Failing America's Faithful

How Today's Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way


By Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

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Blending inspirational memoir with a religious and political rebuke of American Christianity, the oldest daughter of Senator Robert F. Kennedy delivers a rousing call to arms for spiritual renewal.

For too long, religion has been a political plaything of the right-wing in this country. American churches seem more concerned with what people do with their bodies than with their souls. Now, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend issues a spiritual call to arms to those who feel like her that today’s churches—Catholic and Protestant alike—are failing to promote the welfare of those who depend upon them. After recounting her personal story in one of the most prominent Catholic families in America, she shows how America’s neediest are now forgotten while their churches fight political battles against abortion rights and homosexual marriages. She provides hope through powerful examples of individuals effecting change, from obscure social workers to The Purpose-Driven® Life’s Rick Warren, and maintains that our individual actions can return our churches to their traditional role as shepherds to their flock.


To David—with so much love and thanks


Friends both old and new took time from their busy schedules to talk about the challenge of creating a progressive Church. Father Robert Drinan, a model of spiritual and political leadership, former member of Congress, and the priest who baptized our fourth daughter, has been generous with his time, his wisdom, and ideas of people with whom I should speak. The same is true of Fathers Joseph Boyle and William Meninger from the St. Benedict's Monastery, a Trappist community in Colorado, who have been enormously thoughtful in their discussion of forgiveness, the challenge of evil, and the future of the Church.

One of the great pleasures of the last few years has been discussing the Catholic Church with extraordinary nuns. More than ever, I believe they are the Church's most persuasive and inspiring representatives. I am particularly indebted to Pat Smith, Charlotte Kerr, Joan Chittister, Anne Curtis, Catherine Pinkerton, Maria McCoy, Sharon Euart, Mary Johnson, Mary Aquin O'Neill, Diana Caplin, Sandra Schneiders, Janet Eisner, and Maureen Fielder.

I'm grateful also to Catholic University president David O'Connell for putting me in touch with some brilliant scholars from his institution. Sister Rita Larivee, Father Charlie Curran, and Theresa Kane, from the National Catholic Reporter, on whose board I sit, are inspirations. Their courage and vision are constant sources of inspiration.

I continue to believe that the lay leadership will serve as the source for a revitalization of the Catholic Church. I was fortunate to be able to draw on many of their experiences and perspectives. I am especially grateful to John DiIulio, Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Jim Slattery, and Geoffrey Boisi.

Peter Barnes and Jonathan Rowe facilitated my stay at the Mesa Writers Refuge. The Kennedy School of Government invited me as a visiting fellow, giving me the chance to spend time with Father Bryan Hehir, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, who was unstintingly generous with his learning.

The richness of the history of Protestant progressivism was one of the most gratifying discoveries of my writing. I had many guides, and wish to thank the Reverend Frank Reed of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, Rev. Kerry Hill, Forrest Church, Rev. Richard Mau, Jimmy Creech, Ronald Sider, Tony Campolo, Rev. Bob Edgar, Susan Thistlewaite, Welton Gaddy, Martin Marty, James Dunn, David Beckmann, Richard Parker, Cathy Isaacson, Allan and Susan Tibbels, Rick and Kay Warren, and Jim Wallis.

I never would have been able to write this book without the encouragement and wise counsel of so many friends. Many thanks to Alan and Dafna Fleischmann, Janet and Jeff Hanson, Tommy Caplan, Howard Friedman, Daphna Ziman, Michael Sarbanes, Vinny DeMarco, Marie Day, Marvin Masterson, Dave Hornbeck, Heidi Hartmann, John Brophy, and Willie and Finley Lewis. Terry Lierman, as far as I'm concerned, defines what it means to be a good neighbor. Stacie Rivera has been with me since my 1994 campaign. Her friendship and faith have been indispensable to me in more ways than I could ever count.

As a first-time author, I was fortunate to have so many friends and colleagues to mentor me through this process. Charlie Peters, who first published my articles on religion and politics more than two decades ago in The Washington Monthly, was wonderfully supportive, as were Phil Keisling, Steve Waldman, and Jonathan Rowe.

