Tonight, “American Idealist: The Story of Sargent Shriver,” airs nationwide on PBS.
It documents for us the triumphs and trials of the most creative, effective, and popular public official in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. By recapturing the drama of those vital and troubled years in America through the public decisions and actions of Sargent Shriver, Emmy-award winning writer and producer, Bruce Orenstein, conveys a powerful and strikingly contemporary message-one that goes to the heart of every American’s hope for an end to the polarization and hostility that marks the politics of religion in the United States today.
Shriver is at once a deeply spiritual man, a devout Roman Catholic, and a creative and committed public administrator. No matter what the circumstances, he has attended Mass every day of his adult life: managing the vast Merchandise Mart in Chicago, traveling the world as Peace Corps director, organizing the state funeral after President Kennedy’s assassination, and campaigning as Sen. McGovern’s vice presidential running-mate.
However, not once during a career spanning 60 years, did he ever call for a Roman Catholic approach to politics, or for a specifically Christian ethics of public service. Instead, a combination of deep spiritual awareness and extraordinary administrative acuity enabled him to spiritualize the public programs he created without politicizing his religious commitments in the process.
Shriver structured the practical, problem-solving functions of the Peace Corps, Community Action, Head Start, and Legal Services to the Poor with institutional policies and procedures grounded in the values of empathy, compassion, reciprocity, and service. As the documentary makes clear: These are not abstract ideals; these are concrete ways of treating people. And in the film, the images of these values at work are as powerful as the spirit moving in them.
Shriver understood the pathways by which the spirit walks, and the pathways by which it doesn’t. And he understood that as experienced, the spirit does not come with labels. So he designed programs that enabled people from across the economic, social, political and religious spectrum of America to serve and to engage with each other, and in the act of treating each other in these ways, open up to the movement of the spirit inside themselves and each other. Shriver had no need to proclaim his religious allegiance or politicize his religious commitments. It is little wonder that the programs he created continue to capture the hearts and minds of Americans some forty years on.
Americans are hungry for a politics of spiritual integrity that can replace the politics of religious polarization that increasingly divides us today. Happily, in the example of Sargent Shriver, we have a model of the politics of spiritual integrity, and a PBS documentary to help us grasp it. As we gather with our families on Monday night to watch “American Idealist”, we can only hope that all the Presidential candidates will be watching too.
Jamie Price works for the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.