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Mary Jo Bane was at the 1963 March on Washington, and then spent two years in the Peace Corps in Liberia, West Africa
Mary Jo Bane was at the 1963 March on Washington, and then spent two years in the Peace Corps in Liberia, West Africa
Mary Jo Bane / Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
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My religious life and my public life have been intertwined, sometimes in complicated ways, as both have developed over my life thus far.I will start this statement with brief outlines of both lives, and then explore four areas where my faith and my political life have influenced each other.
My religious life.
I was born to a Catholic family of Irish ancestry, in Illinois. We moved around some when I was a kid, living in Catholic neighborhoods in a variety of “garden spots”: East Saint Louis, Anacostia, Chicago, Buffalo, Detroit. I went to parochial schools, and finished high school at the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak MI, where Father Charles Coughlin, the famous, by-then-silenced, anti-Semitic radio priest of the depression, was alive, preaching, and handing out diplomas. In 1963, I graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, joined the Peace Corps and left the church.
Then ensued my dissolute and irreligious youth. The dissolute part more or less ended with my marriage (to an atheist) in 1975. The irreligious part ended in 1981, when I left the Carter administration, joined the faculty at the Kennedy School and started attending Mass again. I became at that time a “pretty good Catholic,” and a somewhat desultory member of the Paulist Center Community of borderline heretics in downtown Boston. I can’t explain this “conversion,” or the one that later deepened my faith and commitment: Perhaps there really is a Holy Spirit.
In 1996, I left the Clinton administration (about which more later), came back to the Kennedy School after trekking in Nepal, went to confession for the first time in 35 years and learned to pray. At this point I’m a daily Mass-goer, an active member of my neighborhood, half-Vietnamese parish in Dorchester, and I suppose a bit of a fanatic about it all.
My public life.
I was “baptized a Catholic but born a Democrat.” During my college years in Washington I became active in Young Democrats and stood in the snow for John Kennedy’s inauguration. I was at the 1963 March on Washington, and then spend two years in the Peace Corps in Liberia, West Africa. I came home to go to graduate school, taught 7th and 8th grade, and marched against the war. Teaching junior high school is really hard work, so after a few years of that, I got a doctorate and moved on to the easier life of the university, interspersed with periods of work in government.
My academic career has been mostly at Harvard, first at the School of Education and then at the Kennedy School of Government. In 1980 I spent a year in the Carter Administration, in the budget and planning office of the newly formed Department of Education. From 1983 to 1986 I was the Executive Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services, in Albany, and returned to Albany in 1992 as Commissioner. From 1993 to 1996 I was an assistant secretary at HHS during the first Clinton term. I left that job when the President signed the 1996 welfare bill, and along with Peter Edelman who also opposed the bill, made something of a fuss about it.
Since 1996 I have been back at the Kennedy School, teaching and writing on public management, social policy, and in a bit of a departure, the role of the churches. I spent a sabbatical at the Harvard Divinity School where I learned some theology and made a start on research on how Catholic parishes and other Catholic groups participate in both service delivery and politics around social justice.
With that brief outline out of the way, let me turn to some of the interweavings of my faith and my public life.
The call to service.
The most pervasive theme for me, both the most banal and the most important, has been the profoundly Christian call to service, which has stuck in my head and my gut through all my arguments with the church and all my failures in actually answering that call. It started with my romantic (and as I look at it now, hopelessly ill-suited) desire as a girl in the 1950s to become a nun, but led me instead to college and then to the Peace Corps. Breaking with the church was partly a reaction to what seemed at the time as a tension between service and the church, which I perceived as anti-intellectual, anti-democratic and insufficiently committed to justice and peace. As my career developed, I continued my efforts to, mostly, be doing something useful. That has always been defined for me as trying to do something for others, as giving back some of what I have been so lavishly given. I have managed to convince myself that the research and teaching I have done and the work I have tried to do in government, as well as volunteer work I have done over the years, meet that criterion.