The final shape of the book owes much to the insightful work of Danny Franklin. Others who have been supportive in a variety of ways include Sarah Blustain, Afsaneh Beschloss, Judy Feder, Linc Caplan, Jim Kennedy, Josh Greenman, and Phil Noble.

My agent, Mel Berger, has offered patient and even-tempered advice. Diana Baroni and Les Pockell at Warner Books have been charitable and gentle with their editorial advice.

I would never have attempted to write such a book without my husband, David. He is a brilliant teacher and was unfailingly patient and kind as he discussed my ideas and suggested books I should examine.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.



A Spiritual Awakening

Now, more than ever before, we Americans are finding faith. We are improving our lives—learning through faith to be kind to ourselves, to our spouses and children, to our neighbors. We are giving charity through our churches. We are speaking about morality and values in a way we haven't done in a generation. If the great anxiety of moral folks since the 1960s was that America was in danger of becoming a country of empty values—an amusement park illuminated by self-interest, consumerism, and Hollywood-inspired ambition—they should no longer fear. The Passion of the Christ was one of the most popular films of 2004. Twenty-two percent of Americans said "moral values" was the most important issue for them in the 2004 presidential election—yes, a minority, but a huge number when you consider that we were also a country at war in a failing economy. This is not the 1990s decade of stock market bubbles and rampant materialism. This is the decade of faith.

And yet I wonder. In my lifetime, even while faith has expanded its reach, it has become narrower. When I was a child, we learned that to be religious was to be part of a community, and that the purpose of our faith was to improve the world, not just our own lives. In this theology, the individual prayer was a droplet in a global lake, rippling its effects out to the farthest edges of the pool. I was a teenager and young adult in the turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s, when America was riven by cultural change. This turbulence touched my family daily. How did we respond? In our Catholic church and in our home we prayed to be good and virtuous. We prayed for my uncle John Kennedy, and my father, Robert Kennedy, to be the best public servants that they could be. We prayed that our leaders would have the strength to go forth and help those starving children in Mississippi or West Virginia. (And yes, there are children in America whose lives are just as desperate today as they were when my father toured the country and told us, his blue eyes dark with outrage and his hands shaking, what he had found, hidden, in this great country.) And finally, we prayed that our government would have the good sense and good grace to put into place policies that would help not only us but also every person in America to live with dignity.

Today, that is not what I see. Don't get me wrong: You may pray and give money to your church, and give support through your church to all sorts of good causes, as do I. But fear and intolerance have taken hold. Instead of emphasizing the fact that we are all children of God, faith in America now divides communities. Virtue is something that takes place in your own home, in your church, and perhaps in your neighborhood if you are very lucky. The fastest-growing churches in the country—evangelical churches—tend to emphasize personal salvation over the creation of a more just nation. And many of those churches, along with my own Catholic Church, are using "moral values" as a code with which to attack those who don't believe as we do. Most of the millions of dollars congregants give to churches every year go not to help the needy outside of the church community, but for infrastructure and expansion of their own churches. Our priests and ministers send us out into the world to find others whose faith most resembles our own, not to work every day for those who need us most, regardless of their faith. Today faith builds walls to keep the threatening, encroaching world out, rather than moving us in ever-widening ways into the world that so desperately needs our help.

And our culture supports this inward turn. In the 1990s I was the lieutenant governor of Maryland, where I tried to make my drop of prayer ripple out. I spent my days pushing—pushing government officials, community leaders, businesspeople, schoolchildren—to support initiatives that promoted justice to the widest possible community: fighting drug use, reducing gun violence, putting into place character education, providing health care to children, protecting the Chesapeake Bay. These programs worked. 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.

I'm still asking myself, Why? Why did a majority not feel, personally, the suffering and the need of their neighbors and the commitment to make communities stronger? I don't have all the answers, but I know that we have gotten out of the habit of thinking of ourselves as part of the wider world. We no longer hear in our churches, or in our homes, the daily reminder that to walk in God's path is not just to pray or give charity, but also to work for justice for every creature on His earth.

This book is a reveille in which I hope to share the spiritual awakening that shaped my life and I hope will enlighten yours—giving us the courage to renew our country's great promise.

