By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Nearly 25 years before it became fashionable for Democrats to engage religious right leaders, Ted Kennedy delivered a remarkable speech on faith and politics at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University (then called Liberty Baptist College).
Speaking in 1983, amid the first wave of modern Christian right activism—which Falwell helped unleash—Kennedy pushed back against the fledgling movement but also took on his own party's growing secularist base. The separation of church and state, Kennedy said, "as vital as it is, is not a simplistic and rigid command . . . [it] cannot mean an absolute separation between moral principles and political power."
The senator from Massachusetts outlined four tests for determining a proper religious role in politics. Almost a quarter-century later, Barack Obama struck a strikingly similar tone in his first major address on religion in politics, made to a gathering of Jim Wallis's Sojourners. "To say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates," Obama said," is a practical absurdity."
Video of the Kennedy speech's first few minutes reveals how comfortable he was in the lion's den, racking up laughs and applause:
Despite all that's been written and said about Democrats "getting religion" in recent years and about religion in politics entering a post-religious-right era, it's hard to imagine a liberal Democrat speaking at Liberty University today.