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.]