To some, spiritual awakenings come in a sudden flash of recognition and revelation. But my spiritual awakening, as I suspect is true for many others', has steadily unfolded over the course of my life as I gained a deeper understanding of the truths I learned as a youth. I knew as a young girl that God created me, loved me, and wanted what was best for me as He did all his creatures. With the passing of years, and the tragedies and challenges that I have had to face, I have had to struggle to reclaim my faith, and the strength to fight for justice that goes hand in hand with it. Many times I have had to find hope even in terrible loss, and I have had to learn to immerse myself in life's challenges rather than to run away in fear. But these tests have only deepened my understanding of the power of God's love and the obligations that come along with it. Now, I'm struck with how it has given me the ability to look at the world with new eyes and see how truly blessed I and, indeed, all humanity is. I have seen how good the world can be and the responsibility we share to make it better for everyone.

Not so long ago, our churches helped engage their congregations in the fight for social justice in the world. But today I am unhappy and dissatisfied with my Church and its failure to honor its best traditions. It is time for all of us to do what we can to reclaim those traditions, and to reclaim our churches.

When I was twelve years old, I lost my uncle John Kennedy, who was one of America's most beloved presidents, in a brutal murder that to this day remains one of our nation's pivotal moments. The memory is etched forever in the minds of those old enough to remember where they were when they heard President Kennedy had been shot.

I was in my music class at my school, Stone Ridge, Convent of the Sacred Heart, when Mother Mahaney came to tell me the news. I immediately went home, where already many friends of my parents had gathered. I was too young to understand it fully, but I did realize that we had been struck by enormous loss. My normally loud and laughing home was now hushed.

I went upstairs to my parents' room and discussed what had happened with a great friend of my father, Dave Hackett. How could this have happened? Wasn't my uncle fighting the good fights—against communism and for civil rights, against poverty and for a more peaceful world? He'd inspired millions of young people across the globe with his call to service. How could his own public service not have been protected? Where was the God we prayed to every day to guide and protect Uncle Jack in his leadership? Did He know this had happened? Did He care?

On the day President Kennedy was buried, my father, Robert Kennedy, gave me a note he had handwritten that day. He was devastated. He had spent most of the time trying to comfort Aunt Jackie, and working out the vast logistics, protocol, and transition in the wake of his brother's death. But what he wrote to me did not convey fear, anger, or bitterness. He focused on the future and my duty to family and to our country. "Dear Kathleen, You seemed to understand that Jack died and was buried today. As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren—you have a particular responsibility now—a special responsibility to John [my cousin] and Joe [my brother]. Be kind to others and work for your country. Love, Daddy."

Can you imagine, in your own moment of unimaginable loss, reminding your child—and reminding yourself, really—to turn outward, not inward, to perform works of kindness and not of anger or revenge? It still stops my breath to think of him stealing away on that chaotic, dreadful day, for a quiet half-minute at his desk to make sure I would have this message with me always.

My father's message was very clear as he entrusted me with his sense of duty to family and to country. This duty was built on a foundation of Christian teachings about service to others and social justice. The promoters of that tradition, our priests and nuns, taught us weekly of the need to do good works in the world. And supporting them there was the entire Christian iconography, as interpreted by the Catholic Church, teaching us that the good life did not come just from following the rules and resisting temptations—after all, Jesus did not follow the rules—but from taking our faith out of our houses of worship and putting it into practice. And the more resources God had granted us, the more we were responsible to help those to whom less had been given. As Christians, we hold the suffering and agony of the Passion, death, and Resurrection of the Son of God at the very center of our faith. We reenact them every time we participate in the sacrifice of the Mass. These were miracles, but they are also guides for our own lives. The spirit in which we live will endure in the work we have done, and in the friends and foes we have made.

Even when I was twelve, the iconography and transcendent power of faith was as much a part of me as my lungs or my heart, and it provided me with a story to help me make sense of my uncle's death. In those immediate days and weeks after the assassination, I could not look at the image of Jesus without thinking of my uncle. No, he wasn't a saint, or the Son of God. But I could remember him sitting on the presidential yacht, named for his grandfather Honey Fitz, who had been a member of Congress and Boston's mayor, surrounded by family and friends, as he discussed the latest challenges in Washington—what to do about the segregationist Southern senators, or how to handle Soviet aggression in Berlin. My uncle's death had made me wonder why we should work for justice if justice was not to be given in return. But in thinking of the model of Jesus' life, I also was forced to embrace the model of Jesus' death. And in that, the tragedy of my uncle's death became bearable.

