Religion is not the sole path to morality for people or society, former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey told a Creighton University audience Tuesday night.
Kerrey, a Democrat who was governor of Nebraska and represented the state in the U.S. Senate, challenged the notion recently espoused by U.S. Attorney General William Barr that nonreligious people are out to destroy morality in the country.
Kerrey quoted Winston Churchill, who was asked why he rarely attended church. Churchill said he was like a buttress to the church. “I support it from the outside,” Kerrey quoted Churchill as saying.
Kerrey spoke Tuesday night at Creighton’s Harper Center, his first talk at Creighton since his invitation to give the commencement address in the spring provoked Republican outrage. Some Republican leaders said it would be wrong for a pro-choice speaker to give the commencement address at the Catholic-affiliated university.
Kerrey voluntarily withdrew from speaking, saying he didn’t want to cause a distraction during graduation.
But Kerrey did speak Tuesday as part of Creighton’s Presidential Lecture Series, which about 250 people attended.
Kerrey had written a speech, but he referred to it little. Instead, he was asked questions in front of the audience by retired World-Herald columnist Mike Kelly.
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The session with Kelly resulted in a living-room chat in which Kerrey told funny and touching stories in impromptu fashion. Some involved his leg being amputated after suffering an injury in the Vietnam War.
Kelly recalled Kerrey’s relationship while governor with actress Debra Winger. “She swept me off my foot,” Kerrey said.
Kelly also referred to a memoir Kerrey wrote, “When I Was a Young Man.”
Kerrey responded, “You can get it for, like, 10 cents now.”
Kerrey said he owed Creighton a great deal because his son Ben attended college there. Ben, who became a Catholic, now is a pediatrician in Ohio.
“I do owe Creighton a lot,” Kerrey said, “and I suspect you’ll get it out of me at some point in time.”
Barr spoke this month at Notre Dame University and decried what he considers the moral decline of the United States over the past 50 years.
He said that forces of modern society have attacked religious freedom and that he and other members of the U.S. Justice Department have set up a task force. That committee, he said, will pursue cases in which people are discriminated against on the basis of religion and where states pass laws that constrain freedom of religion.
Kerrey said that is a poor use of the power of the Justice Department. Compare the past 50 years to the moral depravity of slavery, he said, and one understands today’s societal sins are dwarfed by that period.
Further, Kerrey said, humans advocated ethical and moral behavior long before Judaism and Christianity were developed.
“So I think it’s a mistake to set up secularism as the enemy of religion,” he said.
On the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, Kerrey said the Kurds are the largest ethnic group without their own nation. They helped the U.S. defeat the Islamic State. “I think we’re going to look back on this one as a moment of betrayal,” he said.
He also said any president who would ask a foreign government to go after his political opponent should be impeached. “It has to be an impeachable offense,” he said to some applause.
But the 90-minute session largely consisted of Kerrey recalling his political career and his nine months in a hospital after suffering his catastrophic war injury.
Asked by Kelly if there were moments when Kerrey wished he were dead after suffering the injury, Kerrey said no. Then he referred to newspaper coverage of him through the years. “The times I wished I was dead was when I was quoted correctly, not incorrectly.”
He also recalled screaming out across the ocean to release his hatred of Richard Nixon, who was president when Kerrey was injured. Kerrey yelled to the ocean: “I forgive you, Richard Nixon!”
“Hating is a horrible thing,” Kerrey said to the audience.
Immediately after his leg was removed, he asked his mother how much of it was left. She leaned in, he said, and referred to him as a person and not to his leg when she said: “There’s a lot left.”