FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry said a broad vision of social justice, including care for the poor and those without health insurance, is at the root of his religion and would guide his presidency.
The Massachusetts senator sought to win over remaining undecided voters with a speech that advisers said would explore “his sense of faith” and how it would affect his decision-making process as president.
He cited Matthew 25:40 — “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me” — and said Jesus’ admonition should determine the moral obligation everyone in society has to each other.
“The ethical test of a good society is how it treats its most vulnerable members,” he said, arguing that the government has an obligation to protect the environment, fight AIDS, reduce poverty and defeat terrorism.
He did not give a moral defense of his pro-choice stance on abortion and his support for embryonic stem-cell research, but he acknowledged the contentious debate within the Catholic Church about his public role in these matters.
“I love my church, I respect the bishops, but I respectfully disagree,” Mr. Kerry said, to one of the wildest ovations of the speech.
“My task, as I see it … is not to write every doctrine into law. That is not possible or right in a pluralistic society,” he said. “But my faith does give me values to live by and apply to the decisions I make.”
Afterward, audience member Jeff Schuster said the applause reflected the audience’s belief that Republicans don’t have a lock on Christianity.
“The church isn’t right on every decision, and a lot of people respectfully disagree,” said Mr. Schuster, 43.
President Bush has been clear on the role of his Protestant Christian faith in guiding him, saying in the third presidential debate that “prayer and religion sustain me.” Mr. Kerry has been more reluctant to talk about his religious practice, yesterday talking about prayer as something he learned as a child and practiced as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam.
If elected, Mr. Kerry would be only the second Catholic president in the history of this nation of 60 million to 65 million Catholics. The only Catholic president of the United States to date was John F. Kennedy.
Despite the candidate’s solemn approach to his speech yesterday, the audience of about 2,000 people treated it as more of a rally, at one point interrupting Mr. Kerry’s call for prayers for whoever wins the election with chants of “No more Bush.”
It was partly a reiteration of his Democratic National Convention speech about how he learned his values while fighting in Vietnam, and partly the themes from his standard campaign speech, with Biblical verses added.
At less than 30 minutes, the speech was far shorter than most of his major speeches or even his standard remarks at rallies, and several Republicans said it didn’t live up to its billing.
“Senator Kerry managed to give ‘a major speech on faith and values’ today without mentioning either one in any detail,” said Republicans Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia, Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Jim Ryun of Kansas.