These days, people on "one side" of the political spectrum are not supposed to cooperate, much less have a personal relationship with anyone on the "other side." Siding with "the enemy" can get you branded a compromiser, a sellout, or fool. While it is true that on too many occasions, conservatives have had their ideological pockets picked by liberals whose favor they curried, that is no excuse for hating people because of their political beliefs.
In the case of my 25-year relationship with Sen. Edward Kennedy, our ideological pockets have remained secure, but our friendship has been something I have treasured.
It began in 1983 when I received a call from a Washington Post reporter. I was working for the Moral Majority at the time and a computer had spit out a membership card for Sen. Kennedy and then inadvertently sent it to him. The reporter asked if I wanted the card back. "No," I said. "We don't believe anyone is beyond redemption. In fact, I hope Sen. Kennedy comes and speaks at Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University)," the school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.
A few days later, I received a call from Kennedy's chief of staff. "The senator accepts your invitation." I was stunned and so was Falwell, but Kennedy came and was well received. He spoke on faith, truth and tolerance and his remarks are as relevant today as they were when he uttered them. (See and read them here).
While some might disagree on the way he applies such notions to the liberal policies in which he believes; few would contest most of the principles he articulated that night.
Kennedy said: "I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society."
What student or advocate of the First Amendment would disagree with that? Is that not what the Founders had in mind when they prohibited a federally established religion while simultaneously guaranteeing its free exercise? Kennedy continued, "When people agree on public policy, they ought to be able to work together, even while they worship in diverse ways. For truly, we are all yoked together as Americans, and the yoke is the happy one of individual freedom and mutual respect."
Again, not bad. He added: "Separation of church and state cannot mean an absolute separation between moral principles and political power. The challenge today is to recall the origin of the principle, to define its purpose, and refine its application to the politics of the present."
The issues outlined in Kennedy's speech still resonate today, except now it is the Democratic presidential candidates who are talking more about faith and public policy, not the Republican candidate.
Getting to know Sen. Kennedy that night and being with him on many subsequent occasions, helped me understand him on a level far different from TV images and direct-mail appeals that ask for $25 dollars to keep him from doing things that will "ruin" America (the Left sent out similar appeals for money to save America from my side).
I came to see Sen. Kennedy not as a symbol, but as a fellow human being who does not get up in the morning seeking ways to harm the country. I know of things he has done for the poor and homeless on his own time and in his own way without a press release or a desire for public approval. I know of other hurts and concerns about which I would never speak.
In our poisoned political atmosphere, there are few friendships like this, at least few anyone can speak of publicly for fear of political ruin. It ought to be a privilege (it is certainly a command) for my conservative Christian friends to pray for Sen. Kennedy that he might be healed and restored to health. It is certainly mine and I don't care who on "my side" knows it.