Now I don’t want to get too carried away here. Girls who grew up in the 50s by and large became secretaries, teachers, nurses or nuns, and not corporate lawyers or investment bankers, because those were the roles that were open to and considered appropriate for women at that time. Women like me who discovered as adults, to our great shock, that we were ambitious for power, money and status as well as for eternal reward found that we could actually do quite well in the helping professions and in public service. (Perhaps the abbesses of the middle ages made the same discovery.) I doubt that I would have made a good, or a happy, stock trader, even if I had never listened to the gospels, to my parents talking about service, or to Father Coughlin preaching (which he did, really) about social justice. But I did listen, and I listen now to the gospels and the social teachings of the church, and I fret when I feel that what I am doing is not living up to those ideals. They are very deep within me, and although I know, from my husband and many others, that selfless service can be rooted in secular motivations, what is within me is very religious and very Catholic.
Pro-life, pro-family, pro-poor.
A second pervasive theme for me has been the development over time of a stance toward both personal morality and public policy that I now articulate as “pro-life, pro-family and pro-poor.” The church’s formulation of the consistent ethic of life is analogous, of course, but I have found the three part rubric (which I first heard from Gene Rivers) richer and more descriptive of my own commitments. My public service and personal charity are mostly pro-poor, or at least I like to think of them that way; that stance is required, I believe, by the gospel and by our obligations to one another that exist simply because of our common humanity. My writing, from my first book to more recent writing on welfare and poverty, has on occasion explored family issues. Over time, I would say that I have become more convinced of the importance of strong marriages, both from reading the social science literature and no doubt from the personal importance to me of my own marriage.
The abortion issue is a difficult one for me, as it is for many Catholics women. When asked, I identify myself as pro-life, and do so publicly, though in truth my actual positions on policy issues would surely not satisfy orthodox Catholic thought police. Like the majority of Americans I believe that most abortions are wrong most of the time; that the law in a religiously pluralist democracy cannot and should not rigidly outlaw all abortions; that it should instead regulate and discourage.
The abortion issue has not played a particularly important role in my public life. In New York State, I had the responsibility for some eligibility and financial aspects of the Medicaid program including paying bills for abortions; I saw that, and others saw it, as a basically ministerial responsibility, which I could preside over (as Governor Cuomo did) without grave violence to my conscience and also without threatening the pro-choice political establishment. My articulated pro-life position was a bit of a problem for my appointment to the Clinton administration, but did not become a big deal.
The more interesting issue may be that of what I do and don’t say in different public settings. I do identify myself as pro-life, pro-family and pro-poor and try to articulate as best I can the consistent ethic of life. But although I am active in social justice politics and problem solving, I don’t talk about, or work for, what I think is desperately needed on abortion, i.e., a moderate position on legislation, which would, for example, severely constrain third-term abortions and discourage all abortions. I don’t talk about them because there is no winning: my liberal political colleagues oppose my positions, reflecting the extent to which the issue has become polarized in elite dialogue, and my church also condemns moderate positions. We are all losing the opportunity to make important progress in limiting abortions, a dialogue I would be eager to participate in, and as a result we are also losing, I think, some of our credibility on pro-family and pro-poor issues. Personally, I feel this not as an active tension or problem, but as a lingering sense of lost possibilities.
Joining and leaving the Clinton administration.
A more specific example of the intersection of my religious and my public lives is provided by both my joining the Clinton administration in 1993 and my leaving it in 1996. In 1992 I was part of Governor Mario Cuomo’s administration in New York State as Commissioner of Social Services, a job which I loved for its scope, complexity and opportunity to influence social policy and practice.
I chose to leave New York and join the Clinton administration because Donna Shalala can be very persuasive, and because at that time I saw in Bill Clinton echoes of the John Kennedy who had inspired me to public service in the first place. I saw the administration as an opportunity for both designing policy for and implementing in practice a new work-oriented approach to welfare of a sort that I had been working on, with my colleague David Ellwood, who also joined the administration, for years. We believed, and thought the President did also, in work, family and mutual responsibility; in local administration with federal protections; in support for work; and in guarantees of job opportunities along with requirements for participation. David and I had taught and discussed the 1988 bishops letter on the economy. We saw our commitments as consistent with theirs (or perhaps, with typical Harvard arrogance, vice versa); I phrased mine, at least to myself, explicitly in the biblical and ethical concepts of social justice used by the bishops. The first two years of the administration were heady and exciting. Many of us, including myself, felt we were both doing the Lord’s work and having one heck of a good time.
