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Observers Say Kerry Has Shown Democrats a ‘Third Way’ to Discuss Religion and Public Life

by Pamela Leavey

John Kerry’s speech, ‘Service and Faith,’ at Pepperdine University on Monday is still making headlines nearly a week later and some observers are saying that Kerry’s speech has “shown Democrats a “third way” of discussing faith and public life that comes across as genuine and heartfelt.”

One of America’s best-known politicians captivated a crowd at an evangelical college Monday with his intimate tale of being spiritually lost as a young adult — and then having a dramatic awakening.

“Suddenly and movingly, I had a revelation about the connection between the work I was doing as a public servant and my formative teachings” as a lifelong Roman Catholic, he said.

“Indeed, the Scriptures provided a firmer guide about values applied to life — many of the things you are wrestling with now today.”

While that kind of speech may be routine — even obligatory — for many Republican politicians, the testimony at Pepperdine University on Monday came from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee whose hesitance to discuss his personal faith came to symbolize his party’s discomfort with faith-based politics.

It is clear for most people who give their lives to service, that service comes from a calling from something or someone higher than ourselves. This is something that Kerry articulated poignantly in his speech on Monday and as I noted here on Tuesday, it was my faith and values that called on me to do more to fight the extremism of the Bush administration and ultimately support John Kerry. Now, John Kerry has joined a growing group of prominent Democrats, who have “recently articulated how their religious beliefs came to shape their political visions.”

Bob Casey, who aims to unseat Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, told a Catholic University crowd on Sept. 15 that government should reflect the Catholic principle of “affirming the dignity of every human being.” And in June, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told a rapt audience of having “knelt at the foot of the cross” and felt a calling straight from God.

Kerry said in his speech in Malibu, Calif., that he had “learned that if I didn’t fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me.”

“I think he wins more than he loses” by giving the speech, said Bill Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League, who has criticized Kerry’s support of abortion rights. “It reduces any suspicions people may have had as to why — what was the cause of his reticence? Does he not really believe? Is that why he doesn’t want to speak about his religious convictions? I think people will be less suspicious of him on this score.”

Kerry in effect has acknowledged, Donohue said, that any serious candidate for president must be able to connect personal religious convictions with public policy priorities.

Making that case won’t necessarily cost him votes at home in left-leaning Massachusetts, according to Shannon Jenkins, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. In fact, she said, the state’s many socially conservative Democrats and independent voters “would probably be more likely to vote for him based on this speech.”

But, she added, Kerry may be creating problems for himself by cozying up to Catholic bishops even as they oppose gay marriage in Massachusetts, which she called a “divisive” issue in the Bay State.

“There would probably be far more negative repercussions from trying to come up with a Christian defense of gay marriage or from opposing gay marriage than talking about the need to make abortion safe, legal and rare,” Jenkins said. “So he wisely (from a political perspective) avoids the issue of gay marriage.”

In 2004, a handful of Roman Catholic bishops suggested Kerry shouldn’t receive Communion because his support of abortion rights was at odds with church teaching. Rather than turn his back on the church, however, Kerry in his speech praised U.S. Catholic bishops for having provided “great spiritual wisdom and guidance” in their 2004 election guide.

Kerry went further by proposing new policy measures, such as tax credits for adoptive parents, in order to reduce the number of abortions in America.

“Unfortunately, the economic policies of these last six years increase the pressure on women with unplanned pregnancies to seek abortions,” Kerry said.

Some Democrats celebrated Kerry’s willingness to quote extensively from Scripture and to frame economic issues as moral ones. Among them was Shaun Casey, a social ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and a member of a working group advising the Kerry campaign on religious outreach in 2004.

“I think he has done a lot of listening in evangelical and Catholic circles after the election, and I think this speech is the fruit of having listened to some of those voices,” Casey said. “It would have been great had he done this earlier.”

Other observers said Kerry is creating room for more Democrats to talk about faith in ways that are both authentic and resonate with voters.

“What I think it does for the party in general is provide a really thoughtful model for how to talk about your faith without sounding like James Dobson or George W. Bush or Ralph Reed,” said Amy Sullivan, a Washington journalist who is writing a book on Democrats and religious politics.

“So often Democrats have thought they had two choices: one was to talk about religion like those guys did, and one was to remain silent. And John Kerry has now provided a third way.”

The full text of John Kerry’s speech, ‘Service and Faith’ is available here and there’s more here, including the views of two Pepperdine students and a link to the video of the speech.

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