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Morality's Place in PoliticsQ & A with Congressman Barney Frank

interviewed by jeri zeder

The walls of the handsomely spare waiting room of Congressman Barney Frank’s Newton office are free of pictures of the congressman cutting ribbons, kissing babies, or posing with the rich and powerful. There is, however, the photo of a priest. Which might otherwise seem odd, given the fact that Frank is both Jewish and gay, except that the priest in question is Father Robert F. Drinan. Drinan was, of course, Frank’s predecessor in Congress from 1971–1981 before he stepped down when Pope John Paul II ordered him to choose between politics and the priesthood. Here, Congressman Frank reflects on Drinan’s legacy, religion and morality in government, and human rights.

Q: How do you feel you’ve been changed by knowing Father Drinan?

A: Well, I got an appreciation of religiosity. There’s a problem for a lot of liberals, which is when we encounter deeply held religious beliefs, it is often these days on the part of people who disagree with us. That wasn’t always the case. During the civil rights era, we were dealing with deeply religious people. So the example of Bob, who was this devoutly religious figure, who lived by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, being such an advocate for liberal causes, was very helpful, and I think it helped remind me, yeah, don’t fall into the trap of seeing religiosity as somehow just a shield for conservatism. It is a very powerful, legitimate factor.

Q: What mark do you think Father Drinan made on Congress?

A: Human rights was the big issue where he made a difference. Before Drinan, the left used to beat up the regimes on the right. The left would talk about Franco, and the right would talk about the Communists. And Bob, I believe more than anybody else, said no, wait a minute, human rights is a neutral principle. He also helped change Massachusetts. If you go back to the 1950s and 1960s in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts members of Congress were kind of liberal labor types, rather than liberal Democrats. They voted for economic liberalism, but they weren’t great social liberals, and there was nothing reformist about them. When Bob Drinan beat Phil Philbin in the primary in 1970, that was the beginning of a revolution in Massachusetts politics that really ended twelve years later when Mike Dukakis came back and beat Ed King. But by that time, the congressional delegation had included Jim Shannon and Gary Studds and Ed Markey and me and Paul Tsongas and was greatly transformed, and it went from being a kind of big city and labor delegation to being a more liberal, activist delegation.

Q: What about the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church? He somehow seemed to cross a boundary.

A: Obviously, he was a great champion of Israel and of Jewish relations and, obviously, Jews were among his most passionate supporters. In some ways, Jews had been unfair to the Church, and in some ways they had some real reason to be skeptical. I think that one of the things that was interesting was that some Jews who supported him did not really understand the Church and assumed that all Catholics would have to vote for him. And I think some Jews were surprised at the extent to which Catholics said, hey, I’m not voting for him, and in some ways that enlightened a lot of Jews that there was not the kind of slavish obedience to the clergy that some of them had frankly and incorrectly thought was part of the Church.

Q: Similarly, do you think he transcended boundaries between gays and the church?

A: Less so, maybe because when he was in Congress, it wasn’t a big issue. I don’t think of him as being very identified on gay rights.

Q: Being gay, how did that affect your relationship with him?

A: There’s no effect. First of all, when he endorsed me, I was closeted and when I came out in 1987, it had no effect.

Q: Father Drinan wrote about how it’s a fundamental Christian responsibility to respect believers of all faiths, and non-believers as well. How do you see this manifesting in politics?

A: He used to quote Saint Francis: “Teach the gospel. Sometimes use words.” This was a man who lived by a very, very rigorous, demanding, personal moral code. He was chaste, he was obedient, he lived in poverty. I mean, he lived this incredible moral code and he had options, obviously. That didn’t mean, however, that he thought that government had no moral purpose or no moral rules. Morality, public morality, meant governing the relations between people, protecting people from being unfairly treated by others and abused by others, and he was an exemplar of that kind of morality. When it came to those areas where people interact with each other, he was a strict exemplar of a moral code, which was, respect everybody’s dignity.

Q: Are we still following that as a society? Is that in danger? Where do you see that going?

A: The right wing Republicans get it exactly backwards. And for six years, the opposite of that has been in ascendancy. I think [Drinan’s] life is a refutation of the notion that if you follow a personal moral code you’re obligated to impose it on people and also a refutation of those on the left who say morality has no place in politics.

Q: Do liberals really say there’s no role for morality?

A: Some do, yeah, they say they’re reacting against the moral majority, they say, oh, no, you’re imposing morality on politics. The answer is, people need to make the distinction between appropriate personal morality and public morality. And people often don’t do that

Q: What do you think was Father Drinan’s greatest legacy?

A: Human rights. The notion of human rights as a neutral principle.


“The reality is that the newly globalized world needs a formula that will allow, and indeed inspire, churches to be more vigorous in carrying out their essential mission…The churches appreciate the awful injustices in a world where 800 million of God's children are chronically malnourished. People of faith cringe when they realize that the human family spends $900 billion each year on arms and armaments. . . . However, religious groups currently have no place at the table when decisions are made that affect a world where wars continue, starvation grows, illiteracy increases, and injustices of all kinds multiply.”

~ Father Robert Drinan in Can God and Caesar Coexist? (2004)