heard, that speech was Kennedy's "Don't hate me for being Catholic, because I won't take orders from the pope" sop to evangelical Protestant leaders whose support he needed at the time.

Washington Post editors gave Townsend 1,500 words to defend her uncle's attempt to compartmentalize his faith, but the "coulda been a contender" lament that they got for their trouble only exposed Townsend as another palooka in a family full of them.

Townsend asserts that she gave America by Heart a careful reading, from which she came away sure that Palin supports an unconstitutional religious test for public office. Inconveniently, we have to take Townsend's word for that, because Palin actually says no such thing: the closest she gets is to express disappointment at John F. Kennedy's failure to reconcile his "private faith and public role," and his unwillingness to tell fellow countrymen "how his faith had enriched him." Palin did not use Hilaire Belloc as a counter-example, but he would have been a better choice than Mitt Romney, whom she did mention. In 1906, when Belloc ran for a seat in the British Parliament as a representative of the Liberal party, his stem-winding stump speech included a ringing affirmation of faith: "Gentlemen, I am a Roman Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [taking a rosary out of his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that he has spared me the indignity of being made your representative."

John F. Kennedy would have done well to follow that precedent, only he didn't, and so one of his nieces was left to burnish a flawed legacy.

Deeply suspicious of the dog whistle for conservatives that she seems to think Palin keeps in a drawer near her Naughty Monkey shoes, Townsend reasons that any such testimony by JFK would have opened the door to American theocracy, and praises her uncle for having had wisdom enough to realize that his religious beliefs were nobody else's business. By then, the opposing camps are plainly visible: Palin says "Cards on the table, please," while Townsend parries with "To demand that citizens display their religious beliefs attacks the very foundation of our nation."

Who makes more sense? Enter Rev. Charles J. Chaput, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Denver, Colorado. Archbishop Chaput is not a man who can be credibly accused of operating from a theology of "Christian Dominionism," as some of Palin's more excitable detractors say she does. But in phrasing that Sarah Palin would approve, Chaput called JFK's 1960 speech "sincere, compelling, articulate -- and wrong."

Speaking this past spring at Houston Baptist University, Archbishop Chaput noted that "Real Christian faith is always personal, but it's never private." That was one of the things about which John F. Kennedy was mistaken. Moreover, said Chaput, Kennedy's remarks in Houston "profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America's public life and political conversation." And "Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage."

In other words, Sarah Palin's criticism of the Kennedy approach to faith accords substantially with criticisms offered by another Christian of unquestioned acumen. Not only that, but Chaput came loaded for bear, quoting another scholar to buttress the point that John F. Kennedy "secularized the American presidency in order to win it."

This is not a debate that Townsend can win. She thinks Sarah Palin is making a subtle bid for a new Inquisition, but if Townsend had familiarized herself with Archbishop Chaput's similar argument, she would have known better. Instead, she writes about the "deep current of faith" in the Kennedy family, praises Uncle John for courage of the kind that Henry V tried to kindle in his men before the Battle of Agincourt, and dances around Senator Ted Kennedy's support for abortion (correctly described by Sarah Palin as "directly at odds with his Catholic faith") by disingenuously suggesting that Catholic moral teaching is of no more import than whether the Third Sunday of Advent is marked by rose-colored candles, because "the hierarchy's positions can change," and "in our church, we have an obligation to help bring about those changes."

Ha! We may as well cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, because Townsend leaves no room for concepts like fidelity to "the deposit of faith" or (as Christians in the Reformed tradition sometimes put it) "standing firm in the faith once delivered to the saints."

When Palin contends that "morality cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs," Townsend misreads this acknowledgement of our collective debt to Judeo-Christian intellectual and religious capital as "a wholesale attack on countless Americans." Has she never heard John Adams' famous quip that "Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other"?

It should also be remembered that threats of theocracy do not typically come from Christians. John Calvin is long dead, the church courts of the Spanish Inquisition were more often merciful than the state courts of the same time, and -- apart from being a fractious bunch -- we Christians are the "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's" people. Connecticut's Danbury Baptist Church was in on the ground floor of Jeffersonian thinking about the separation of church and state, and William Penn was famous for showing why a concept that worked at the federal level should not be taken as holy writ by the states. Not to get all triumphalist about it, but -- like the concept of free inquiry in universities-- religious freedom is an outgrowth of Christian theology, not the other way around.

Townsend's essay shows no evidence of her having considered any of that. Instead, one gets the impression that she agrees with the people who think Sarah Palin pines to turn America into a heaping helping of God, Gold, and Guns, as though the only diversity for which Palin and her ilk have any respect is a diversity of greenback denominations and shell sizes.

What those critics never explain is what gives them reason to think Sarah Palin would settle on God, Gold, and Guns as the unifying thread for every American from Booker T. Washington to Marco Rubio, Alvin York, and Mia Hamm. Ignoring weasel wording from high-profile Kennedys and other purveyors of the "religion is private" line in their own camp, critics charge Palin with "extremism" and hope (to God?) that the charge sticks. Oddly enough, some of them tried the same tactic with "Cowboy" George W. Bush and "Nap-taker-in-Chief" Ronald Reagan. Perhaps the "politics of personal destruction" is the leftist version of "Now bring us some figgy pudding."

They'll have to do better if they hope to be persuasive.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.