Volume XXVIII Number 1
Photo by John Gentry
When Sheila Kennedy announced back in October of 2002 that she was finally coming out, neither friends nor foes were terribly surprised. They had suspected all along that Kennedy was in the closet. Not as a lesbian—she isn’t—but as a Democrat.
“The party I had joined in the 1960s no longer existed, and I was kidding myself if I thought otherwise,” says Kennedy. Once a Republican candidate for Congress and corporation counsel under Indianapolis mayor Bill Hudnut, Kennedy is now an associate professor of law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
The party Kennedy joined in the 1960s was Barry Goldwater’s Republican Party. She endorsed Goldwater’s vision of limited government and the separation of church and state, of free markets, fiscal responsibility, and balanced budgets. The first and only fan letter she ever wrote, in fact, was a note to Barry Goldwater, thanking him for his views on gays in the military. “You don’t have to be straight to be in the military,” Goldwater famously said, “you just have to shoot straight.”
“When I became a Republican, it was a party of limited government, which meant, among other things, keeping out of people’s private lives,” Kennedy said in the weekly paper Nuvo. “Now it’s crony capitalists on one side, looking for special favors instead of a free market. And on the other side, the Christian right controls maybe 60 percent of the party positions, and they want to tell me to worship their god, and they want to control my procreation. This is not the Republican Party of Goldwater.”
A former director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, Kennedy had held out hope that Republicans would eventually “reassert their essentially libertarian nature,” she says. “I’d been hanging in at least since the 1992 GOP convention when delegates booed Bill Hudnut because he was pro-choice, and Pat Buchanan made a speech that some pundits suggested sounded better in the original German. But by the time George W. Bush was elected, it had become clear that the party was firmly in the control of an oligarchy composed of theocrats and plutocrats. I was repelled by the ‘culture war’ rhetoric that increasingly characterized the party leadership.”
Kennedy enumerated her grievances against the Republican Party in a column she wrote for Word, a monthly Midwest gay newspaper: “There’s intellectual dishonesty. Is the economy in the toilet? Government running a deficit? Your dandruff getting worse? Whatever is going wrong, it is all because of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden. Not the fault of this government—no siree!”
Defecting to the Libertarian Party was not an option. “The choice was prudential,” she says. “Libertarians remain a distinctly minority party, and I wanted to work for folks who were more likely to win and more likely to get something done if they did win. I agree with Libertarians on a lot of issues, but the ones I disagree with are deal-breakers for me—I support public education and a social safety net.” Kennedy notes that Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, a revered figure among Libertarians, was a strong supporter of social welfare systems. “The party,” she says, “is far more doctrinaire than some of its founders on some issues.”
So Kennedy left the Republican Party and she took her libertarian values with her, values she finds herself expressing often and strongly since September 11, 2001. Terrorism, she says, has had a terrible effect on civil rights. “It has eroded basic civil liberties. The fear that 9/11 engendered has emboldened some of our worst instincts.” While some might argue that compromising at least some civil liberties in the interest of protection is necessary if not inevitable, Kennedy says, “that’s a facile formulation that begs the question: What do we mean by ‘protect’? From what? Which liberties? Benjamin Franklin once said ‘he who would trade liberty for security will have neither.’ If we let government decide who has rights, no one really has rights—at most they have privileges that the state can revoke when it deems such revocation necessary or desirable.”
Kennedy, who had braced herself for an expansion of the USA PATRIOT Act, was delighted when the House voted to limit its scope, blocking the Justice Department and the FBI from using the act to peek at library records and bookstore sales receipts.
“The House vote was a welcome corrective and an indication that Congress is beginning to feel the heat,” she explains. “Nearly 150 local government units, mostly city councils and the like, have passed resolutions condemning the PATRIOT Act, and activists as politically disparate as former Republican Congressman Bob Barr and the ACLU have come together to work against many of its provisions. No section of the act has been more roundly criticized than the one that was the subject of this vote, allowing federal agents to question librarians and booksellers about citizens’ reading habits.
“As I told my husband one morning over breakfast, never mess with librarians.”
