he Kennedys are perhaps the best known political family in America, elected to office at all levels of government — from city councils to Congress to the White House. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says giving back to the community is a family tradition. The eldest daughter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel says her parents instilled in their children the importance of public service, of trying to make a difference with your life.
"It was always emphasized that we were very lucky," she explains, "and we heard St. Luke's admonition that from those who have been given much, much would be expected, and so over and over again, it was taught to give back."
Young Kathleen never expected to 'give back' as a politician. When she was growing up, in the 1950s and 60s, she recalls, that was something for men, like her father, uncles and brothers. But she was surrounded by women who were just as involved in public service; her aunt, Eunice Shriver, started the Special Olympics, and her mother, Ethel Kennedy, volunteered with local charitable organizations.
However, after graduating from law school, and starting her family, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did seek elected office. She won her bid to be the Lt. Governor of Maryland, but later, was unsuccessful in her run for Governor.
She has now moved out of the political sphere, and into the philanthropic one. In addition to teaching and consulting, Townsend has been on the board of the Institute for Human Virology at the University of Maryland since 1998. The multi-disciplinary program is dedicated to finding new treatments and a preventive vaccine for AIDS, and Townsend has become an active proponent for AIDS research, care and treatment. In 2005, shortly after becoming chairman of the board, she visited Nigeria with Institute director Robert Gallo for the launch of a special medical laboratory training center.
Townsend stresses that there are all sorts of ways that one can contribute to society. "I think that's an important notion for democracy around the world, which is, you need places to say 'I can make a difference, I don't have to wait to elect somebody.' Sometimes it's hard to get the person you want to be elected — I can speak from experience," she adds with a rueful laugh, "but there are all sorts of ways you can say I'm powerful, I have a vision of what could be made better and I'll do it."
For Townsend, that vision of a better world is colored by her Catholic faith. "I think when you have a great faith, that influences what you do. My faith teaches me that all are children of God, and should have a certain amount of dignity and respect, as well as the basis of living: good health care, good education, a great job that pays them well enough so they can raise their family."
Townsend points out that even though the First Amendment to the US Constitution says 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' the nation has always been shaped by religion.
"Every progressive movement in our country has been led by people of faith," she says, pointing to civil rights and labor reforms. "The abolitionist movement in the 1840's which said that it's wrong to enslave African Americans; the social gospel movement that was based on the idea, 'what would Jesus do?'" She says the answer was Jesus wouldn't allow children to work in factories and wouldn't insist people work 18 hour a day and would want people to have enough food and shelter. "So that really did inform people's yearning to create a more just society."
But when she looks at the political movements now being led by religious leaders, Townsend does not see a yearning for a more just society. She writes about the role of religion in public life in her new book: Failing America's Faithful. It's subtitled, How Today's Churches are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way.
"I think that there's definitely a role [for religion in politics] to inform each of us about what it is to create a just society," she insists. "What I think has been terrible about the churches recently is that they have shrunk God, and they have made God seem to care only about three issues: abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research. And it has used faith to say 'We're holy and you're not,' and I think that has been really devastating and wrong."
In looking back over all she's learned, as a Kennedy and a public servant, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says the most important lesson is one that can be found in both religious teaching and polite society: take a walk in someone else's shoes, so you can learn to empathize with how other people live, and recognize how the decisions you make can affect everyone.
Previous American Profiles