Christianity Today's profiles of this year's election candidates will continue tomorrow with an article on George W. Bush's need to retain the evangelical vote.
Whatever comment you make about John Kerry's Christianity, it will fit somewhere in the spiritual timeline of his life.
Critics say Kerry, a Roman Catholic, has all the form and ritual of religion but almost none of the doctrine. Others see a selfless public servant of iron-clad Christian conscience unafraid to stand his ground on moral issues in opposition to a cardinal or bishop.
The image-buffers in the Democratic presidential campaign don't often allow a spiritual light to shine very far into the interior of John Kerry. But on occasion, Kerry himself opens up. A few months back, as his presidential campaign plane flew over Oregon's Hood River, he stared out the window. Later at an outdoor rally, he exclaimed,
"I was flying down the Hood River and the gorges. I was thinking: God! I need to get back here!
"I was planning on doing a little windsurfing."
Kerry was on his Wheels Up for a Stronger America tour. During a three-day, five-event swing through the Pacific Northwest, during which Christianity Today trailed the Kerry campaign, this was the only time the candidate invoked God's name publicly.
For Kerry, windsurfing is one measure of his spirituality. In a 1998 interview with American Windsurfer, he said windsurfing is more spiritually fulfilling than playing hockey because windsurfing "allows nature to play with you in ways that nature doesn't involve itself with a hockey game."
In that interview, Kerry provided some of his most detailed public comments about his theological ideals:
"I'm a Catholic and I practice, but at the same time I have an open-mindedness to many other expressions of spirituality that come through different religions. … I've spent some time reading and thinking about [religion] and trying to study it, and I've arrived at not so much a sense of the differences, but a sense of the similarities in so many ways; the value-system roots and linkages between the Torah, the Qur'an, and the Bible and the fundamental story that runs through all of this, that … really connects all of us.
"I've always been fascinated by the transcendentalists and the pantheists and others who found these great connections just in nature, in trees, the ponds, the ripples of the wind on the pond, the great feast of nature itself."
This windsurfer's open-mindedness translates into some jarring stances on public policy.
For example, Kerry said in a July interview with an Iowa newspaper, "I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception." That comment apparently was the first time Kerry, who has consistent endorsements from leading pro-choice groups, reported a belief that human life begins at the moment of conception—a key pro-life tenet.
Kerry continued, "I can't take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist." Despite Kerry's comments on human conception, NARAL Pro-Choice America declared in July, "The choice for pro-choice voters is abundantly clear—only Kerry-Edwards can be counted on to protect and defend a woman's right to choose."
Recently American Catholic bishops, however, have publicly crossed swords with pro-choice Catholic pols, such as Kerry, the first Catholic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy in 1960. (See "Senate's Top Democrat in the Cross Hairs," p. 36.) And Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a private memo this summer advised American bishops to refuse Communion to all pro-choice Catholic officeholders.
But Kerry continues to receive Communion at Boston's Paulist Center, which is quasi-independent of the local hierarchy. It is Kerry's closest connection to a local worshiping community. Father John Ardis, the center's director, prayed at the opening and closing of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, signaling Kerry's shaky ties to the Catholic hierarchy.
Kerry's commitment to Catholicism dates to his childhood. At boarding school in Switzerland, Kerry fully embr /aced the rituals and teachings of Catholicism. Kerry told biographer Douglas br /inkley, "I was an altar boy and prayed all the time. I was very centered around the Mass and the church." br /inkley, author of Tour of Duty, said in a recent interview with CT that while at school, Kerry for about six months considered becoming a priest. br /inkley added that Kerry once said that if he didn't go into public life he'd be a Bible scholar because he's fascinated by ancient texts.
After returning from Vietnam in 1969, Kerry expressed doubts about God. "I was troubled about my relationship with the Almighty," he recounted during comments at a Baptist church in Boston in 1992. "I wondered about [how] he would put these tests in front of us and how there could be such killing and such anxiety in all of us." He returned to regular Mass later, and was seen regularly attending evening Mass at Our Lady of Good Voyage in south Boston in the mid-1990s. Today, on the campaign trail, Kerry carries a rosary, a prayer book, and a medal of St. Christopher, a patron saint of travelers.
Yet his political positions on some major issues seem to have little or no overlap with the authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. He opposes abortion personally but supports abortion as public policy. He is against gay marriage but rejects a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a monogamous, heterosexual union. He voted for the Iraq war despite the American bishops' sharp criticism of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. Like the Catholic Church, Kerry is opposed to the death penalty. But Kerry makes an exception for terrorists.
