CITIZEN JOURNALISM: Remembering Kennedy’s faith and tolerance

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Editor’s note: The Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., an evangelical and founder of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and the Moral Majority, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Catholic and liberal Democrat who died late Tuesday, were family friends. Theirs was a friendship that Mr. Falwell’s son, Jerry Jr., says he hopes his “generation can learn from.”

The senior Mr. Falwell invited Mr. Kennedy to speak at Liberty, which Mr. Kennedy did on Oct. 3, 1983.

Below are excerpts from Mr. Kennedy’s speech, “Faith, Truth and Tolerance in America,” followed by excerpted reflections by the younger Mr. Falwell, published on the school’s Web site. The younger man was a Liberty student at the time and is now its chancellor.

The excerpts reflect the faithful and kindhearted Ted Kennedy that family, friends and colleagues have spoken of since his death.

”A number of people in Washington were surprised that I was invited to speak here - and

even more surprised when I accepted the invitation. They seem to think that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Kennedy to come to the campus of Liberty Baptist College. … I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith. 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?

“There are those who do, and their own words testify to their intolerance. For example, because the Moral Majority has worked with members of different denominations, one fundamentalist group has denounced Dr. Falwell for hastening the ecumenical church and for ‘yoking together with Roman Catholics, Mormons, and others.’ I am relieved that Dr. Falwell does not regard that as a sin, and on this issue, he himself has become the target of narrow prejudice. When people agree on public policy, they ought to be able to work together, even while they worship in diverse ways. For truly we are all yoked together as Americans, and the yoke is the happy one of individual freedom and mutual respect. …

“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. After the last election, the Reverend James Robison warned President Reagan not to surround himself, as presidents before him had, ‘with the counsel of the ungodly.’ I utterly reject any such standard for any position anywhere in public service. 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. Indeed, in 1976, I regarded it as unworthy and un-American when some people said or hinted that Jimmy Carter should not be president because he was a born-again Christian. We must never judge the fitness of individuals to govern on the bas[is] of where they worship, whether they follow Christ or Moses, whether they are called ‘born again’ or ‘ungodly.’ Where it is right to apply moral values to public life, let all of us avoid the temptation to be self-righteous and absolutely certain of ourselves. And if that temptation ever comes, let us recall Winston Churchill’s humbling description of an intolerant and inflexible colleague: ‘There but for the grace of God goes God.’ …

“I could multiply the instances of name-calling, sometimes on both sides. Dr. Falwell is not a ‘warmonger.’ And ‘liberal clergymen’ are not, as the Moral Majority suggested in a recent letter, equivalent to ‘Soviet sympathizers.’ The critics of official prayer in public schools are not ‘Pharisees’; many of them are both civil libertarians and believers, who think that families should pray more at home with their children, and attend church and synagogue more faithfully. And people are not sexist because they stand against abortion, and they are not murderers because they believe in free choice. Nor does it help anyone’s cause to shout such epithets, or to try and shout a speaker down - which is what happened last April when Dr. Falwell was hissed and heckled at Harvard. So I am doubly grateful for your courtesy here this evening. That was not Harvard’s finest hour, but I am happy to say that the loudest applause from the Harvard audience came in defense of Dr. Falwell’s right to speak. …

“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.

“I hope for 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.”

Mr. Falwell says he found Mr. Kennedy, whose family dined at the Falwell home, “warm and personable” and appreciated that the senator wrote a letter of recommendation on his behalf to the University of Virginia School of Law. Mr. Kennedy graduated in the class of 1959.

Mr. Falwell, whose father died in 2007, also says Mr. Kennedy asked his dad to pray for the senator’s ailing mother.

“Dad was honored to oblige the request and visit with Rose Kennedy,” Mr. Falwell says, adding that he was particularly struck by an act of kindness from Mr. Kennedy when his father fell ill.

“In 2005, when my father was hospitalized with severe pulmonary edema, one of the first letters he received was from Kennedy. The letter was heartfelt and encouraging, wishing my father a quick recovery. I am sure that if my father were alive today, he would be the first to send a similar letter of well wishes to Kennedy.

“I hope that our generation can learn from the relationship between my father and Senator Kennedy. Both of these men understood that they could disagree without being disagreeable. They were both lightning rods for their respective causes, but they treated each other with civility and respect.”

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