Kim Lawton, a correspondent for the PBS Show Religion & Ethics interviewed John Kerry last week after his “Service and Faith” speech at Pepperdine University on Monday. I’ve posted quite a bit of follow up on the speech, including another post earlier today, but this is a great interview worth sharing:
Here’s the full transcript of the interview (the video’s great but so much is left out):
Q: Why speak out on religion and politics now? Why this speech [at Pepperdine University] now?
A: Because it’s not in a campaign. I’m not a candidate for anything right now, and I think it’s important to assert some views about how religion is appropriate to a discussion and where it’s inappropriate. And I think, to some degree, the discussion has been abused and somehow distorted some of the central themes and principles of Judeo-Christian, Muslim, whatever religion ethic. There is an universality in those, and I think we’ve lost a little of that.
Q: Why is this such a hard topic for politicians to deal with?
A: Well, I think it’s hard for a lot of reasons. First of all, people will inherently be suspicious of anybody in public life, number one, which is why when someone asked me, “Are you sorry that you didn’t give this speech during the campaign?” I said no, because during a campaign is not sort of the appropriate moment at least to begin that conversation. Secondly, it’s obviously complicated, because it goes to your deepest, most personal beliefs, and faith by definition is faith. It is an article of faith that is sometimes not definable except through the faith itself, through your belief, and that can challenge people in a lot of different ways. So how it fits and where it fits and how it is tolerant of other beliefs that are different is a central clash that’s gone on for a long, long time. It’s not new.
Q: You mentioned you did it because you are not a candidate. When you were a candidate, what were some of the pressures that were brought to bear? Did you feel conflicting pressures from different wings of people wanting you to talk about it and not wanting you to talk about it?
A: Sure. I mean, there are always different views, but the job of somebody running is to sort through them and express your own view, and I didn’t have any problem with that. What I felt very deeply was that it was inappropriate to overstep a certain line of discussion, and what I found was if you don’t explain what your foundation is and you don’t share with people the fullness of how you come to whatever faith it is you have or don’t have, then people fill in the gaps for you, and that’s even more dangerous, because it has been made, forced into the political dialogue in a lot of ways. Now, that’s even tricky. It’s appropriate, if you have a moral foundation, you can’t leave your moral foundation over here and come to public life and say, “Hey, that’s over there, this is over here.” And I think that, to a degree, the debate over the last year has helped to make that clear to people. I think there was a little bit of, sort of, what’s the word, there was sort of an ease with which people were kind of pushing them apart. And the discussion of recent years, I think, has forced a lot of us to realize, wait a minute, maybe there is a correctness in forcing you to think about how you don’t separate them, but at the same time how you don’t step over certain lines that had been drawn since this nation was founded, and that’s really the discussion, if you will.
Q: Do you see a different climate now for how religion is playing a role this election season compared to two years ago?
A: I mean, I don’t see any climate yet, to be honest with you, which is one of the reasons why I sort of gave the speech. I think it would be inappropriate to do in the middle of some great tension, if you will.
But I wanted to make sure we have a discussion about this, because I don’t want to be put in a corner, and I don’t want to be misinterpreted, and I don’t want to be stereotyped, and I don’t want to be broad-brush defined in a way that doesn’t do respect to the thought and depth of feeling that I have about these issues and to the reality of the faith that I share. I’m not going to be pushed there, and I think it’s an important discussion. I get upset when I see whole issues that help to define a good Christian or a good Jew or a good Muslim absolutely pushed aside, not even considered, not even talked about publicly, and I think we need to focus on the broader issues, and I tried to define the way that we might be able to do that in that speech.
Q: I’ll finish up with more of a personal question. You talked very personally in your speech about your own spiritual journey, and you mentioned a period in the wilderness, and then you said you “suddenly and movingly” had a revelation about the connections between your faith and your work. What precipitated that, if you could say more about it?
A: I was really engaged in a very real personal journey of exploration, reading a lot, talking with people. I was going to the Senate prayer breakfasts and trying to find out, retest if you will, where am I in this? Feeling a little at loose ends is a good way to describe it. And I remembered when I was young, when I was an altar boy, when I was in my teens, I was very religious. I had a huge sense of peace and participation and emotional uplift through my participation in the Mass and the liturgy and so forth. And then I lost that. I wanted to see where that was. So I read a lot, had long conversations with people, and eventually just sort of had this light bulb go on in a very dramatic kind of way that I felt. It was tangible. I mean, you could really sense a kind of input that really surprised me. I mean, I don’t know where it came from. You know, people can describe how those things come, but it really changed how I was thinking about myself and God and my relationship to the church, and answers came that hadn’t been there previously.
Q: And then how did that work out for you?
A: Well, my wife and I share — she’s a very devout Catholic, and we share a very real faith. You know, I still sometimes question certain things. It’s just my nature. I can sometimes be a little more linear. But the test of reason and faith is an ongoing test, but it’s very real with me. The fundamentals are there, and there’s a confidence about it that comes through a lot of things. It’s like physicists. The more and more physicists explore the universe, the deeper and deeper many of them find their faith, because there are unanswered questions and things they see that they realize, they find an answer in a power that’s greater than them and greater than any understanding they have or science has. There’s a certain certainty that comes with you — maybe it’s something that happens with age, maybe it’s something that comes with the spirit. But whatever it is, it’s a good feeling.