Kerry's inconsistencies have led some evangelical Democrats to wonder about him. "Kerry is the imperial self dressed up in a politician's suit," said James R. Kurth, an evangelical Presbyterian, professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a Democrat. "There's no evidence that he's read the bishops' statements on Catholic social teaching."
A leading evangelical in Massachusetts, Michael E. Haynes, an African American and pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church, where Kerry has attended worship services in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, has watched Kerry in office for years. Haynes sees Kerry as someone who belongs to the secularized elite and shares their allegiance to inclusive theology.
"That's Beacon Hill, the very neighborhood he comes from," Haynes said concerning Kerry's interfaith comments. "It sounds like what Thoreau's people and Emerson's people talk about."
On the other hand, left-wing Catholics interpret Kerry in a favorable light. Sister Joan Chittister, the progressive Catholic writer, wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that Kerry offers voters a "very good Catholic position" on many issues.
"Kerry has spoken out against racial profiling. He supports the restoration of affirmative action. He has pledged himself to restore civil liberties, lost during the Ashcroft era, to the United States itself. Those are very Catholic positions."
Separating Faith and Policy
Kerry himself would like to keep church doctrine out of public policy as much as possible.
His comments often parallel remarks by President Kennedy, who said in a famous 1960 speech to Houston clergymen, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. … I do not speak for my church on public matters—and the church does not speak for me." Numerous times, Kerry has said Catholic understandings about freedom of conscience, as detailed in Vatican II statements, give individual Catholics the go-ahead to disagree with Catholic teaching.
But, according to Father Richard John Neuhaus, a conservative Catholic intellectual and editor of First Things, Kerry's positions, on abortion and other matters, undermine Catholic canon law. It has little to do with a person's conscience. "Canon law has been very explicit," he said. Canon 915 forbids public officials who "manifestly persist in grave sin" from receiving Holy Communion.
On the campaign trail in May, Kerry spoke at a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser before 500 people in a hotel ballroom in Portland, Oregon. He said, "There's never been an administration before that so confuses the separation between church and state in America."
His remarks show some confusion; the Bush administration has never called in any denomination to support its policies. On the other hand, Bush has certainly suggested that his opposition to fetal stem-cell research is grounded in his religious beliefs. This clearly troubles Kerry, who takes jabs at Bush for this stance from time to time. In Jackson, Mississippi, at Greater Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Faith Church, Kerry br /oadsided Bush's faith-based presidency, saying, "We march forward against a sorry politics where too often words suffice where deeds are demanded. Remember 'a uniter, not a divider?' 'Compassionate conservative?' "
Kerry has many supporters who also blur classic church-state issues with the relationship of faith and public policy. Since March, the Clergy Network for National Leadership Change, a new interfaith group opposed to the "far-right" policies of the Bush administration, has emerged as a wellspring of religious support for Kerry. "We are especially dismayed by … the manipulative ignoring of the principles and practices of church-state separation," they said.
But Kerry's wish for a loose association between church teaching and policy troubles some prominent Catholics. Raymond Flynn, formerly mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, told CT, "There's this conflict between [Kerry's] politics, his career, and his religious faith. He's not about to give up his politics for his faith."
From his professional-class father, Richard, Kerry adopted realism as a guiding principle on many foreign policy questions. In Seattle, Kerry's final stop on his Pacific Northwest tour, patriotism and foreign policy were center stage at McCaw Hall.
Kerry's mission was to put on a friendlier face. "There is a powerful yearning around the world for an America that listens and leads again; an America that is respected and not just feared," he said.
Many of Kerry's foreign policy goals are parallel to Bush's. Both candidates believe that the Iraq war was necessary, that Israel should withdraw from Gaza, and that emerging nuclear states pose a grave threat. Bush and Kerry want America to support new democracies and fight human rights abuses.
Yet Kerry is a realist and Bush is the values-driven moralist. Kerry no longer talks about making Iraq a democracy as the Bush administration does. His goal of a stable Iraq fits with realistic foreign policy goals, which have Democratic and Republican support.
Robert Seiple, the evangelical founder of the Institute for Global Engagement and former U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said the Kerry campaign is using "20/20 hindsight" to pick apart Bush's foreign policy.
He told CT, "Kerry has made himself vulnerable by seeking a wider coalition and going to the U.N. There's not a lot of faith in the populace of our country in terms of a U.N. approach." Seiple noted that Bush has lobbied for U.N. support for key policies but has not always succeeded. Seiple agrees with a comment Tony Lake, a national security adviser to former President Clinton, once made: "Together when we can, alone when we must."