Much changed after the 1994 congressional elections, when the Republicans took over the Congress and the agenda. The politics of welfare became much more contentious and conservative and for the administration much more reactive. Because the HHS office I headed (the Administration for Children and Families) had responsibility for granting waivers to the states for welfare reform experiments, I continually found myself in arguments both within the administration and with the external groups that I considered the good guys. On the policy side, my HHS colleagues and I were most concerned about what we considered important protections for poor families, like exceptions to time limits and assistance to children even when parents broke the rules. We were convinced that the President should veto the welfare bill that the Congress passed in the summer of 1996, and made the strongest moral, policy and political arguments that we could think of. We lost that battle for a variety of good and bad reasons.
My decision to resign in response to the President’s signing the bill was a difficult one, made after considerable thought, discussion and prayer. Some of my considerations were clearly utilitarian: Could I do more good by staying where I was and trying to implement the bill well? Could I get out of my apartment lease? Some were issues of loyalty: to Donna, to the President, most importantly to the ACF staff I had worked with and grown attached to over the three and a half years. The decision for me finally came down to a gut level insight: I tried to imagine myself staying in the job, implementing a law I thought was harmful, and defending it in Congressional hearings and public speeches, which I would have had to do; and I realized I simply couldn’t do it. I’m not sure where that certainty came from, though I suspect it, like so much else in my life, was rooted in my early and continuing conviction that God expected generosity and integrity from us and gave us the guidance and strength to live those virtues.
Again, I don’t want to go too far with this. Men and women of good will could and did disagree about welfare policy and the relative dangers and potentials of the bill the president signed; the jury is still out on its actual effects. And men and women of courage and integrity made different decisions than I (and Peter Edelman and Wendell Primus) made about resigning. But my own faith and prayer took me where they did, both in joining the administration and in leaving it, and though I wish things had come out differently, I regret neither decision.
Faith and academic life.
Finally, let me talk some about my current life and work, in which my faith plays a much larger role. I have more time now for prayer (which I should never have seen as a luxury), volunteer work, and research directly related to the role of religion in public life. The freedom I have was partially externally imposed (leaving Washington the way I did burns bridges), partly the fruits of economic good fortune and a preference for a relatively simple life style, and partly the result of a willingness to take advantage of the privileges of tenure. I am determined to preserve that freedom: Harvard pays me for three quarters time for nine months, and I have become quite fierce about what I do and don’t agree to do both for Harvard and for others. Daily prayer and Mass, continuing study of scripture and theology, time with my mother, volunteer work in my parish, work retreats in Haiti, and pro bono board service, speaking and consulting for various do-gooder groups are all important parts of my life.
For the last few years, I have been participating in a seminar at Harvard on religion and public life, which began with conversation about the role of religious organizations in the politics and service provision aspects of welfare reform, and more recently has been looking more broadly at the intersection of faith and civic life. As part of this, I have been doing some research and thinking about what Catholic teachings say, about what Catholic parishes actually do, and about why there seems to be such a large gap between the two. My interest in this topic was generated partly by my observations of the political activity of the Catholic lobbying groups, CCUSA and NCCB about the 1996 welfare reform bill: they were professional and respected, but much less effective that one might have expected of an institution with 60 million members, many of whom vote. There are lots of reasons for this, but it does seem clear that there is a significant gap between the institutional response and the grass roots.
Understanding this seems to me to be important, both for the church and for the wider polity, as we work though issues of religion and public life in new ways. The work provides an opportunity for me to engage as a Catholic with the wider intellectual community of theologians, social scientists and policy analysts that are confronting these issues. We can, I hope, contribute both to understanding and to practice, to discipleship and to citizenship.
As I work through the empirical and theological facts and arguments, I find myself hypothesizing a tension, which may or may not turn out to be sustainable, between the internal structures and authority patterns of the church and its ability to teach and practice social justice. These may turn out to be important arguments; if they do, I hope to be able to analyze and lay them out as a loving critic.
As I hope is at least implicit in this discussion, both my religious life and my public life have been quite an adventure: hardly ever boring, mostly fun, increasingly joyful in that very deep sense of a life developing in understanding and lived in love. I sometimes think I would like a slightly more mundane life, and maybe it will be so in my next decades. But in another sense I hope I can continue to learn and work and love with all the challenge and all the excitement that I have had thus far.