Kennedy: Perhaps another ‘man after God’s own heart’

Edward Kennedy in 2008
Edward Kennedy in 2008

Thinking about Sen. Edward Kennedy this week, I found my mind oddly drifting toward King David, that renowned ruler of old Israel.

Sunday school lessons highlight David’s heroics – his life as a simple shepherd, his showdown with Goliath, his psalms. But his political career and family intrigues actually resemble scenes from “The Godfather.”

As a warrior, David earned such a blood-soaked reputation that God refused to let him build a temple. His worst moment combined dereliction of duty, adultery, deception and murder, starting a chain of events that spiraled down to open rebellion by his oldest and favorite son and generations of trouble.

Even near the end of his long life, when he was feeble and perhaps senile, David gave more than the throne to his son Solomon. He also passed along a hit list. David spectacularly broke almost all of the Ten Commandments.

And yet God kept David in his pocket. He was, according to the Bible, “a man after God’s own heart.”

Perhaps that was because David ultimately threw himself before God, whether it was challenging giants or dancing nearly naked in the streets during a worship procession.

He composed psalms that questioned and railed at God in fear and frustration, cried to him for vengeance against enemies and gloated over their downfall. But knowing his sins, he invariably came pleading for mercy and forgiveness. He always praised God in the end, seeking him wherever he might find him – under the stars, below the mountains, in the temple, in his bedroom, through the valley of the shadow of death. Despite everything, this womanizing, scandalized, troubled chieftain could still write, “My help comes from the Lord.”

Maybe it was that relentless if imperfect pursuit that warmed God’s heart.

Culture and circumstance – not to mention 3,000 years – put a lot of distance between King David and Sen. Kennedy. Even so, elements in Kennedy’s life and career sound familiar.

Bobby, Jack and Teddy: The Kennedy brothers in 1957.
Bobby, Jack and Teddy: The Kennedy brothers in 1957.

The senator for years lived a kind of high-wire act, often played out in public, that tried to balance great personal gifts, high ambitions, deep flaws, terrible tragedies and a durable faith.

As one of the most effective legislators in American history, he likely made a more profound impact on the nation than his celebrated brothers. Along the way, he showed graciousness in an ungracious town, whether dealing with political allies or foes, junior staffers or people on the street.

The best-known and perhaps most powerful Roman Catholic politician in the country, Kennedy cited his faith as one of his central motivations in his commitment to helping ordinary people through education, higher wages and, above all, health care. In what was for him typical bipartisan fashion, he worked with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, an effort to relieve governmental burdens on the exercise of religion.

But Kennedy didn’t walk lockstep with his church, and he put himself at odds with Roman Catholic teaching most severely with his support of abortion rights, an inconsistency that not even the famous Kennedy mystique could overcome. And despite the personal peace that his second marriage brought him, divorce and remarriage offended many fellow believers.

Kennedy was a flawed person, and he knew it. In a 1991 speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Kennedy openly addressed “the faults in the conduct” of his private life.

“I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them,” he said.

Despite this – or possibly because of this – by all accounts he found strength and comfort in his faith, especially during his last years. The Cape Cod parish priest regularly visited the Kennedy home and held a private family Mass there every Sunday. Kennedy led his family in prayer after the death of his sister Eunice three weeks ago, and he spent his own last hours in prayer.

“He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable,” wrote John Broder in The New York Times obituary this week. “He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly.”

Something about Edward Kennedy makes me hope that, like King David, he was finally a man after God’s own heart.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 29 Aug 2009.

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