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FAITH-BASED

The Baltimore Sun

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has no illusions that her first book might serve as a springboard back into elected politics.

The book - a reflection on her personal faith mixed with a broader look at America's religious traditions - argues that the Catholic and Protestant churches have lost their way in recent decades, falling short of the Christian concept of social justice as they've been "hijacked" by political conservatives.

"This is a book you can only write when you're out of politics," says Townsend, who served two terms as Maryland's lieutenant governor and is the eldest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy.

In 2002, as the Democratic candidate in a state that hadn't elected a Republican governor in more than three decades, Townsend began the race as the overwhelming favorite to become Maryland's first female chief executive. After a rough campaign in which she admittedly saw her values "not turn people on," Townsend lost to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and virtually disappeared from the state's public political scene.

Since then, Townsend has been teaching as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's School of Public Policy and - among other activities - serving as chairman of the advisory board at the University of Maryland's Institute for Human Virology. She was also a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and president of Operation Respect, a character education effort designed to reduce bullying and teasing.

"It's a busy schedule, but not quite as busy as it used to be," says Townsend, who still lives in Baltimore County with her husband, David, a professor at St. John's College. The youngest of their four children, all girls, is a high school sophomore.

Townsend has stayed out of the fray of Maryland politics - she says she was "very happy" when Martin O'Malley knocked off Ehrlich in November - but she remains engaged in national politics, having signed on to back the presidential efforts of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Maryland.

For the 55-year-old Townsend, the most challenging task over the past four years has been her book, Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way ($24.99, Warner Books).

Townsend spent a lot of time talking to members of the faith community, in Baltimore and nationally, trying to better understand their relationship to politics. She admits the book took longer to write than she had expected and notes that her efforts to open up about her own Roman Catholic faith - particularly during the most turbulent periods of her life, around the assassinations of her uncle and father - mark quite a change for a woman known as being intensely private when it comes to her family's tragedies. Why this topic?

This has been a passion of mine for many years. I wrote about religion and politics in the early '80s ... at The Washington Monthly. At that point, I thought there was a connection between faith and social justice and the common good, and I wanted the Democratic Party to capture that. Now I think I am more critical of the churches because ... I think they have privatized religion, narrowed the scope, divided people. I grew up with a different faith. And I think it's not just the time I grew up. ... It's our country's history. We've had a great progressive faith tradition. You mixed the broader history with a lot of your own personal life. Was that difficult to do?

I did, because I think if you talk about faith, you really have to avoid being preachy and judgmental. So I wanted to show that it comes from someplace deep inside me, my own faith. I think that dealing with tragedy and hardship and sadness is one way. As I indicated, this is not just made up, this is really true to me. ... The personal was very tough, because it's just really hard to relive those difficult moments. I've made it a point my whole life to be extremely private. But I thought that the credibility of my message required that I show in my own life what my faith has meant to me. There was one point here where you talked about rituals.

"I remember going to wakes, attending funerals, and comforting cousins and friends. Each time someone died, our faith gave us strength. We had a wake, prayed the Rosary and went to Mass. ... To the uninitiated, this may sound like gobbledygook or fairy tales. But to those like me who experienced the rituals time and time again, they gave shape to a very difficult and sad situation."

... There is a reason why [rituals] last through history, and why we grab onto them and need them. Yet I detect almost anger with the church, or disappointment and frustration, in this book.

I am very disappointed with my church because I think they have allowed themselves to be hijacked. Obviously they did a terrible job during the pederasty scandal, not only to allow priests to do those terrible things, but not to be straightforward, not to confront their own faults directly. I think their attitudes toward women have been really horrendous. ... Of course there should be women priests, absolutely. ... I love my church. I hope there is also a sense of hope. It has been deeply meaningful and helpful to me, and it has been central to who I am, being a Catholic. But I am disappointed with a church that is so afraid of women and hurtful to women. Were you disappointed in the selection of Pope Benedict?

