The resonances between Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s life experiences and my own surprise me, given our noteworthy differences — her Catholic versus my Jewish upbringing, her family connections and my more plebian family ties. Yet we both went to college in Boston at about the same time, and we both are strongly grounded in our religious traditions but take a questioning stance toward those traditions.

Townsend is the oldest child of Robert Kennedy. A few months before he was assassinated in 1968 while he was running for president of the United States, my mother had surprised me by agreeing to take some of my friends and me to the Atlanta airport, where Bobby Kennedy was making a campaign stop. Reaching through the crowds of people, I managed to shake his hand.

While reading Townsend’s book, “Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way,” I was moved nearly to the point of tears by a comparison she makes. She juxtaposes the answers that her father and Ronald Reagan had made to the identical question posed by David Frost in separate interviews in 1968: “What do you think we are on earth for?”

Robert Kennedy’s answer distinguished between the haves and the have-nots. He said that human beings are on earth to contribute to those who are less well off: “If you’ve made some contribution to someone else, to improve their life, and make their life a bit more livable, a little bit more happy, I think that’s what you should be doing.”

The response of Ronald Reagan — who had been governor barely a year before his name was considered for the presidential nomination in 1968, an effort that was dropped when he endorsed Richard Nixon — focused entirely on personal salvation: “I believe it’s inherent in the concept that created our country — and in the Judeo-Christian religion — that man is for individual fulfillment; for our religion is based on the idea not of any mass movement but of individual salvation.” (Reagan .)

Townsend will look at these ideas and others at a book talk and reading on Wednesday, October 24, in the Cooper Conference Room at the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Hall.

For Townsend, these two vastly disparate responses to Frost’s question represent two trends that have waxed and waned over American history and have been reflected in how both the Protestant and Catholic churches have related to larger social issues.

Her father came out of the tradition of the Social Gospel, nurtured in America by three Protestant beliefs that Townsend cites. The first is the tradition of protest, embodied in the word “Protestantism,” against a society where church and state were one. The second is a spiritual equality of human beings created by the same God, which created a model for political equality. The last is that, as creations of God, we have the potential to perfect ourselves and the society we live in.

Although Townsend recognizes the value of a personal spiritual life, she has some strong concerns about the God that Reagan describes. Taking it to an extreme, she observes, “Today God stops you drinking and makes you thin and rich; it is a personal God who thinks only about you.”

But she continues more philosophically. “There were always two streams in American history, between individualism and a sense of community,” she says, naming the New Deal and World War II as being strong in the communal direction versus the “roaring 20s” and the late 19th century, when the focus was more on the individual.

Townsend hopes to add momentum to movement by both evangelical churches and the Catholic hierarchy away from a total concern with issues of individual behavior, like abortion (and the related area of stem cell research) and same-sex marriage, and toward a sense of responsibility for the broader community.

The pendulum, she believes, is beginning to move back in that direction. “The whole fight of health care for all and a woman who wrote a book ‘It Takes a Village’ and is now a candidate for the Democratic nomination are part of that move,” she says.

From the evangelical world, she cites greater interest in ameliorating poverty. Rick Warren, the founder of the mega Saddleback Church with 50,000 parishioners in Lake Forest, California, became interested in the AIDS crisis in Africa through his wife, who wondered why innocent children were suffering from the disease. Warren reevaluated his beliefs and developed a five-point plan for improving the world economically as well as spiritually.

She has also seen some incremental change in the Catholic Church. She has seen a slight shift in focus among bishops, for example, to immigration rather than abortion. A friend of hers who is a state delegate compared her treatment as a candidate five years ago and today: In the first instance she was not allowed to conduct voter registration at her church because she was pro-choice. Now they are letting her because she is pro-immigrant.

Townsend also lauds a strong statement by the Pope on global warming and care for the earth, because it is God’s creation and we must be concerned about it. But she still throws up her hands in dismay at, for example, the Church’s unwillingness to allow contraception, resulting in huge majorities of Catholics, at least in the United States, ignoring this Church doctrine.

Faith, she says, has also made its way into liberal politics. Politicians on the left are beginning to find their way over the walls they have built between church and state, which Townsend feels goes beyond the intentions of the Founding Fathers. She writes, “This obsession with secularism weakens their moral authority in mobilizing the national will to take on ingrained problems that stem from poverty and deprivation of civil rights. It makes the leaders of the left sound intellectual but without passion.”

