Ehrlich and Townsend embrace influence of faith in public lives

But neither is completely in step with church beliefs

October 04, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, raised in a devout Roman Catholic family that gathered each night to recite the rosary, credits her faith with teaching her the importance of social justice and public service.

As part of his upbringing in Protestant churches, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was required to memorize Bible verses each day at his Lutheran school, says religion taught him basic values like honesty, respect for others and an ethic of hard work.

Maryland's gubernatorial candidates may not agree on political ideology, but both say that religious faith has molded their character and values, and continues to influence their vocation as public servants.

Townsend's commitment to values education in public schools and mandatory service requirements, for example, are initiatives that she believes are rooted in the Catholic tradition of striving for social justice. Ehrlich's support of federal funding for faith-based institutions to provide social services is based on his belief in the power of religion to transform shattered lives.

But neither Ehrlich nor Townsend is completely in step with their churches. Ehrlich, a United Methodist, disagrees with his church's support for gun control and opposition to capital punishment and legalized gambling. Townsend favors the death penalty and supports abortion rights, both contrary to Catholic teaching.

More than guiding their public lives, both candidates say their religious beliefs shape their private lives.

Ehrlich says he begins each day in silent prayer as he readies himself for work. He prays "after my shower, driving to Washington, or these days driving around the state. I'm not ready for the day until that gets done," the congressman said. "It's very personal, and it's just me."

Townsend says she regularly attends Mass with her family at a city parish and tries to follow the example of her favorite saint, St. Therese, the little flower. "I love that notion of how one is supposed to act in the world," said the lieutenant governor. "You think about each day, what you can do."

Prayer in daily routine

Townsend, 51, said prayer was part of her daily routine as a child. "Every summer my mother went to daily Mass, and we went to daily Mass with her," she said. "And every night, not only did we say prayers with dinner, which is tradition, but around 8 we would say the rosary as a family and read the Bible." Part of what she learned from these lessons was an obligation to help others, she said.

She attended Catholic schools for a decade, first at Our Lady of Victory parish school in Washington and then at Stone Ridge, a girls high school in Bethesda. Townsend said she saw her teachers as role models and mentors: strong, intelligent, principled women who taught her she could make a difference in the world.

She recalled a comment from the Stone Ridge headmistress, Mother Marie Odeide Mouton.

"She said, `Silence is golden, but sometimes it's just plain yellow,'" Townsend said. "And the idea was in a school in which we always had to be silent, we'd walk in two straight lines, you curtseyed every time you saw a nun, we wore white gloves every Monday, even in that highly disciplined situation, she knew that you had to speak out when things were wrong. And I thought that was a kind of subversive view."

Townsend so admired the nuns that that there was a brief time when she considered becoming one. "I think every Catholic girl wants to be a nun at one point in her life," she said. "I think it was as serious as that."

Religion also became a source for solace during times of tragedy, particularly the assassinations of her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, and her father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. "When pain and tragedy affects your life, which it has, you tend to pray a lot more and try to make sense of why did that happen and ask for God's grace to try and deal with it," she said.

"I do think all the tough times that each of us face, and there are many, are an opportunity for God to give us wisdom about how we should act, what we should do," she said.

Although she lives in Ruxton, Townsend and her family worship at SS. Philip and James Catholic Church in Charles Village, near the Johns Hopkins University. The pastor, the Rev. William Au, is a well-known activist and the parish is heavily involved in Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, a grass-roots, church-based community organization. "The fact that she comes here reflects her commitment to the city, that this is what she would like her church to be doing," Au said.

Protestant upbringing

Ehrlich, 44, has drawn his religious inspiration from several Protestant denominations. When he was born, his parents attended a United Church of Christ congregation near their home in Arbutus, where his mother taught Sunday school.

"He was taken to church when he was 6 weeks old," said his mother, Nancy Ehrlich. "And to Sunday school as soon as he could walk."

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