Sen. Ted Kennedy's Catholicism: First Take

The senator was once an abortion rights foe, while his wife was a Catholic surrogate for Obama.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Sen. Ted Kennedy's Roman Catholicism gets passing mention in today's obituaries, but lines like this from USA Today's obit cry out for a closer look at the senator's faith and its role in his life and career:

Though he disagreed with church leaders on the issues of abortion and gay rights, Kennedy was a devout Catholic who clung to his religion's belief in the potential for human redemption.

The Catholic angle is sure to get more attention in coming days, but here are a few things we know so far:

1. Before the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Kennedy—who for decades has been a boogeyman for the antiabortion movement—was apparently an opponent of abortion rights. In his book Onward Christian Soldiers, Republican activist and writer Deal Hudson quotes from a 1971 letter that Kennedy wrote on the subject:

It is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized; the right to be born, the right to life, the right to grow old.

2. After the 2004 "values voter" election, Kennedy was the first Democrat to call progressive evangelical activist Jim Wallis to talk faith and politics, as Wallis recounts today:

In the aftermath of the 2004 Presidential elections, the Democrats were roundly accused of losing the "moral values voters" in America, and of being the party of "secularists" who were hostile to faith and religion. The very first Democrat to call me and ask to talk about that accusation and how to change the moral debate in America was Ted Kennedy. He invited me to his home, where he, and his wife Vicki, engaged me in a long and very thoughtful conversation, into the night, about the relationship between faith, morality, and politics. Their own deep Catholic faith was evident and their articulation of it very impressive. Our discussion was not partisan at all—it was not about how to win religion back for the Democrats. Rather, we focused on the great moral issues facing the nation, and how we as people of faith needed to respond to them.

3. Kennedy's wife, Vicki, was one of a small handful of Catholic surrogates for Barack Obama's presidential campaign last year. She was especially active in Ohio, a heavily Catholic swing state.