Kerry's religion response

October 27, 2004|By Jules Witcover

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Forty-four years ago, a Catholic candidate for president, John F. Kennedy, faced questions about whether he was "too Catholic" -- whether he would let his religion dictate his political decisions. He dealt with the fears of some Protestant ministers by appearing before them in Houston and persuasively vowing the contrary.

This time around, another JFK from Massachusetts is challenged by conservatives who imply that Catholics particularly shouldn't vote for him because he isn't "Catholic enough" -- because he opposes his church's political positions on issues such as abortion and stem cell research.

Sen. John Kerry sought here Sunday to counter the view in a sober, Bible-quoting defense of his faith in terms of the values he takes from it, pointedly implying that his positions on political issues more faithfully reflect them than do many of the policies of the avowed born-again Christian Mr. Bush.

"In the Book of James," he said, "we are taught: `It is not enough, my brother, to say you have faith when there are no deeds. Faith without works is dead.'"

And later: "The Bible tells us that in others we encounter the face of God: `I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you received me in your homes; naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.' This is the final judgment of who we are and what our life will mean.

"I believe we must keep faith, not only with the Creator, but also with present and future generations. Will we leave as our legacy a polluted land, or will we pass on to generations to come a land that truly can be called America the beautiful? Will we take action now to cut the cost of energy so that already overburdened seniors in the colder parts of our country can afford heat in the winter -- and here in Florida, stay cool and healthy in the heat of summer?"

And still later: "My faith, and the faith I have seen in the lives of so many Americans, also teaches me that, `Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.' ... The ethical test of a good society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. Who among us is more vulnerable today than the 8 million Americans who are out of work? Who is more vulnerable than the 45 million Americans without health insurance?"

As for the criticism that he strays from the Catholic fold, Mr. Kerry said: "I know there are some bishops who have suggested that, as a public official, I must cast votes or take public positions on issues -- like a woman's right to choose and stem cell research -- that carry out the tenets of the Catholic Church. I love my church. I respect the bishops. But I respectfully disagree.

"My task, as I see it, is not to write every doctrine into law. That is not possible or right in a pluralistic society. But my faith does give me values to live by and apply to the decisions I make."

Until recently, Mr. Kerry seemed reluctant to make his faith an issue in the campaign. But the bishops' criticisms, and the Bush campaign's trumpeting of the president's religiosity, apparently dictated something from him that included words from the Bible to drive home a point.

Enrique Arroyo of Miami, a supportive listener, said Mr. Kerry's remarks were needed because of concern that Mr. Bush was claiming Christianity as his own. "I think the Bush campaign has dragged us down," he said. "Kerry's substance is love, Bush's substance is hate." Mr. Kerry, he said, "needed to define himself" in the face of the opposition's relentless attacks on his values.

Mr. Kerry's observations on his Catholicism, however, have not generated the public attention that Mr. Kennedy's received 44 years ago. Their political impact at this late date is questionable, given the fervor of born-again Christians for Mr. Bush. But they did respond to Kerry campaign critics who have suggested their candidate had been too reticent on the subject.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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