She has been happy to hear many of these candidates now talking openly about faith. “Hillary Clinton is very eloquent about her own faith that comes out of the Social Gospel tradition and teaches her to work for a just society,” Townsend says, adding that Barack Obama also talks about his faith. “It’s hard to accuse either of its not being natural or of its being contrived as happened in last election. They’re having a much easier time talking about faith.”

Townsend sees this book as in some sense a culmination of her life experiences. Foremost for her was growing up in a Catholic family that was quite religious — mass every Sunday, prayers every evening, holy water in all the rooms, and reminders that actions had consequences in the higher realms; regular admonitions in her home were “Do this for the souls in purgatory” and “You will get a gold star of heaven if you are good.” “The saints and spirits pervaded our lives,” she says. Yet the Catholicism she grew up with was not narrowly focused. In home and in school she learned through many of the teachings of Jesus about our responsibility to those with less than we have.

When she was 12, for example, she and a friend delivered a Christmas dinner and toys to a family living in a tenement building in inner-city Washington. And three weeks after her father died Townsend went to work on a Navajo reservation in Rough Rock, Arizona — having decided to do so in response to a challenge her father had made to students at her high school. She writes, “I wanted to be connected to my father’s work, to his mission, and to his understanding that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own. That meant caring for others, especially those whose lives offered them less opportunity than mine. It also meant bearing in mind constantly what was fair and just in society, and finding ways to speak out against apathy and indifference.”

Her religious upbringing also served her well as her family had to deal with so many deaths. “We learned that funerals and wakes were things that brought us together,” she says. “Funerals and wakes and ritual brought meaning and purpose.”

When Townsend was in college, she had to confront the Church’s beliefs on abortion when she found out a close friend was having one. “It was wrenching,” she says, “reconciling my Church with my friend.” To explore this issue deeply, she made it the subject of her senior thesis.

The hardening and narrowing of the Catholic Church’s views over the last two decades have hit her hard. “Over the last 20 years,” she says, “the church has changed its position to focusing primarily on abortion, gay marriage, and stem cells in exclusion of other rich teachings that I had loved and appreciated.”

Also as a result of the increasing focus nationally on abortion, she has been picketed during campaigns for public office.

Townsend does admit that the book reflects in good part her father’s legacy but she is quick to point out that much of her perspective is also formed by being a woman. “I do think there’s a lot of my father in the book,” she says, “but he wasn’t a woman and didn’t have the issues of abortion that I had.” She has taken her father’s views — “the good part of the Catholic church, the more positive traditions” — and moved beyond them to ask why these traditions have changed and how that is affecting the next generation, particularly of women.

Townsend graduated from Harvard University with a degree in history and literature in 1973 and received a law degree from the University of New Mexico, where she was a member of the law review, in 1978. As deputy assistant attorney general of the United States, she helped design and launch the Police Corps, which gives college scholarships to young people who pledge to work as police officers for four years after graduating.

Townsend was elected as Maryland’s first woman lieutenant governor in 1995 and served until 2003. She is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Public Policy and has been a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government. She is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations.

She lives outside Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband, David, who is a professor at St. John’s College in Annapolis. They have four daughters, Meaghan, Maeve, Kate, and Kerry. “My children, not surprisingly, are also pretty liberal,” she says, but their focus is different because their world is different. She names the environment as their cause. “The environment is a metaphor that we live in a planet in which there are no lines dividing us from one another; the air we breathe, the water we drink, are fluid and connect us; polluting is not an individual right.” She adds that this sense of a world community has been enhanced by the challenge of AIDS and even by the recent global crisis with the subprime mortgages.

Townsend believes that religion still has much to teach us about activism in the political realm. “Religion gives us a way to see the world and our place in it,” she says, “and I think it has an important role in shaping our consciousness and awareness, and our consciences.”

In her book she indicts both religious institutions that have failed to carry out their responsibilities in this realm as well as progressives who, she says, “want to push religion out of politics, without understanding that much of the progressive movement has been led by people of faith.”

In the end, though, Townsend is an optimist. She is putting her bets on the small steps she has noted recently toward accepting the Social Gospel. “What I have always believed,” she says, “is that if you start focusing on one area, you can’t keep the spirit down.”

Meet the Author Series, Wednesday, October 24, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Princeton Theological Seminary, Erdman Center. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, former lieutenant governor of Maryland, and author of “Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way.” Free. To register, download a mail-in at or call 609-497-7990.

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