The Common Good

Kerry talks of loss, renewal of his Catholic faith

Date: September 19, 2006

In a speech he said he wishes he had given before the 2004 presidential election, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) yesterday described his religious life in greater candor and detail than ever before.

Kerry said in Malibu, Calif., that he "wandered in the wilderness" after the Vietnam War but came back to the Roman Catholic Church after a sudden and moving revelation in the late 1980s.

Kerry expressed regret over his reluctance to talk publicly about his faith during his failed presidential campaign. "I learned that if I didn't fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me. I will never let that happen again -- and neither should you," he told students at Pepperdine University.

Kerry is the third high-profile Democrat to give a reflective, deeply personal speech on religion and politics in recent weeks, following Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Robert P. Casey Jr., the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.

The addresses fit into a broader effort by liberal religious groups and Democratic candidates to appeal to religiously motivated voters in November's midterm elections. A pair of opposing events in Washington this week neatly encapsulates the battle.

Yesterday, a new group called Red Letter Christians, named for the colored type that highlights the words of Jesus in popular editions of the Bible, called for Christians to "vote their values" by considering the war in Iraq, torture, environmental degradation and helping the poor to be vital religious issues.

"We believe in a Jesus who said 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' " said the Rev. Tony Campolo, a founder of the group, which says it is forming a grass-roots network of 7,000 clergy members.

Meanwhile, conservative advocacy groups are planning a four-day "Values Voter Summit," starting Friday, that is expected to draw 1,500 religious and political leaders to Washington. The goal of the conference is to "bring back to the forefront the issues that motivated and drove values voters to the polls in 2004 -- protecting human life, defending traditional marriage and preserving our religious liberties," said Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council.

Kerry's speech "almost sounds like a speech that I might give," Perkins said. "It sounds good." But he added, "The pickle that some of these liberal policymakers find themselves in is, they know that faith is important to people, but when they get pinned down on their policy positions that are inconsistent with the tenets of their faith, they start hedging and talking about other factors in their decision."

Kerry, who supports abortion rights, was pilloried in the 2004 campaign by conservative Catholics, including a small minority of U.S. bishops who threatened to deny him Holy Communion.

In yesterday's speech, Kerry said he was "born, baptized and raised a Catholic." In Vietnam, he said, "my relationship with God was a dependent one -- a 'God, get me through this and I'll be good' relationship." As he became disillusioned with the war, he said, he struggled with "the problem of evil, the difficulty of explaining why terrible and senseless events are part of God's plan."

"For 12 years I wandered in the wilderness, went through a divorce and struggled with questions about my direction. Then suddenly and movingly, I had a revelation about the connection between the work I was doing as a public servant and my formative teachings," he said.

Kerry did not describe the revelation in the speech. But in a telephone interview afterward, he said it occurred in 1987 or 1988 after a friend, whom he declined to name, died of cancer.

"I have a very vivid image of the loss of that friend and of his words about why he had to die, how it was part of God's purpose. And out of that came a sense of acceptance," he said.

It was "a stark awakening about how you reconcile some of these difficulties I had about . . . the suffering, about the problem of evil," Kerry added. "I understood that to be part of the test of faith."