Could Kennedy Get Away with This in 2008?

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was scheduled to deliver one more speech during his tour of Texas. It was to have been given after he rode in the motorcade in which he ultimately died, felled by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets.

In the speech, Kennedy was going to speak of the life and death struggle between the United States and the free world, on the one hand, and Soviet totalitarianism on the other. Kennedy, like his immediate predecessors Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, believed that the US needed to be, in Roosevelt’s phrase, “the arsenal of democracy.”

But Kennedy also suggests in his undelivered speech, as he had in other speeches previously, that the US couldn’t rely entirely on its military or economic might to confront Soviet totalitarianism. He asserts:

We in this country, in this generation, are– by destiny rather than choice– the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility– that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint– and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal– and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. “

What “was written long ago” is the first verse of Psalm 127. The Psalms, of course, were the worship song book of God’s ancient people, the Israelites. It appears in what we Christians call the Old Testament, one of the 66 books of the Bible. Like Jews, Christians regard the Psalms as a sacred book, part of the Word of God to which the apostle Paul refers in the New Testament when he says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).

As a Christian, I believe that the verse cited by Kennedy speaks a profound truth. I’m convinced, from my admittedly biased perspective and from my study of History and of life, that if we believe that strength of arms or large sums of money will, alone, protect us from the horrors of the world, we are naive.

Of course, in a world in which people do horrible things–a world, in which, the Bible teaches, sin has taken hold, things like governments and armies and police forces are necessary. Doing without those things, also from a Christian perspective, would be naive.

I believe that nations, as much as people, need God.

But it’s less acceptable these days for presidential candidates or presidents themselves to dare to make assertions like the one Kennedy planned on making in Dallas on that horrible day.

To me, there is ample evidence from history demonstrating that even the strongest empires have, like the Soviet Union, rotted from the inside, been destroyed from the outside, or, as was the case with Rome, succumbed to both inside and outside forces, because of their failure to rely on God.

But if Kennedy were to say this today, he would be written off by some as a lunatic, derided by others for trying to force his religious views down others’ throats, dismissed by others for simply appealing to people’s religious sympathies without having such sympathies himself, or hailed by some for speaking the truth as he saw it.

In any case, a statement that would have been unexceptionable in 1963, would likely be deemed controversial, even inflammatory, today.

The reaction would be especially harsh if a Democratic president or a Democratic candidate for president were to make such a statement. For some reason, Democrats today are more generic in their allusions to faith. They risk riling up a portion of their base if they say too many nice things about God or about a specific understanding of God. By taking this hands-off approach to God and to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God, Democrats have effectively conceded many Christians, and not just those identified with the Religious Right, to the Republicans.

All of which makes Senator Barack Obama’s overt expressions of faith in Jesus Christ and his willingness to challenge the Republicans for the votes of Christians, a willingness he expressed again in last night’s Democratic debate, so interesting. Obama suggests that his views on things like equal opportunity are directly rooted in his faith in Christ and that if Democratic candidates advanced some of their ethical agenda as, in part, expressing their faith in Christ, Christians would give them a fair hearing and even their votes.

I have said many times before that as a Christian, I have zero interest in forcing others to adopt my faith or the ethic that I may think results from that faith. (Although I have every interest in sharing my faith in Christ in the hope that they too, will become followers of Christ.) But I’ve been critical of the affable Mike Huckabee, for example, for, I think, going over the line by campaigning as a “Christian leader” rather than as leader who happens to be a Christian.

But we definitely get a clearer picture of who a candidate is when she or he says things like Kennedy planned on saying on November 22, 1963. Granted, some pols may say them simply in an effort to garner votes. Kennedy himself may have done this. We know that he was an indifferent Christian at best. Be that as it may, the mere expression of such notions as those advanced by Kennedy in his undelivered speech, can tell us too, something about what the candidates think of the electorate.

The Democratic candidate who speaks with such specificity about his faith, whatever his or her faith, might warrant a chapter in Kennedy’s Pullitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage.

What do you think?

[The picture above was taken to Kennedy's last actual speech, delivered in Fort Worth, on November 22. Its from the John F. Kennedy Library.]

[This has been, if you'll pardon what may be deemed a pun, cross-posted at my personal blog, Better Living: Thoughts from Mark Daniels.]

Author: MARK DANIELS

9 Comments

  1. Speaking as a Christian , I too believe that people need God. I also believe that a nation, like an individual human, needs a connection with God.

    But I am married to an atheist who certainly doesn't seem to. Perhaps he does and doesn't know it, though he seems to be able to live a meticulously ethical life without it. In the meantime, he has a very low tolerance for what he calls “Christian name-dropping,” meaning people talking about Christ in the social or political arena.

    I don't particularly feel I need or want to know about a candidate's faith; it seems to me that this is a private matter. While I'm all for spreading the Gospel, I don't think Caesar is the right person to do the honors. After all—as Christ frequently reminds us in the Gospel—putting on a show of faith is the easiest thing in the world. He was particularly severe, wasn't he, against those who used their religious faith as a means of winning social advantage or approval….?.

    Like Barack Obama, I am a Democrat because the party's concern with community and the welfare of others seems cognate with my beliefs about what Christ requires of me.