Seiple said the Bush administration is vulnerable to criticism from Kerry and others that American forces were underprepared for peace. "We were woefully underprepared for a war that turned out to be quicker than we thought. [The] follow-on was labor-intensive without the boots on the ground, without understanding the complexities of that part of the world."
Evangelicals for Kerry
The personal faith of a presidential candidate has always been important to evangelicals. And the votes of America's 50 million evangelicals may be a decisive factor in the November election. But it is difficult to predict precisely how this group will vote.
A Barna Research survey this spring found that 8 percent of evangelical respondents favored Kerry. Yet Religion & Ethics Newsweekly found that 23 percent of white evangelicals who are likely to vote support Kerry. The difference depended largely on how narrowly the researchers defined evangelical.
Some evangelicals who voted for Bush four years ago now support Kerry. Mark Bennett from br /ooklyn says the Bush administration has "betrayed" evangelicals. The administration, he said, "has co-opted the Christian Right with empty promises and has not told the truth to the American people about the war and about jobs."
The 45-year-old graphic designer is a member of a large evangelical Presbyterian congregation in New York and a Bible study leader. In 2000, Bennett campaigned and voted for Bush. The night of Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, however, he and his wife hosted a Kerry fundraising party at their apartment. Bennett wears a "John Kerry for President" button to church.
If evangelical Democrats are disillusioned with Bush, it does not mean they are enamored with the Democratic Party. As Swarthmore scholar Kurth puts it, "There's nothing that the Democratic Party has to offer evangelicals, certainly in terms of social issues. There are many working-class evangelicals.
"During the New Deal, they saw the federal government as helping them. But now they see it as br /inging along the Democratic Party's cultural agenda. There's an element of the Democratic Party that actively despises evangelicals."
Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and a leader with the antipoverty advocacy group Call to Renewal, disagrees. He says Democrats as a group are not "hostile" to evangelicals. "I think the Democrats in the last few decades have been controlled by secular fundamentalists who are concerned about any religious or even moral talk."
But he says, "That's changing. There's a big conversation going on in the party about this."
So will that conversation among Democratic elites steer Kerry toward successful pursuit of evangelical voters? The answer will not emerge until Election Day.
Mark Stricherz is a journalist in Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also posted today is Not Far from the Brahmin Tree | Kerry's morals have been shaped by an old Protestant establishment.
Other Christianity Today articles on John Kerry and the Democratic party from our Election 2004 page include:
A Question of Faith | Top Democrats have much work ahead to convince voters of their religious sincerity.—A Christianity Today editorial (March 03, 2004)
The Politics of Communion | Church leaders who admonish politicians on moral issues are doing their jobs.—A Christianity Today editorial (May 26, 2004)
Weblog: Kerry Touts His Sleeveless Faith | Plus: Mugabe's demand for church support, Economist predicts a new golden age of giving, new claims about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other stories from online sources around the world. (July 30, 2004)
Weblog: Boston or Bust | Plus: Vonette Bright, a homeschool lawsuit, and a dearth of other religion stories from online sources around the world. (July 29, 2004)
Weblog: Worshiping an 'Awesome God' at the Democratic National Convention | Plus: Amish in the City premieres tonight, challenging Sri Lanka's anti-conversion bill, Christians accused of bad motives in Sudan activism, and other stories from online sources around the world. (July 28, 2004)
Religion at the Democratic National Convention | Plus: Who's talking religion at the Democratic National Convention, council vows to keep praying in Jesus' name, and other stories from online sources around the world. (second item) (July 27, 2004)
Weblog: Why Kerry Is Sincere When He Says He Believes Life Begins at Conception | Plus: AmeriCorps loses suit on Catholic school placements, U.K. considers new religious hate law, Portland's Catholic archdiocese declares bankruptcy, and other stories from online sources around the world. (July 07, 2004)
Weblog: What John Edwards Believes | John Kerry's Methodist running mate oversees his church's urban ministries, but can he win evangelicals' votes? (July 06, 2004)
Bishop Bans Pro-choice Voters From Communion | Votes may be considered sin if cast for politicians who support abortions. (May 14, 2004)
Weblog: Communion Watch Continues | Why John Kerry probably won't be denied any time soon. (April 12, 2004)
Weblog: Kerry's Religion Is Today's Big Politics Story (March 29, 2004)
'Swing Evangelicals' | Democrats seek to show that they also have faith-based values. (Jan. 09, 2004)
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Home delivery of new issues in print with access to all past issues online.
- View the complete archive.
- Join now and get print issues access to archive PDFs.