Kennedy is just as concerned with civil rights violations beyond the nation’s borders, particularly in such places as Abu Ghraib and the Guantanamo Naval Base. “When Americans do not live up to their own rules, we abandon what it means to be American,” she asserts. “It’s like the periodic efforts to ban flag desecration. I’m always bemused by those who feel that desecrating the Constitution—desecrating what the flag stands for—in order to ‘respect’ the piece of cloth is somehow honoring America. When we engage in acts of torture and humiliation, not only do we spit on our most cherished national beliefs, we also make our own soldiers less safe. A number of Army officers have warned that our failure to abide by the conventions of war will be met with similar failures by those who capture our soldiers.”
Asked to assess the future of civil liberties, Kennedy says she believes that America is at a fateful fork in the road. “Either the sane folks in the political middle will rise up and take back the discourse of patriotism and values, or we will become a very different nation. We have been on the brink before and pulled back. I hope we can pull back again.
“I don’t think most people realize just how far to the right this nation has gone,” she continues. “When I ran for Congress in 1980, I was considered ‘too conservative.’ Lots of Republicans told me they couldn’t vote for someone as conservative as I was. Well, I have changed virtually none of my positions, and these days I’m routinely called a liberal, a socialist, or even a communist. Not to mention godless.”
In 1997, Kennedy published What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like You Doing in the ACLU?, a personal exegesis of the compatibilities between Republicans and civil libertarians. “I loved being director of the ICLU, but it was stressful,” she says, “not just because the organization is so misunderstood, but because it was financially so precarious. Civil liberties isn’t like cancer or heart disease—there are relatively few people willing to offer financial support and even fewer foundations willing to give to advocacy organizations of any kind. But you have to have resources in order to make a difference.”
Eight years later, one might ask, what’s a high-profile former head of the ICLU doing in academia? Kennedy’s opportunity to teach came when a good friend and SPEA professor of law and public policy told her she was retiring and insisted Kennedy apply for the job. “I told her I was happy at the ICLU, and her response made me stop and think. She said, ‘Do you really want to be fundraising when you are 70?’”
Kennedy got the job and discovered that she genuinely likes the academic life. “I enjoy the students,” she says, though she admits being surprised at how little they know about American history, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. “I love having time to read and learn, and I love to write—although I now publish stuff in journals I’d never heard of before becoming an academic!”
Kennedy is nothing if not prolific. Her latest book, on Charitable Choice, was co-written with SPEA professor Wolf Bielefeld. (Charitable Choice is a term used to describe several programs signed into law during the Clinton administration concerning the rights and responsibilities of federally funded faith-based organizations. The legislation was subsequently expanded by President Bush into the “Faith-Based Initiative.”) The book will be published by Georgetown University Press, and Kennedy is already at work on another. “I’ve always been a fairly high-energy person, and I am very organized,” she says.
Kennedy’s next book, tentatively titled God and Country: The Religious Roots of Public Conflict, will examine the extent to which theologically rooted norms, and the elites who hold or are influenced by them, frame and shape American policy choices.
Kennedy’s intent is in part to help bridge the chasm between increasingly polarized interests in America because “if we are ever going to be able to communicate with each other,” she says, “we need to get a better understanding of where various perspectives are coming from.
“It isn’t just the ‘lunatic fringe’ or the ‘wingnuts’ of any ideological bent whose opinions are shaped by our religious traditions,” she continues. “We’re all products of our cultures, and those cultures have roots in religious doctrine. ‘Culture wars’ are not, and never have been, about the conflict between ‘people of faith’ and secular society. It is not only misleading but dishonest to suggest that ‘truly religious’ people all want to ban abortion, pray in the public schools, and disadvantage gays, or that ‘really religious’ people all prefer any policy prescription.
“The skill of the radical right has been in appropriating religion, in hijacking the language of values so that these disputes are increasingly seen as battles of ‘faith’ versus ‘secularism’ or ‘atheism,’” Kennedy says. “To characterize one of these approaches as religious and one as ‘godless’ or secular is simply untrue. But it was a tactically brilliant piece of framing.”
Debra Kent is director of communications and marketing for the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington.