By Rob Boston
Every now and then you read a smackdown that can only be called definitive.
I experienced one of those moments recently reading Kathleen Kennedy’s Townsend’s response to Sarah Palin’s recent observations about President John F. Kennedy’s views on religion and politics.
Townsend, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, is one of Robert F. Kennedy’s children, making her JFK’s niece. She is a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and also teaches at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Center. She authored the 2007 book Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way.
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Palin is, well, Sarah Palin. She was U.S. Sen. John McCain’s running mate in 2008, served a half term as Alaska’s governor and before that was the mayor of town of 10,000 people. She is currently starring in a reality-television show on the TLC network.
Pitting these two is a sort of “Bambi vs. Godzilla” exercise. Palin felt compelled to comment on JFK’s famous 1960 speech on religion and politics in her new book, America By Heart. Palin is not a fan of that address, which is generally regarded as one of the most effective political speeches of the modern era.
During the speech, JFK explained to a group of Protestant ministers that he was not the Roman Catholic candidate for president – he was a Democratic candidate who happened to be Catholic. He criticized “religious tests” for public office, vowed to make his decisions on the basis of national interest (not his religion) and for good measure endorsed church-state separation. (You can read the background of the speech here. This article also contains a link to the text.)
All of this was too much for Palin, who asserted that Kennedy’s speech was “defensive” and led to an “unequivocal divorce” between private faith and public life.
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In her reply, Townsend patiently explained how Palin got it wrong. Townsend points out that Palin’s beef isn’t really with Townsend’s uncle, it’s with the Constitution. What Palin really wants is a religious test for public office.
“Palin’s argument seems to challenge a great American tradition, enshrined in the Constitution, stipulating that there be no religious test for public office,” Townsend writes. “A careful reading of her book leads me to conclude that Palin wishes for precisely such a test. And she seems to think that she, and those who think like her, are qualified to judge who would pass and who would not.”
If this indeed Palin’s thinking, then it puts her squarely in the camp of many misguided Religious Right activists over the years who have insisted that only certain believers (ones who think as they do) are fit to hold public office.
“Palin’s book makes clear just how dangerous her proposed path can be,” observes Townsend. “Not only does she want people to reveal their beliefs, but she wants to sit in judgment of them if their views don’t match her own. For instance, she criticizes Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), a Democrat and a faithful Catholic, for ‘talking the (God) talk but not walking the walk.’ Who is Palin to say what God’s ‘walk’ is? Who anointed her our grand inquisitor?”
I could say more, but you would do better to read Townsend’s column. Her critique of Palin’s latest collection of inane scribblings is on point – and devastating.