There are perils in picking a fight with a dead man. Just ask Sarah Palin.
One of her targets in her new book, former president John F. Kennedy, may not be able to defend himself, but his famous family is willing to pick up the gauntlet.
In an opinion article yesterday for the Washington Post, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend excoriates Palin, the former Alaska governor and current omnipresent political force, for criticizing her uncle and the seminal speech he made on religion and politics a half century ago. In the speech before a gathering of ministers in Houston, the candidate Kennedy implored Americans to judge him not on his faith, but on his views. The speech is credited with helping Kennedy overcome doubts about whether he would be beholden to the Vatican as America's first Catholic president.
In her book, "America by Heart, Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag,'' Palin laments that the speech appears to detach a leader's personal faith from his public role, creating an "unequivocal divorce of the two," Palin writes.
Instead of seeking to "run away from religion,'' Palin asserts, Kennedy should have embraced his Catholicism. And the electorate, she extrapolates, should embrace leaders who interweave their faith into their decision-making.
For Kennedy Townsend, such an interpretation not only mischaracterizes her uncle, it profoundly misunderstands the fundamental fabric of an American ideal.
"The truth is that my uncle knew quite well that what made America so special was its revolutionary assertion of freedom of religion,'' Kennedy Townsend writes. "No nation on Earth had ever framed in law that faith should be of no interest to government officials."
Kennedy Townsend, a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, recently helped form America Bridge, a non-profit group that seeks to raise money for Democratic candidates and causes, a counterpart to the highly successful American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS organizations. Those outside groups raised tens of millions of dollars for Republican candidates in the midterm elections.
Yet, Kennedy Townsend's piece is less a political counterpunch than a philosophical, and at times very personal, riposte.
"Faith runs as a deep current through my family,'' she writes. "Faith inspired my uncles' and my father's dedication to justice."
But no litmus test should exist for a leader's faith, she argues. "Palin's book makes clear just how dangerous her proposed path can be," Kennedy Townsend writes. "Not only does she want people to reveal their beliefs, but she wants to sit in judgment of them if their views don't match her own."
"Who anointed her our grand inquisitor?"
Kennedy Townsend also defends her uncle, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and his work for women's rights, which sometimes put him at odds with the Catholic Church. Such actions would be in the spirit of service exemplified by the president.
"John F. Kennedy knew that tearing down the wall separating church and state would tempt us toward self-righteousness and contempt for others,'' she writes.
In contrast, she continues, "Palin fails to understand the genius of our nation. The United States is one of the most vibrant religious countries on Earth precisely because of its religious freedom. When power and faith are entwined, faith loses. Power tends to obfuscate, corrupt and focus on temporal rather than eternal purposes.
"Somehow Palin misses this."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.