    I'm sympathetic to him on that score, but it's not a point in his favor politically as far as I'm concerned for him to talk about it. As far as I know, ALL the candidates affect to be Christians of one kind or another. It doesn't seem to play much of a role in how any of them—including, as you rightly note, Kennedy—behave privately.

    I don't see why it requires courage for even Dems to talk freely about God. It would take much more courage for a candidate to acknowledge atheism, agnosticim, or membership in a religion that the average American doesn't know anything about or understand. In any case, it's not something they ought to have to talk about, so long as they convince me they will operate within the law and make ethical choices….

  2. I have mixed thoughts. On the one hand, I see no reason God should be the purview of only one party and I encourage politicians as people to speak their conscience. On the other hand, religion for me has always been a very personal matter and I am always nervous when it seems to be paraded in public for effect.

  3. Damozel:
    By and large, I agree with your husband.

    Mostly, I think that politicians should keep expressions of faith out of their political discussions. One reason for that is, more often than not, such talk represents nothing more than pandering.

    For nearly thirty years now, for example, some Republican pols and many leaders of the Reigious Right have been eliciting some Christians' votes and financial backing by, as your husband puts it, “name dropping,” draping their platitudes and platforms in Christian piety. Yet there's lots of evidence that, at least as it relates to the politicians, these expressions are mere plays for support.

    I also don't believe that one can not posit a straight line between one's confessions about God and one's positions on political issues. I'm generally wary of politicians and preachers who do this. Rare is the political issue that is so clearly addressed in the Scriptures, for example, that a preacher or a pol can say, “Thus saith the Lord.” That's why, while I do blog about politics, this pastor has almost never advanced a political position on issues. I don't want to drop the God bomb on people.

    But, taking an example from history: The British politician William Wilberforce, one-time parishioner of John Newton, the former slave ship captain and composer of 'Amazing Grace,' took it as his life's mission to “reform the morals” of Great Britain. This led to his leadership in such causes as abolishing slavery in the British Empire and ending cruelty to animals. In fact, at one time or another, Wilberforce was an active member of the boards of some 400 organizations, whose causes he carried to Parliament. The thing that drove Wilberforce's positions on public positions was his faith in Christ and it would have been ridiculous for him to have pretended otherwise.

    All I'm saying is that for a candidate to say, “One reason I feel this way” has to do with my faith in Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever, is nothing more than “truth in advertising.” They may be fibbing, in which case the voting public will have to attempt to be discerning.

    I am wary of pols who talk about their faith all the time. Too often, they do so in an exclusionary way, as if to say, “I'm one of the righteous few (and such and so is not.).”

    This is an unacceptable approach for Christian politicians. Christians believe that they are, like the rest of the human race, ordinary sinners who have been saved by the grace of God, not by their own merit. Christians are called to regard themselves as being no bettert–or no worse–than others and to put the interests of others ahead of their own.

    But if one's religious convictions, whatever they may be, even atheism, have had an impact on one's positions on some issues, it would be disingenuous to not say so. And, in some circles, it would be, I think, quite courageous.

    Thanks so much for your thoughful comments. I really enjoyed reading them!

    Mark Daniels

  4. I have no objection to a candidate mentioning his or her religious beliefs and associating them with his political goals. I say this as a member of a minority and currently reviled religion (Islam) with full knowledge that a candidate who acknowledged his or her Islam would be very unlikely to go far! I am inspired by candidates who cite the great religious texts that have meaning for us all, even atheists I believe, because they speak of longings all good people have– brotherhood, peace both inner and outer, secure families and stable societies. We all dislike hypocrisy, and it has a stench that distinguishes it from sincerity pretty quickly. But must the speaker be sincere for a great text to inspire? I think the history of rhetoric answers No.

    And incidentally, the Psalms are one of the four sacred texts of Islam as well, along with the Torah (Taurah), the Gospels (Injeel), and the Qur'an.

  5. Of course, Scripture is frequently misused by politicians. I find Obama's assertions annoying but I'm not one of his supporters anyway.

    As a Jew, the less I hear about your god in politics, the better. I have already been told about Jesus 4,613 times and probably know more about him (and the religion built around him) than most Christians. At best, hearing Christ-talk is boring; at worst, offensive; in general, simply annoying. It's like somebody trying to sell me a second nose.

  6. a second nose. love it. I want a secular government, thank you.

    enjoy this famous bit on religion by George Carlin

  7. I want a secular government too, but the fact is that people in the government who are religious are not wrong to acknowledge the influence their religion and religious texts have on their political goals. Stop and re-read: You don't get to go into politics and try to make the US a place only Christians (or whatever) will feel at home in. But it's fine to mention, as you try to make the US a place all of us can live more or less happily in, that your religious beliefs are part of your inspiration. I'm not sure Holly and GreenDreams really addressed the question, though their responses do illuminate the fact that the pushers of a certain brand of evangelical Christianity (not to mention the Inquisition and the Crusades and so on) have made us all pretty cynical.

  8. Happy Hana:
    You make a great point. The Religious Right have made expressions of faith, however genuine, innocent, or even helpful they may be, odious. This is precisely what I've been trying to tell people in the Religious Right would happen.

    Mark Daniels

  9. Yes, back in 1963 such statements were not pernicious.

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