Robert P. George vs. Steve Shiffrin on the Kennedy legacy

If you weren’t tuned in to the Catholic legal blog Mirror of Justice over the weekend, you missed several rounds between Robert P. George and Steve Shiffrin on the legacy of John and Ted Kennedy. Some highlights:

  • Was Kennedy’s speech an effort to privatize religion? asks Robert P. George:

    Although John F. Kennedy declared that he believed in an America where the separation of church and state is “absolute,” I doubt that he (or Ted Sorenson, for that matter) had any very firm views on the most significant issues about the proper role of religion in civic life. The point of the Houston speech was to reassure Protestants—especially those whose views had been shaped by Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power, and the mentality that produced that unfortunate polemic—that he would govern in accordance with American principles, not Catholic dogma. He wanted Protestants and others to rest easy in the confident belief that the Pope would not be dictating U.S. policy in a Kennedy administration. From our perspective today, it’s amusing to think of people worrying that John F. Kennedy (or his father Joe or his brother Ted) would be taking orders from the Pope . . . about anything. As Hadley Arkes has remarked, Kennedy evidently regarded his religion as so private a matter that he refused to impose it even on himself.

  • Steve Shiffrin rises to Kennedy’s defense (“I do not believe that cheap humor about the role of religion in people’s lives is amusing or charitable.”)
  • Steve Shiffrin, “Cheap Humor,” and the Kennedys – George comes back swinging:

    I disagree with Steve Shiffrin’s claim that Hadley Arkes’s remark amounts to “cheap humor.” On the contrary, it is humor that makes a telling and important point. Joseph P. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy (until public revelations of his conduct made it no longer possible) each depicted himself, or permitted his political machinery to depict him, as a man who was loyal in belief and practice to Catholic teaching. They used their professed Catholicism to paint a false picture of themselves for political purposes. They sought to deceive the voting public, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, about the kind of men they were, and they exploited the image they created of themselves as dedicated Catholics who lived by the teachings of the Church. …

    I do not share what I take to be Steve’s view that [Ted] Kennedy was a champion of social justice, though I can see why he does. Kennedy’s determined efforts to keep abortion legal and largely unrestricted, to pay for it with public funds, and to make it more widely available and easily accessible were, in my view, grave violations of justice and human rights. Ditto for his work to promote and publicly fund biomedical research in which nascent human beings are deliberately destroyed and dissected in the embryonic stage of development to produce pluripotent stem cells. There were, to be sure, some human rights issues, especially in the international field, on which Kennedy got it right in my view, and I would not withhold praise for him for those. I cannot, however, join Steve (if I’ve understood him correctly) in characterizing Kennedy as someone whose overall record is to be praised from a social justice perspective.

    On Joseph P. Kennedy’s profound contempt in practice for teachings of the faith he purported to hold dear, see Ronald Kessler, The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty he Founded.
    Readers who do not know much about the elder Kennedy will likely be shocked not only by his unremitting philandering, but also by his cruelty, dishonesty, personal viciousness, and anti-semitism. On JFK’s conduct, one need not turn to authors who are especially critical of him. All one needs to know to assess the validity of Arkes’s pointed remark can be found in material contained in An Unfinished Life : John F. Kennedy, 1917 – 1963, by Kennedy supporter Robert Dallek. (If you are interested in reading what more critical biographers have to say, see A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy by the historian Thomas Reeves and The Dark Side of Camelot by journalist Seymour Hersh.) Like his father, JFK was not merely a man who occasionally gave in to temptation but then repented, sought forgiveness, and tried to live uprightly. He really did, as Arkes puts it, refuse to impose his religion on himself—or even to try.

  • Steve Shiffrin protests:

    … to telescope a man’s life into a sinful episode 40 years ago, and to portray it as the way Kennedy lived his life as a Catholic is indefensible.

    Similarly to catapult one’s disagreements with Kennedy over abortion and stem cell research (my views by the way on these subjects are more complicated than George assumes) into a claim that Kennedy did not impose religion on himself is cheap exaggeration.

  • George with a smashing rebuttal:

    Ted Kennedy’s conduct at Chappaquiddick was, as Steve himself says, and as I’m sure all Catholics and other men and women of good sense would agree, reprehensible. But, as my article with Professor Quinn makes clear, his bad behavior in the matter was not confined to what happened on the evening of the accident and on the morning that followed. Nor, as the historical record shows, did his immoral conduct (in which I personally would include the calumniation of Robert Bork, though perhaps Steve will disagree about that) begin or end with Chappaquiddick. Steve says, “to telescope a man’s life into a sinful episode 40 years ago, and to portray it as the way Kennedy lived his life as a Catholic is indefensible,” Happily for purposes of resolving the questions in this debate (though quite unhappily in every other way), there is plenty of evidence in the record to show that Kennedy’s misconduct was frequent and often scandalous (quite literally so, especially for his sons and nephews—people who are familiar with Kennedy’s own testimony in the William Kennedy Smith rape trial will know all about that). The details are available in amply documented published accounts. If, to sustain his accusation that what I’ve said about Ted Kennedy is “indefensible,” Steve wants to claim that there is no evidence beyond “a sinful episode 40 years ago” for Kennedy’s blatant disregard for Catholic moral principles, I would urge him to have a look at even so sympathetic a review of Kennedy’s life as Adam Clymer’s recent Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography. Clymer, the New York Times writer once unflatteringly characterized by George W. Bush when the then newly elected President didn’t realize the microphone was still on, admires Kennedy and likes his politics, giving him high marks for his career in the Senate. But even this work dispels what might be called the “single episode 40 years ago” thesis. (Needless to say, less sympathetic writers leave the thesis utterly in tatters.)

On a related note, see Archbishop Chaput’s momentous address at Houston Baptist University, “The Vocation of Christians in American Public Life”. Delivered March 1, 2010:

Fifty years ago this fall, in September 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for president, spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He had one purpose. He needed to convince 300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation’s chief executive. Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected. And his speech left a lasting mark on American politics. It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong. Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life. And he wasn’t merely “wrong.” His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage. [more]


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2 thoughts on “Robert P. George vs. Steve Shiffrin on the Kennedy legacy

  1. Thanks for posting this digest Chris, but especially for Archbishop Chaput's speech. What great stuff! I can't help but to wonder how it went over with his audience.

    RL

  2. There is just no getting through to Camelot true believers. As with those who think Obama is God's Other Son, they always experience the presentation of evidence to the contrary as a personal attack, so invested are their egos in their ideology.

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