RICHMOND — Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose death at 77 following a battle with brain cancer was announced early Aug. 26, left his mark on wide-ranging legislation, including civil rights, health care, education, voting rights and labor.
But the scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, who the New York Times called “a man of large faith and large flaws,” was also a thoughtful observer of the nation’s religious life. One of the best articulations of that faith, writes Jacqueline Salmon in the Washington Post, came in a 1983 speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, now known as Liberty University.
The event paired two of the most disparate figures in American national life at the time — Falwell, whose Moral Majority was chalking up conservative victories across the nation, and Kennedy, an icon of the political left.
“Actually, a number of people in Washington were surprised I was invited to speak here — and even more surprised when I accepted the invitation,” Kennedy told his audience on that October day in 1983. “They seem to think that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a Kennedy to come to the campus of Liberty Baptist College.”
Kennedy’s Catholicism might have put him out of sync with Liberty’s fundamentalist Baptist roots. But the senator was often at odds with his own church, usually over the very issues on which Falwell would have joined forces with Catholics — embryonic stem-cell research, same-sex marriage and abortion.
Nevertheless, in his address at Liberty, which he titled “Faith, Truth and Tolerance in America,” Kennedy pled for respect among differing religious groups.
“I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith,” he said. “But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society. I believe there surely is such a thing as truth, but who among us can claim a monopoly on it?”
While advocating for a robust separation of church and state, Kennedy insisted, this “cannot mean an absolute separation between moral principles and political power.”
“The separation of church and state can sometimes be frustrating for women and men of religious faith,” he continued. “They may be tempted to misuse government in order to impose a value which they cannot persuade others to accept. But once we succumb to that temptation, we step onto a slippery slope where everyone’s freedom is at risk. Those who favor censorship should recall that one of the first books ever burned was the first English translation of the Bible. As President Eisenhower warned in 1953, ‘Don’t join the book burners. The right to say ideas, the right to record them, and the right to have them accessible to others is unquestioned — or this isn’t America.’ And if that right is denied, at some future day the torch can be turned against any other book or any other belief. Let us never forget: Today’s Moral Majority could become tomorrow’s persecuted minority.”
The vision Kennedy held out was of an “America where the power of faith will always burn brightly, but where no modern Inquisition of any kind will ever light the fires of fear, coercion or angry division.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the elder Falwell who died in 2007, was in his third year at Liberty when Kennedy arrived on campus.
“When he spoke to Liberty University students, he was well received and, even though the students did not agree with much of what he said, they were polite and kind,” the younger Falwell, now the school’s chancellor, wrote in a recent issue of Liberty Journal.
Falwell said the Massachusetts senator joined his family for dinner in their Lynchburg home and that ties between Kennedy and the Falwells continued long after the 1983 speech.
“[In 1984] I applied for admission to the law school at the University of Virginia, where Kennedy had attended,” said Falwell. “He volunteered to write a letter of recommendation for me. I am sure the faculty was surprised to see a Kennedy recommending a Falwell, but I guess it helped because I was admitted.”
Later, said Falwell, Kennedy asked his father pray with Kennedy’s mother, then nearly 100 years old and in frail health.
And in 2005, “when my father was hospitalized with severe pulmonary edema, one of the first letters he received was from Kennedy,” said Falwell. “The letter was heartfelt and encouraging, wishing my father a quick recovery.”
Robert Dilday is managing editor of the Religious Herald.