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Jul 21, 2004 4:34 am

John Kerry and the Priesthood

Rick Perlstein, in a riveting piece in the Voice about Bush's conservative base, notes in passing that John Kerry once considered joining the priesthood. This is an interesting fact to know. At first glance Kerry's consideration of a life of religious sacrifice seems at odds with what we know about his febrile ambitiousness. We might conclude that having chosen in the end a political career instead of an ecclesiastical one, his ambitiousness won out, a telling sign of his true character.

But leaping to this conclusion is probably misguided. What is significant is not that he chose politics over religion but that at one point he took religion seriously enough to consider a career as a priest. That is evidence of a deep-seated idealism and says a lot about who John Kerry is at his core.

That a presidential candidate apparently considered two careers as different as politics and religion may seem idiosyncratic. It is hard to think of Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton for that matter deciding whether to choose between a life in the halls of power or a life inside the walls of a church. But actually presidents are far more likely than people in the general population to face just such a choice. Of the forty-two men who became president of the United States, five were raised to be ministers and another five were the children of ministers.

What you find when you dig deeply into the biographies of presidents is that a strong streak of idealism ran through nearly all of them. Even the most cynical of the lot like Richard Nixon revealed powerful idealistic impulses. In Nixon's case, he had a fervent desire to be regarded as a peacemaker, an inherited preoccupation from his Quaker mother, a pacifist. (From his father, a failed small businessman, he learned the less attractive lesson that losing is so awful that winning by almost any means is preferable.)

A reporter called up the other day wanting to know if Kerry's ambitiousness is abnormal. It is, I said, but nearly all presidents share a similar defect. Their drive for power is abnormal. Only abnormally driven people get to be president because every generation there aren't just one or two who want to live in the White House, there are dozens. In the competition to win the office candidates have to sacrifice their principles, their families, and their privacy. Only truly manically driven people are willing to do that.

What saves the presidents usually from all-consuming careerism and opportunism is a powerful idealistic streak. To find out that John Kerry once considered the priesthood is evidence that he too, somewhere deep down, responds to idealistic appeals.

There is a danger in idealism, too, of course, particularly in idealism that is rooted in religion. It can lead to self-righteousness and dogmatism. Unfortunately, it is this idealism that is most obvious in George W. Bush. Like Woodrow Wilson (who considered a career as a minister), Bush's powerful religious impulses seem to make him reluctant to compromise on core issues. To him and his supporters his reluctance to compromise is regarded as a sign of almost spiritual purity. To the rest of us it is evidence of a frightening willingness to ignore evidence and facts.

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Mark Daniels - 7/22/2004

Speaking as a Lutheran pastor who recently ran for the Ohio House of Representatives (and who, ran a failed congressional campaign twenty-eight years ago), the fact that John Kerry once seriously considered entering the priesthood comes as no surprise. Many may be shocked to know that many politicians and clergy-types have a great deal in common. They're usually leaders with above-average communication skills who are motivated to help people.

Other politicians have either been pastoral ministers, considered it, or at the least, had a deep faith commitment. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Party nominee for president, was a Methodist pastor before heading to Northwestern University to get his doctorate in History. (Interestingly, his advisor was Arthur S. Link, famed biographer of Woodrow Wilson.)

Faith commitments don't automatically lead to rigidity, of course. Jesus chastised believers of his time for the rigidity we see in some on the religious right and I doubt that he is terribly happy to see it advocated in his name.