Krista's Journal: On the History of Religion's Role in the Political Arena

July 15, 2004

I don't consider most political memoirs to be material for our program. But when I opened Joseph Califano's, I was surprised to find the prominence he had given his Catholic faith, from childhood and through and beyond his years of policy making and political maneuvering in the White Houses of Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. Califano was an ambitious, sometimes controversial Washington insider, a quintessential Democratic operator. But I'm impressed with the honesty with which he has reflected on the complexity of a life both political and religious. And he extended that honesty gracefully in our conversation.

I'm fascinated by how often our programs end up getting at meaning in the present by way of the past. This week, simply by telling his stories, Joseph Califano sheds new light on current alliances and controversies between religious leaders and politicians — such as John Kerry's disfavor among some Catholic bishops. He describes a general dynamic that has changed profoundly — becoming far more contentious and polarized in four decades. He also reminds us of the religious complexity and idealism of the 1960s. Our collective memory of that decade, and its presidencies, has arguably been overshadowed by the bitter memory of the Vietnam War. We rarely discuss the concurrent domestic battles of those years: the "war on poverty" and the monumental national struggle over civil rights.

Joseph Califano worked with John Kennedy on domestic policies and was the architect of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" initiatives. He remembers a time when liberal, Democratic presidents were staking their political lives on issues of civil rights and poverty and plainly calling these "moral" causes, matters of ultimate right and wrong. For this program, we found an astonishing piece of archival audio of Lyndon Johnson (who has not gone down in history as a "religious" president) speaking to Congress about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson proclaims the issue as a moral one, and says this legislation is about saving the "soul" of America.

It seems clarifying and helpful to recall such history as we worry over the role of religion in politics in our time. The truth is: our political figures are assaulted on all fronts by conflicting expectations — from the one side, that they keep their private beliefs out of their policies; from the other side, that they insert their religious convictions into them. If I've concluded anything about the line of "separation of church and state" in our years of creating this program, it is that this principle has always been in flux. Separation of Church and State is a work in progress, not a fixed rule but a process of constant refinement and adaptation to new eras. We're testing it with new questions and new fervor in the political arena of our time.

I find that this conversation with Joseph Califano makes a refreshing contribution to that process, by opening up a subject we rarely talk about — the conflict between religion and politics that happens in daily, personal life. Political experience doesn't just clash with high religious ideals. Exercising power demands moral compromise. Family lives are jeopardized in Washington D.C. as they are in Hollywood. The passage of every law, even towards the most noble of ends, may require ignoble tactics. So how do we reconcile political realities and religious ideas? Joseph Califano makes no bones about the fact that such reconciliation isn't always possible. He proposes "courage" as a virtue that becomes ever more important in navigating the gray area of moral determination and poltical expediency our public servants inhabit.

As I watch American politics after this conversation, I'll be more attentive to the virtue of courage. And as this election year progresses, we at Speaking of Faith will keep looking for voices that distinctively illuminate the complex interplay of religion and politics on both sides of the partisan divide.

Voices on the Radio

Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

is president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1977 to 1979, and is the author of a memoir, Inside: A Public and Private Life.