In October 1983, Senator Ted Kennedy gave a speech at Liberty University, the college founded by Jerry Falwell. This was in the heydey of the Moral Majority. Falwell had been invited to give a speech at Harvard, and had been booed, something Kennedy said was not Harvard’s greatest hour. Kennedy received a more respectful reception at Liberty.
Soon after that event, I read Kennedy’s speech, called “Truth and Tolerance in America,” in the magazine Liberty. A couple months ago, I read it again. The speech refers to issues specific to a different period of history, like the nuclear freeze and Equal Rights Amendment. But the principles Kennedy states apply today.
Kennedy made four points:
1. We must respect the integrity of religion itself.
2. We must respect the independent judgments of conscience.
3. In applying religious values, we must respect the integrity of public debate.
4. We must respect the motives of those who exercise their right to disagree.
Here are some quotes:
I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society. I believe there surely is such a thing as truth, but who among us can claim a monopoly on it?
The separation of church and state can sometimes be frustrating for women and men of religious faith. They may be tempted to misuse government in order to impose a value which they cannot persuade others to accept. But once we succumb to that temptation, we step onto a slippery slope where everyone’s freedom is at risk….Let us never forget: Today’s Moral Majority could become tomorrow’s persecuted minority.
Today there are hundreds — and perhaps even thousands of faiths — and millions of Americans who are outside any fold. Pluralism obviously does not and cannot mean that all of them are right; but it does mean that there are areas where government cannot and should not decide what it is wrong to believe, to think, to read, and to do.
People of conscience should be careful how they deal in the word of their Lord. In our own history, religion has been falsely invoked to sanction prejudice — even slavery — to condemn labor unions and public spending for the poor.
Religious values cannot be excluded from every public issue; but not every public issue involves religious values.
Those who proclaim moral and religious values can offer counsel, but they should not casually treat a position on a public issue as a test of fealty to faith.
Where it is right to apply moral values to public life, let all of us avoid the temptation to be self-righteous and absolutely certain of ourselves.
We sorely test our ability to live together if we readily question each other’s integrity. It may be harder to restrain our feelings when moral principles are at stake, for they go to the deepest wellsprings of our being. But the more our feelings diverge, the more deeply felt they are, the greater is our obligation to grant the sincerity and essential decency of our fellow citizens on the other side.
Those who favor E.R.A [Equal Rights Amendment] are not “antifamily” or “blasphemers.” …For my part, I think of the amendment’s opponents as wrong on the issue, but not as lacking in moral character
I hope for an America where neither “fundamentalist” nor “humanist” will be a dirty word, but a fair description of the different ways in which people of goodwill look at life and into their own souls.
I hope for an America where the power of faith will always burn brightly, but where no modern Inquisition of any kind will ever light the fires of fear, coercion, or angry division.
I hope for an America where we can all contend freely and vigorously, but where we will treasure and guard those standards of civility which alone make this nation safe for both democracy and diversity.