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Almost a quarter century ago, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy addressed Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist College, and made an eloquent case for the separation of church and state, and for tolerance of people of all faiths and no faith, to an audience who would likely be hostile to the message. I think some of this is stirring, shockingly good, and I wanted to share it with you as we mourn his passing. (This comes with a hat tip, appropriately, to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, who also provided the transcript.)
Here are some highlights from the 1983 speech:
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The separation of church and state can sometimes be frustrating for women and men of religious faith. 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."
People of conscience should be careful how they deal in the word of their Lord. In our own history, religion has been falsely invoked to sanction prejudice -- even slavery -- to condemn labor unions and public spending for the poor. I believe that the prophecy, ”The poor you have always with you” is an indictment, not a commandment. And I respectfully suggest that God has taken no position on the Department of Education -- and that a balanced budget constitutional amendment is a matter of economic analysis, and not heavenly appeals.
Religious values cannot be excluded from every public issue; but not every public issue involves religious values. And how ironic it is when those very values are denied in the name of religion. For example, we are sometimes told that it is wrong to feed the hungry, but that mission is an explicit mandate given to us in the 25th chapter of Matthew.
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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 no to surround himself, as president 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.”
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In short, 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.
I hope for an America where we can all contend freely and vigorously, but where we will treasure and guard those standards of civility which alone make this nation safe for both democracy and diversity.