Outlook: Sarah Palin is wrong about John F. Kennedy, religion and politics

Dec 06, 2010

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was online to discuss her Outlook piece, "Sarah Palin is wrong about John F. Kennedy, religion and politics." In it she writes, "Palin fails to understand the genius of our nation. The United States is one of the most vibrant religious countries on Earth precisely because of its religious freedom. When power and faith are entwined, faith loses. Power tends to obfuscate, corrupt and focus on temporal rather than eternal purposes. "

Hi, I'm Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and I'm thrilled that there was such interest in my article about John Kennedy and freedom of religion. It is terrific that The Washington Post is giving me this opportunity to respond to questions and I look forward to answering as many as possible.

Do you believe there is a separation between God and state? Thank you, Mark Hopkins.

As John Kennedy said, the rights of man come  not from the state, but from the hand of God. 

Do you believe the crumbling of the wall of separation between church and state would eventually lead to the federal funding of private schools run by certain religions that are able to pass a government litmus test?

I am not ready to accept that the wall will crumble and certainly don't believe that federal funds should be used for proselytizing. 

Do you find the current political trend of Palin supporters and so-called news agencies frightening and something we all should speak out against?

I think there's always been vigorous debate in our country and that each of us should make our voices heard. 

Do you believe Sarah Palin is trying do diminish the legacy of your late uncle and if so, why?

I think that Sarah Palin wants to religious test into politics and I think that is unconstitutional. America is an exceptional country because of the way we encourage freedom of religion. 

Why is it that any professed Christian would allow people to yell "Hang him" at rallies where she was slamming Obama? I mean, I think there are a lot of wolves in sheep's clothing out there who don't have a clue what Jesus and His teachings were about. Why are these people not being called on *their* un-Christian behavior? Seems that is at issue here. I don't see Ms. Palin as having a clue what walking the Christian walk is about.

I don't know why anybody would allow anybody to yell 'Hang him' at rallies. I would hope that The United States is a place where we can disagree and respect one another, respect the dignity of every human being. 

Perhaps a tangential question, but should Sarah Palin's words really be taken seriously to the point of warranting a rebuttal? It seems painfully clear to me that many of the things she says or writes aren't well though out and only serve two purposes - firing up her supporters and lining her pocket with their money. Maybe I'm too cynical, but I don't see genuine conviction in her words - merely attempts to incite and inflame, and unfortunately that plays heavy in today's political climate.

I think words matter. And when a person of Mrs. Palin's prominence argues in favor of a religious test, it is critical that be argued. I remember my father quoting Dante -- ''The hottest places in Hell are preserved for those who in time of political crisis preserved their neutrality." when something precious is being attacked. When what makes America exceptional is under siege, I must speak out. 

The democratic party is very diverse, and this very diversity makes it almost impossible to put forth a decent campaign. Democrats have to battle Dixicrats who typically mix politics and religion; bluecollar workers who don't always agree with minority rights because they feel victimized by affirmative action, heavily left leaning audiences who don't think they do enough---how do you reconcile all these elements to bring about a consistent message and beat Republicans who manage not only to beat with one drum stick and lull everyone into a stupor?

I think Democrats share a commitment to justice and freedom for all and that can best be achieved by making sure that our laws are enforced and that we have a growing economy that we put investments in infrastructure, in education and in green energy, so that America can continue to build a strong middle class in which the wealth of our nation is for all and that the blessings of liberty can be passed on to the generation. 

What an excellent and important essay! Your father was my political hero when I organized College Democrats for Kennedy in Louisiana in 1968. I later attended Boston University School of Theology, majoring in social ethics as a result of his inspiration. However, I think you are being far too charitable by suggesting that Sarah Palin and her ilk "miss" what the Constitution is about; rather, I believe they simply reject it and are eager to launch a new inquisition, becoming the American equivalent of the Taliban. It is a profoundly insidious outlook, all the more dangerous because at least one Justice of the Supreme Court seems to be on the same wavelength. What more can we do in the political arena to stand up to this assault on freedom of thought?

It sounds like you're doing a lot. You're talking about what you believe and writing about it. Congratulations, keep it up. 

You quote Palin as saying, "morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs." I'd just like to offer up myself as proof that that simply isn't true. I was raised with no religious beliefs, and have raised four children without them. We are all good, just people who choose right over wrong every time. I once had a professor who told me he was amazed how righteous my family was considering we didn't go to church or practice any religion. I'm sure my family is not the only one. I just wanted it to be known that people can choose to do the right thing without God telling them to do so.

Thank you for your story. 

What if we all pledged to NOT cover Sarah Palin for, say, two weeks? Right now she gets publicity for everything...take away her forum and give us all a break.

I'm not opposed to trying it. 

