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.
“John Kerry himself has quoted Scripture and pointed out that ‘faith without works is dead.’ The same can be said about empty political speeches about faith and values that ignore a 20-year record of voting against both in the United States Senate,” said the three congressmen, who are Jewish (Mr. Cantor), Catholic (Mr. Diaz-Balart) and Protestant (Mr. Ryun).
And Massachusetts state Rep. Brian Golden, a Democrat and a Catholic, said in a statement that Mr. Kerry’s record of opposing a ban on partial-birth abortion matters most.
During yesterday’s speech, Mr. Kerry was interrupted by a man who shouted, “End the war, end the war, John.”
“It’s a very legitimate concern, and it’s a part of faith,” Mr. Kerry responded. “What that cry about the war means to me — what all the complaints we hear from people mean to me — is that you have to hold and have a vision of society that is concerned about the common good, where individual rights and freedoms are connected to our responsibility to others.”
Campaign adviser Mike McCurry said Mr. Kerry’s decision to talk about his religion so late in the campaign was aimed at voters just tuning in now.
“The question that many of those who are still undecided are asking is, ‘Can I put my faith in John Kerry the person?’ and I think helping make that decision by giving them a sense of who he is personally is very important at this stage of the campaign,” Mr. McCurry said.
Before the speech, Mr. Kerry attended Mount Hermon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Pastor John F. White said God’s work will be done through voters’ selecting Mr. Kerry, as it was through Moses’ leading the Israelites out of Egypt.
“There’s one who can divide the Red Sea for us and we can cross over to dry ground,” Mr. White said.
Mr. Kerry pointed to a list of 10 “Christian principles in an election year” created by the National Council of Churches USA (NCC), printed on the back of Mount Hermon’s worship program, which the council said Christian voters are to keep in mind.
The first principle was that “war is contrary to the will of God,” and it went on to call on politicians to “reject policies that abandon large segments of our inner city and rural populations to hopelessness.”
The NCC list did not mention abortion or marriage, and a statement on the group’s Web site said that was deliberate because there wasn’t agreement on those issues.
Mr. Kerry attended Mass on Saturday at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Anthony, N.M., taking Holy Communion, though he may have violated the fasting period that Catholic teaching requires before receiving it.
Reporters traveling with Mr. Kerry said he appeared to be munching chips and salsa and drinking iced tea throughout his stop at the Red Rooster Cafe, which he left five minutes before the beginning of the 6 p.m. Mass. He took Communion 50 minutes later, at about 6:45 p.m.
Catholic canon law says that those who are to receive Communion must “abstain from any food or drink, with the exception only of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.” This rule actually relaxed the requirements from when Mr. Kerry was an altar boy. Overnight fasting was required then.