Yes, I was disappointed. Although I have to say that his letter on love, which was his first encyclical, was really fabulous and quite moving. The fact that I've written this book and tried to think about how to say some of those things really made me very impressed by his intelligence and his grasp of what love can be. So I like that a lot, and that gives me hope. I think that he's on a learning curve right now. As you saw what he did with Islam, he didn't get what his words meant. If you live in the insulated world of the Vatican, you sometimes don't understand what your language means. I think that he's willing to learn; the fact that he went to Turkey and prayed is just terrific. It would be great if he could take that learning and apply it. ... So I was impressed by that encyclical. I love the glimmers of hope. I want my church to be better. For some of these popular evangelical churches of today, [your message] would involve a lot of them rethinking their whole approach to life. You talk about Rick Warren [founder of the Saddleback Church in California and author of The Purpose-Driven Life].

I think what's really interesting about what's going on with the evangelicals, there are people in the pews who are real believers; if you are a real believer, you are open to the spirit, and the spirit can change you. I think Rick Warren is a great example of a person who was a very strong preacher and came to understand, as I point out in the book, that he had missed large parts of the Bible that had called us to care for the least among us. He is willing to change. He has done amazing work in Africa. He has spoken out about global warming. Because he is the instructor of so many other preachers, he will have a very strong influence on the evangelical movement, and he is already having that influence. I find it wonderfully encouraging. When I met with him, I said the world is going to change because of you. There are obviously the leaders of the Christian right who are really closely in bed with the Republican Party. But those who aren't are open to those challenges of poverty abroad and global warming and AIDS. I think it encouraging. Some might say that a Democrat writing a book like this, saying the churches have been co-opted by the conservative movement, this is just a politician calling on the church to come back to the Democrats. Is that fair?

I think religion has been hijacked by the Christian right. I think there's no question about that. I think the issues they have focused on are not the issues that we need to focus on. There are 2,100 passages in the Bible about caring for the poor, and the Christian Coalition can't raise taxes to care for the poor, and Pat Robertson is openly distasteful of the poor. Then I think that's hijacking religion. That doesn't mean we'll always agree on particular policies. We may have different positions, but at least they have to be part of our conversation. Is this a prescription for you to get back into politics?

No, this is a book you can only write when you're out of politics. So there will be no more politics?

There are lots of great ways to serve. I love politics, I loved being lieutenant governor, and I loved writing this book. Are there regrets over four years ago? Do you still think about it? When you were there at the inauguration [in January], were you thinking, "What if?"

I was very happy that Martin O'Malley had won. I was very pleased, because I think he will do a terrific job. I was really glad that the Democrats were back in power, because I think the last four years has not been a good four years. And I was particularly glad that Stephen Amos [the former director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, who was indicted on federal charges that were later dropped], who had been I think very badly and poorly treated, at least was compensated and that I think his name was cleared. I think what they had done there was very unfortunate. ... If they're mad, they should come after me. Not after a good guy. ... They really hurt him. ... He lost a lot. Nationally, do you still want to stay engaged in politics?

I'm working for the Clinton campaign in Maryland. ... I think she's strong, I think she'll be a great president, and I think it's definitely time for a woman. I was struck by something you said in here, the one place where you reflected back on 2002. "When I ran for governor in 2002, the Washington Post praised me as a politician with a 'moral compass.' " Nonetheless, I saw that these values did not turn people on. As I campaigned across the state, voters would shake my hand and then, as soon as I began to tell them what we had achieved and what needed to be done, I could see their eyes glaze over; they were simply not as excited about these results as I was." What does that mean?

I'm not going to blame voters. Clearly I could have done a better job. I do think that sometimes you can have voters who are prepared to listen because of what their churches are telling them and they're more prepared to listen today than they were five years ago because of the changes in Iraq and with what happened with Katrina. We shouldn't have to wait for great crises to listen that we have to care for the least among us. I wonder the next time you walk into church, what's the reaction?

A lot of the priests and nuns, they agree with us. ... I think that it's important for laity to speak out about what the church can be, because I think the Catholic Church is not just the hierarchy, it is the laity. Over the years, the church has changed its positions. It was anti-usury. Its position on slavery was very bad. At one point, as you saw, it called women misbegotten males, the devil's gateway. So what we understand is the church is going to change. Its view on Galileo has changed. It took them 300 years to apologize. So I have hope. Though it's evolutionary, not revolutionary?

Although sometimes, it can help quickly. In the '50s, John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit priest, was basically silenced by the church. Then he wrote the freedom and democracy parts of Vatican II. ... It can be revolutionary. It can change quickly.

howard.libit@baltsun.com

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