Kathryn Jean Lopez: Sarah Palin vs. the Kennedy Legacy

Roundup: Talking About History

[Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.]

One of the more unhinged criticisms of Sarah Palin flirts with accusing her of anti-Catholicism. “Is Sarah Palin anti-Catholic after attacks on JFK, Nancy Pelosi’s religious beliefs?” a writer for the Irish Voice asked by way of critiquing Palin’s new book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag.
Instead of grief, the former vice-presidential nominee and governor of Alaska deserves some credit for legitimately taking on a sacred cow of American civil religious history: John F. Kennedy speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960.

“In the best American tradition, he nobly defended religious tolerance and condemned official governmental preference of any faith over any other,” Palin writes. “But his language was more defensive than is portrayed today, in tone and content. Instead of telling the country how his faith has enriched him, he dismissed it as a private matter meaningful only to him.” She adds, “Rather than spelling out how faith groups had provided life-changing services and education to millions of Americans, he repeatedly objected to any government assistance to religious schools.”

Palin acknowledges that JFK was under intense attack. Still, she writes, “his vaunted speech didn’t represent a successful reconciliation of faith and public office, but an articulate and unequivocal divorce of the two. It is perhaps not surprising, in light of this fact, that his brother Ted Kennedy would go on to have a long career advocating positions directly at odds with his Catholic faith (which was by all accounts sincere).” Kennedy, in other words, added to the problem of how a faithful Catholic or other religious American might approach public life, opting to privatize faith in the service of public life.

Palin’s commentary did not sit well with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and eldest child of JFK’s brother Robert. Townsend took to The Washington Post to issue a scold. “Palin’s argument,” wrote Townsend, “seems to challenge a great American tradition, enshrined in the Constitution, stipulating that there be no religious test for public office.”

Townsend’s insistence that Palin endorses a religious test suggests she didn’t read the book quite as carefully as she says she did. And in her zeal to tear down Palin and protect the mythology of a “wall of separation” between church and state, Townsend misses Palin’s point — a point that questions the religious and cultural mythology surrounding the Kennedy family...

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Charles Brown - 12/16/2010

I read the book too. If anything, Palin is saying that Kennedy, running scared from bigotry, abandoned his rights under the constitution to have his Catholicism inform his public life.

If he really had faith, it would be impossible to separate the two anyway.