The Humanism of Senator Edward Kennedy

August 27, 2009

The death of Edward Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver within two weeks of each other brings back my memory of a fascinating meeting that I had with them in 1972; and how grateful I was for their many expressions of humanism.

I was invited to spend three days with Eunice and Sargent Shriver at their home. At that time Sen. Edward Kennedy was considering a possible run for the presidency and there was a meeting in Washington in which he gave a memorable talk to many journalists and friends. While there I also visited the home of Ethel Kennedy, the wife of Robert (Bobby) Kennedy.

At that time I was editor of The Humanist magazine, and I was invited because the Kennedys knew about humanism and expressed general sympathy with its moral and social principles. We discussed humanism in general terms as a progressive philosophy of individual freedom and a concern for social justice, and they shared a commitment to these values.

Although the Kennedys are officially Roman Catholic, they nevertheless supported a liberal social agenda. Eunice was a sponsor of the Special Olympics for the disabled. Sen. Edward Kennedy often deviated from the Church's doctrines, as he was divorced and most recently came out in support of stem cell research (although the Vatican vehemently opposes it). Known as the Lion in the Senate, he has battled for human rights. He has been a strong proponent of the current legislation on universal health care. He was a supporter of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act of 1968; he was a consistent defender of civil liberties, and an early opponent of the Vietnam War.

I surely do not deny the fact the Kennedys were members of the Roman Catholic Church; but at the same time they shared important values with secular humanists. The mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was of course devout, but her children were generally either nominal or liberal in their faith.

The purpose of the 1972 meeting at which liberal journalists and thinkers were invited, was to gauge Sen. Kennedy's possible chances for a run for the presidency-coming only a few years after the unfortunate drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969. Edward Kennedy and Ms. Kopechne were together in the car that went off the road. A cloud of suspicion overhung Edward Kennedy's role in that accident; for he did not report the incident until 10 hours later. One purpose of our participation, I gather, was a trial balloon to "test the waters," so to speak. That was a long time ago, and Sen. Kennedy has had a distinguished record in the Senate ever since.

The point that I wish to make here is that secularists and humanists have many allies among religious people; and that although unbelievers may not be happy with their supernaturalism, there are many other bonds that tie citizens together, and we should be willing and able to work with them on issues of common concern.


#1 daijiyobu (Guest) on Thursday August 27, 2009 at 4:41pm

Hear, hear.


#2 mikewil (Guest) on Friday August 28, 2009 at 12:30am

I completely agree. It is not only about fighting the religious but about making allies, too.

#3 Andrew Millard (Guest) on Friday August 28, 2009 at 5:46am

Allies, just so long as they have the “correct” political views. I can’t tell you the extent of the vitriol I receive from the secular/humanist people I meet online because my political opinions differ from theirs, even though I myself am an atheist and consider myself “humanist.”

As for Kennedy, it should be shocking that he receives a pass for his many, many transgressions, thanks to the fact that he holds the “correct” political views. Sadly, it is just what I expect. Even his religion is given a pass, as all liberal politicians are given a “get out of church free” card by secularists. Conservatives are demonized for their religious beliefs, because they do not hold the “correct” political views.

Let’s watch the fur fly now.

#4 Leonard Tramiel (Guest) on Friday August 28, 2009 at 8:31am

The tireless fight of Senator Kennedy for so many worthy issues makes me proud just to be a member of the same species.

#5 DJ Grothe on Friday August 28, 2009 at 8:44am

Leonard: Completely agreed. To cite one other example:

“Kennedy was our ‘greatest champion,’ says gay activist”

#6 marios psomas (Guest) on Friday August 28, 2009 at 11:25am

Edward Kennedy and the entire family, supported humanistic values all along.We need more defenders like them.As stated above by Paul Kurtz

#7 Alphonsus (Guest) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 at 9:41am

“Although the Kennedys are officially Roman Catholic, they nevertheless supported a liberal social agenda. Eunice was a sponsor of the Special Olympics for the disabled.”

You write that as if it’s against the Catholic faith to support the disabled.

#8 Socrates, Jr. (Guest) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 at 9:54am

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was pro-life regarding abortion (even when it wasn’t politically savvy as a Democrat to be so).  She wasn’t, as far as I know, a nominal Catholic.  Go read Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times editorial.

#9 Joe Kennedy (Guest) on Wednesday September 02, 2009 at 10:31am

Your point is well-taken. Much as I admire Mr. Kurtz, his convictions are remarkably flexible when flexing may empower him.
Amid the exchange of ideas, it is good to remember this: Ideas do not move the world. Necessity and the will to power move the world.

#10 cam balkon (Guest) on Tuesday September 08, 2009 at 6:39pm

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#11 personal injury lawyer houston (Guest) on Wednesday September 23, 2009 at 2:37am

A cloud of suspicion overhung Edward Kennedy’s role in that accident; for he did not report the incident until 10 hours later.personal injury lawyer houston

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