Ms Townsend fails to address the facts of American history in that the founders, and generations of Americans thereafter, allowed and encouraged the education of children by Christian churches. There was no public school system for generations. Also, separation of Church and State is not mentioned in any founding documents. Would Ms Townsend like to address these two omissions now?

Yes, obviously it's great for students to go to Catholic schools, run by religious by denominations. I myself went to a parochial school, a Catholic school for ten years. The issue is not whether students should go to schools run by religious denominations, but whether tax dollars should pay for them. What is in our founding documents is the 1st Amendment, which clearly says there should be no establishment of religion and that there should be no government interference in religion. 

One thing I believe people fail to grasp is that times and people change. The struggles that John Kennedy faced as a Catholic running for President reduced much of the previous religious prejudice so far that religion is far less an issue today. Prior to that, it was almost accepted political reality that a Catholic would have a serious problem being elected. Today, it is barely an issue. Thus, when people comment on religion today, the context of the public discussion has changed. Would it be more appropriate if Sarah Palin and others would first recognize the changed level of discussions and concentrate from there rather than criticizing comments from a past era when people had far different reactions to what was being said by the words that were said?

What I think she should do is recognize that there should be no religious test and she should not judge whether people are walking God's walk. 

Not a question but a sincere thank you, for saying precisely what I'd love to say to Ms. Palin's face. You are definitely someone I'd love to meet before I die.

Thank you! I'd like to meet you. 

John F. Kennedy still inspires people long after his death. I wasnt alive when he was president, but still find his presidency and long lasting message to be inspirational. Sarah Palin not only gets Lincoln and Kennedy wrong, she gets Ronald Reagan wrong as well. Religion is something that should be observed between oneself and whatever religion they wish to worship. It sends a chilling message when Sarah Palin would sit in judgment of others religion and their beliefs. I just dont understand for the life of me how Palin has this much appeal within the Republican party.

My hope would be that we would talk to Republicans and find out why Palin appeals to them so much. I think it's interesting when we can hear a viewpoint from somebody different from ourselves. 

Good article. We need more people to challenge these political televangelists that want to force their beliefs on America. Good job and God bless.

Thank you!

As a moderate Republican, I don't feel I am represented by Ms. Palin, the tea party, or the (in my perception) the very left leaning Democrats. I feel the primary system is responsible for the fringes having so much control over our national politics. Would you comment on recent initiatives in the northwest to organize elections around the top vote getters regardless of party? I believe that would result in the appropriate marginalization of Ms. Palin, and her mirror images in the other party.

You raise a very fascinating point. We shall soon see what the result will be of getting parties out of politics. 

I have no question I just want to say thank you. This was a great article and it says what alot of us want to say about religion and politics and what is happening in this country and where it is going wrong. And it is nice to hear someone putting Mrs. Palin in her place. Thanks again.... You come from a great family that really cares about people.

Thank you very much for your kind words. 

Your uncle J F Kennedy was absolutely right in keeping religion separate. Why did he not introduce the British model where despite the Queen being the Head of the Church and the Prime Minister selecting the ministerial heads and firmly advocating religious freedom, they have had managed to keep religion out of politics for hundreds of years?

The British model has a different history than the American one. 

Thank you for your very insightful article. What are the tests we can apply--or questions we can ask--to help us determine whether activities or statements are crossing the line that should be separating church and state?

This is a very broad question. As you know the Supreme Court has been trying to draw lines for years and there are many different areas of conflict -- this is probably not the best forum in which to draw the line. 

In a recent piece, Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, mentions the statement from the Houston speech that says "The separation of church and state is absolute." Is "absolute" the right word there?

I think "absolute" was appropriate. Obviously, religious faith has enormous influence over people's actions, including politicians and John Kennedy recognized that when he said that civil rights was a moral issue, as old as the scripture. 

There are an ever increasing number of Americans who have either ceased to believe in a celestial deity or believe "God" is absent or negligible in human affairs. In your opinion, why is this increasing minority - a minority which has grown to out number numerous religious minorities - forgotten about and so often openly discriminated against?

I think that's an interesting question. I'd love to hear how how you believe that they are discriminated against. Do you mean in terms of jobs or housing or education? 

Do you believe Sarah Palin is trying to be as provocative as possible? She seems to have the talk radio persona of trying to be as outlandish as possible.

i am not going to look into her soul and decide why she does what she does...Enough to examine her words


When Palin wrote, "morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs." was she really not saying that 'it is my preception of morality and my preception of religion [fundalmentist Christianity] that should be the standand in America? Is that not the most exclusionary philosophy and thus unconstitutional view possible?

Do you worry that the legitimate points you make in your article might be drowned out by the "oh just another attack on poor Palin" meme in the media? I think she should be challenged but I get disheartened that even well thought out arguments get lost in this morass.

