In her first book, Maryland's former lieutenant governor talks about her religion, her past and the way she believes churches have fallen short of the ideal of social justice

Q&a -- Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

March 04, 2007|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun staff

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has no illusions that her first book might serve as a springboard back into elected politics.

The book - a reflection on her personal faith mixed with a broader look at America's religious traditions - argues that the Catholic and Protestant churches have lost their way in recent decades, falling short of the Christian concept of social justice as they've been "hijacked" by political conservatives.

"This is a book you can only write when you're out of politics," says Townsend, who served two terms as Maryland's lieutenant governor and is the eldest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy.

In 2002, as the Democratic candidate in a state that hadn't elected a Republican governor in more than three decades, Townsend began the race as the overwhelming favorite to become Maryland's first female chief executive. After a rough campaign in which she admittedly saw her values "not turn people on," Townsend lost to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and virtually disappeared from the state's public political scene.

Since then, Townsend has been teaching as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's School of Public Policy and - among other activities - serving as chairman of the advisory board at the University of Maryland's Institute for Human Virology. She was also a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and president of Operation Respect, a character education effort designed to reduce bullying and teasing.

"It's a busy schedule, but not quite as busy as it used to be," says Townsend, who still lives in Baltimore County with her husband, David, a professor at St. John's College. The youngest of their four children, all girls, is a high school sophomore.

Townsend has stayed out of the fray of Maryland politics - she says she was "very happy" when Martin O'Malley knocked off Ehrlich in November - but she remains engaged in national politics, having signed on to back the presidential efforts of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Maryland.

For the 55-year-old Townsend, the most challenging task over the past four years has been her book, Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way ($24.99, Warner Books).

Townsend spent a lot of time talking to members of the faith community, in Baltimore and nationally, trying to better understand their relationship to politics. She admits the book took longer to write than she had expected and notes that her efforts to open up about her own Roman Catholic faith - particularly during the most turbulent periods of her life, around the assassinations of her uncle and father - mark quite a change for a woman known as being intensely private when it comes to her family's tragedies. Why this topic?

This has been a passion of mine for many years. I wrote about religion and politics in the early '80s ... at The Washington Monthly. At that point, I thought there was a connection between faith and social justice and the common good, and I wanted the Democratic Party to capture that. Now I think I am more critical of the churches because ... I think they have privatized religion, narrowed the scope, divided people. I grew up with a different faith. And I think it's not just the time I grew up. ... It's our country's history. We've had a great progressive faith tradition. You mixed the broader history with a lot of your own personal life. Was that difficult to do?

I did, because I think if you talk about faith, you really have to avoid being preachy and judgmental. So I wanted to show that it comes from someplace deep inside me, my own faith. I think that dealing with tragedy and hardship and sadness is one way. As I indicated, this is not just made up, this is really true to me. ... The personal was very tough, because it's just really hard to relive those difficult moments. I've made it a point my whole life to be extremely private. But I thought that the credibility of my message required that I show in my own life what my faith has meant to me. There was one point here where you talked about rituals.

"I remember going to wakes, attending funerals, and comforting cousins and friends. Each time someone died, our faith gave us strength. We had a wake, prayed the Rosary and went to Mass. ... To the uninitiated, this may sound like gobbledygook or fairy tales. But to those like me who experienced the rituals time and time again, they gave shape to a very difficult and sad situation."

... There is a reason why [rituals] last through history, and why we grab onto them and need them. Yet I detect almost anger with the church, or disappointment and frustration, in this book.

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