During the five years following Uncle John's assassination I watched my father carefully. In his immense sadness, he, too, wondered how and why this loss could have happened. How did God allow this? He wondered what he should do, what his public role should be. Could one's sense of duty be present if the universe made no sense? Through his years of searching for answers, my father resisted the temptation to despair, to be vengeful, to give in to bitterness. This was difficult for him. He was home much more than before, much more quiet and less energetic. He spent many hours in his room alone. But he prayed, read Greek poets and Shakespeare, looking first to understand fate, and only later to accept faith. He reminded himself that the ways of God are inscrutable, and that our mission from Him is earthbound, and focused on helping one another.

My uncle and my father had always been a team. Over time I witnessed my father emerging from his shattering loss to reengage in public life, this time alone. As he found his way through his grief, he grew in sympathy and sensitivity to the loss and pain he found in the lives of others. He became more tender in his actions and feelings for Americans who were caught up in the throes of the wrenching reckoning of the civil rights movement. Filled with a new awareness of emotional pain, he reached out to those who suffered—to the hungry and the exploited, to the neglected and the ill, and to the weakest and most vulnerable among us—the elderly and the children. Often he would quote the French philosopher Albert Camus, "Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don't help us, who else in the world can help us do this."

My father emerged from his private turmoil with a public purpose, which as he said was "to seek a newer world." He had taken to heart the notion that we are here to help others, and he challenged his children to take this to heart as well. Each of us, he believed, has a moral obligation to pursue justice—not just putting the bad guys in jail, but also making sure that the least among us are treated with fairness.

My father became a voice for America's outrage at the injustice of millions of citizens of the wealthiest country on earth going hungry. He experienced his anger when he saw migrant families who pick our crops living in intolerably squalid conditions, working incessantly and still unable to earn even a living wage. He greeted the rage of African-Americans with empathy and understanding. He saw lives wasted in idleness and isolation and was determined to rouse the fortunate and self-satisfied to moral action. He expressed frustration that Americans lacked decent housing, effective public schools, and accessible health care and in doing so awakened many Americans to the poverty and hopelessness that had been invisible for so long. Finally, he was unable to bear that a good and decent country persisted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, women, and children in a war that was being waged without wisdom in Southeast Asia. Americans needed leadership to lift them out of the despair and helplessness into which they'd sunk after the death of President Kennedy. In 1968, he ran for president.

In the midst of that campaign, when I was still in high school, my father was brutally murdered. Again, but this time even more personally and painfully, I grieved a death that instantly became part of the fabric of America's life and lore. I could not have imagined that the lessons in faith, hope, and love I'd so painfully absorbed after my uncle's death five years earlier would now be put to a harsher and even more agonizing test. And this time I'd bear this burden without my father at my side. Thankfully the power of my faith—and the central Christian experience of the death of innocence in the Passion and death of Jesus—came to me in a new and deeper way, emblazoned in my heart and soul. As a nation struggled with the loss, and in time sang songs portraying visions of my father walking the hills with "Abraham, Martin, and John," I prayed that I could find strength and hope in my faith, and love for myself and my country. "You have a particular responsibility now," my father had written to me on my uncle's death. "Be kind to others and work for your country." I needed to do that now, more than ever. But how?

Three weeks after my father died, I went to work on a Navajo Indian reservation in Rough Rock, Arizona. I had planned to go there in response to the challenge that my father had laid down in a speech at my high school earlier that year. He had pointed out that the unemployment rate was horrific on the reservation, that the teen suicide rate was the highest in the country, and that we in that high school were the lucky ones and had a responsibility to contribute.


On Sale
Mar 1, 2007
Page Count
224 pages

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

About the Author

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend gives voice to millions of frustrated Americans who have become alienated from their churches because they no longer feel that they speak for their deepest concerns and values.

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