As I said in the artilce...people without faith are certainly ethical....and to judge them as immoral contradicts Lincoln's request that we show "charity towards all"

I loved your article and agreed 110%. My question is - how did our nation get so far off track? Religious freedom and tolerance is part of the fabric of our history, and the constitution clearly says there is a separation of church and state. And yet, we are increasingly divisive as a nation with religion often at the center of that dialogue. Why is that? And why does anyone care what religion someone else is?

Good question....I think that many have a different view about when a fetus becomes a person...and so I think it is best to follow the Supreme court on this..


and by the way...every wrong is not illegal...we don't jail people for swearing and yet the  Ten Commandments explicty say that is wrong.


Why did you bother to respond to the ignorance of Sarah Palin?

I usually try to refrain from claiming what my relatives would think about present conditions....but thanks for asking!!

I do not think Palin actually believes what she has written about JFK. She desires an image as iconoclast and simply attacks a great Democrat to further that goal. She reveals a great deal about herself in this, perhaps most notably in her willingness to use religion as a weapon. Do you think Governor Palin is genuine in her position, or is she pursuing a political strategy?

I don't know the inner workings of her mind...I do disagree with what she says...and so that it what I will focus on.


Do you think that Sarah Palin simply changes her viewpoints depending on the time and what audience she is trying to reach? It seems to me like she will always try to say whatever is popular among conservatives at the time.

I don't know..>I don't follow her that closely.

It seems like liberals are very selective in the opposition to mixing church and state. When Catholic prelates are denouncing pro-choice stances of Catholic politicians (many of whom oppose even minimal restrictions on abortion), we are told that is mixing church and state. But I don't seem to recall such response from liberals when Martin Luther King Jr. was challenging segregation in the South back in the 1950s and 60s or when Jesse Jackson campaigned in black churches in his two presidential bids.

Bishops can certainly announce their positions.  I believe that is totally legitimate...even if I disagree with thier views.  The mixing of church and State is when politicians are asked to exlain their faith....totally different situation.   People of faith..as you have rightly pointed out...have always put forth their beliefs...however one can use wisdom as to when it is appropriate and when not.


Your Outlook article was superb and finally a renowned Democrat has pushed back on Sarah Palin's demagoguery. How does the Democratic Party use your excellent commentary to paint Sarah Palin as the dangerous religious extremist she is, one who would apply her judgement to all of us using her own religious convictions? I think Americans will not tolerate being told what religious beliefs they must hold and if Palin can be labeled as the religious enforcer, that will begin to lessen her influence. Thank you.

Thank uou...I think that many people will question her on this!!


Please give an example where a politician's religious views should not guide him/her in making a decision to support or reject legislation. The Stupack amendment to the healthcare reform effort would be a great example to cover in your answer.

As you know...many nuns came out in favor of health care...because they knew it did support abortion and did help lots of people. 

To what degree do you think that modern life has overwhelmed most people, particularly the undereducated, and consequently people, and even many of our leaders, have resorted to advancing their religious identity rather than an actual understanding of the problems confronting our society today. Probably because the problems are far too difficult to understand and to explain in an effort to forge an agreement and resolution? If this is true, do you believe we are being served by all the social networking, or are we becoming even more resistive to change, as we come in contact with competing views, the incessant machinations of the media to provide a victim, and, in fact, just plain babble at times, of which this question may be a perfect example.

This is an excellent question...

Well educated people can be believers...as am I ....I would need a lot more time to answer!! 

Because America's commitment to religious freedom has been tarnished historically by not always tolerating freedom of religion for Catholics, do you think that a Catholic presidential candidate still faces a loss of votes because of religious predjudice--especially given the continuing bigotry spouted against the Catholic Church by some televangelists?

Well I think John Kerry suffered because the Bishops could attack him in a way that they could not attack a non Catholic...

I can't help but wonder if Palin and Romney are simply under-educated about the history of the separation of church and state, and the many ways religious difference has been the cause of war and oppression. They may not even realize the depth of the issue, and because they are so religious, are biased and may not want to hear it. (I had a Catholic education and was not truly educated / objective about this until a graduate education in sociology.)

I don't know why they  do as they do....

If religious belief is not the foundation of morality, what is?

I started an office of Character Education in Maryland...and we agreed to many virtues that we wanted our children to develop...including honesty, kindness, respect, respsonsibility, courage, fortitude ....People of faith and people of no faith did agree!!!

Thank you so much. I really enjoyed chatting with so many of you...and I appreciate the depth of the interest in this very important topic.  Religion and politics may be subjects not to be discussed at dinner...but luckily the Post encourages us in other forums!!

In This Chat
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the author of "Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God With Politics and Losing Their Way."
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