The Importance of President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address 50 Years Later
Carl A. Anderson
Faneuil Hall, Boston April 7, 2011
Your Eminence, Cardinal O’Malley; Your Excellencies, Archbishop Wenski, Bishop Lori and Bishop Kennedy; Reverend Fathers; Seminarians; Members of the Board of Directors and State Officers of the Knights of Columbus; Members of the Boston Leadership Forum; Brother Knights; Ladies and Gentlemen – fellow Citizens…
Here at Faneuil Hall, in this historic setting, the injustices of the colonial system were first addressed. It was here that the Sugar Act was protested more than a decade before the Declaration of Independence. Here that the Tea Tax was protested. And here the Boston Massacre was recounted. Here too was born the idea that there should be “no taxation without representation.”
Here we are reminded that it was a bold step that our forebearers took, when they resolved to create a nation based on something greater than any of them individually, and greater still than the sum of them all.
Those who helped build this country and guide it through its struggle for independence held certain ideals, and those ideals have, from time to time, been immortalized by those who led the country after them.
Many times in our country’s history, we have been inspired by the words of a president that have recalled those founding ideals, and that reinforced our national identity as Americans.
The list of these speeches would include Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech and Reagan’s Berlin Wall Speech.
And there is another speech that belongs on this list, one that most Americans would certainly include – President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, given 50 years ago.
At just 14 minutes, President Kennedy’s inaugural speech was one of the shortest in our country’s history. But it is also the most memorable.
Few presidential speeches in our history have so clearly presented the spirit of our nation’s historical, philosophical and moral foundation. Many reasons have been given for this. But I tend to agree with John Steinbeck who was at Kennedy’s Inaugural. He later wrote to the president commending his speech which he said “was not only nobly conceived and excellently written and delivered, but also had that magic undertone of truth which cannot be simulated.”1 It is precisely this “undertone of truth” which I believe has given Kennedy’s words their enduring power.
As we explore the reasons why this speech is so critical to the way we think of ourselves as Americans – I ask for your indulgence if I go slightly longer in discussing his speech, than Kennedy went in actually giving it.
I would also ask that you also keep in mind that it is his speech and its ideas – not the particulars of Kennedy’s politics or life – that I wish to explore with you today. It has been said that “only when all who were alive when he was alive are gone” will an accurate assessment of Kennedy the man and of his presidency be possible.2
There has been considerable discussion during the last 50 years as to the author or authors of Kennedy’s address. Certainly, Kennedy’s longtime speechwriter Theodore Sorensen played an important role. We know that Kennedy asked 10 key advisors to submit suggestions – including themes and language for the address. He even asked religious leaders including the Rev. Billy Graham to suggest scriptural quotations.
Of the two quotations from the Address I will discuss at some length one appears in an early Sorensen draft of the speech added in Sorensen’s own handwriting. The other, does not appear in the Sorensen text but does appear in the draft dictated by Kennedy to his secretary Evelyn Lincoln on January 10 as he traveled to Palm Beach.
While these questions interest historians, their greatest contribution may be simply to remind us that in America there is a special identification of the person who is the president with the office of the presidency itself that is unlike any other political office in our democracy and that this process of identification is well underway by the time of the president’s inaugural.
In any event, I think such questions have limited importance. A diligent researcher will tell us that the most famous line in the speech, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” finds its antecedents in the political rhetoric of Warren G. Harding. In a speech to the 1916 Republican National Convention, Harding stated, “In the great fulfillment we must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation.”3 But to conclude from this that Kennedy drew either his political rhetoric or philosophy from such sources requires a suspension of disbelief of heroic proportions.
Certainly, even those born long after 1961 have heard Kennedy’s call to action: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
In many ways, the speech turns on this theme. It is the principle that goes to the heart of who we are as citizens. And it goes to the heart of who we are as a people. It speaks not only of the relationship between the governed and the government. It speaks also to the relationship between each of us and our neighbors.
In answering the question “what can we do for our country,” I believe the simple answer is that we ought to strive to make our great country even greater. And we ought to do that in two ways.
First, we ought to be faithful citizens: that is, citizens true to the principles of the Declaration of Independence; citizens who exercise their rights and duties as citizens with what Kennedy called a “good” conscience—one cognizant of the moral foundations of our system of government.
Second, we should reach out to our neighbors in a spirit of “charity.”
In order to understand why this is important, we can look at another critical section of Kennedy’s speech.
Before Kennedy asked us to consider what we could do for our country, he reminded us what previous generations of Americans had already done. On his January 17th return to Washington, Kennedy spoke of his belief that “the spirit of the Revolution is still here, still a part of this country.”4 He would summarize that belief at his inaugural in this way:
“The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe -- the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
Not every word may have been Kennedy’s. But the idea was. On January 10th while flying to Florida, Kennedy had dictated this text as follows:
“We must not forget that we are the descendants of revolutionaries. The principles for which our ancestors fought we now fight for around the globe. The rights of man [come] not because of the state but because of the hand of God.” 5
This was not a new idea to Kennedy.
Speaking to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Everett, Massachusetts in 1958, Kennedy said that “man’s nature is based upon the idea of equality of all men before God—the physical side of his nature is the desire to develop his own talents and abilities. What is true of an individual is true of a nation—and history bears testimony to that.”6
Also that same year, Kennedy addressed his brother Knights of Columbus during an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pere Marquette Council here in Boston. On that occasion he said, “Upon what can we rely? … In what can we find hope for the future? The answer, I believe, lies ultimately in the very principles which we honor tonight - the principles of our religious heritage. It is a heritage which teaches us self-discipline which will enable us to sacrifice economic convenience and physical comfort to a degree sufficient to offset the sacrifice of human values and liberties which has been extracted from the Russian people. It is a heritage of rich spiritual resources, renewing our energies and determination even when the day is darkest and the odds most overwhelming. It is a heritage that enables us to build with Christian and non-Christian nations alike a spirit of unity and brotherhood far stronger than the unanimity that the Russian tanks brought to Budapest.”7
As President Kennedy observed, our founders stood firmly for the belief that our rights come from God himself, not from the state.
Our nation’s foundational document, the Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States – what today we call the Declaration of Independence – is the obvious reference for Kennedy’s words regarding “the rights of man.” The Declaration is as unambiguous as it was unanimous: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In declaring this nation independent, the signers of the Declaration stated that the rights cited for their claim were not simply matters of opinion, or even of belief. Rather, they were God-given rights that could not be taken away by any person or any government. These rights were “self evident” and those words were unanimously adopted. On this moral foundation America saw fit to stake its claim to liberty.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln faced a nation deeply divided by the iron chains of slavery. He appealed to the enduring principles of the Declaration. A century later, facing a world divided by an iron curtain of totalitarianism, Kennedy made a similar appeal to the Declaration in his Inaugural Address.
“We hold these truths” is truly a remarkable statement. But it is exactly this statement that makes the United States different.
Two famous revolutions defined the politics of the eighteenth century. The first occurred in America. In the years that followed, the nation that grew from that revolution was nourished by the ideal that God – not the state – gave us our rights and governed our destiny. This gave rise to a stable constitution and a society that moved forward, at times quickly, and at other times incrementally, in living up to the promises of the Declaration.
The second revolution followed a few years later in France. There, the constitution was based on the belief that rights came from the state. And religious belief was viewed as an obstacle to liberty.
We know what happened next. In an effort to extinguish the sense of God and to create a system of rights without Him, the French government at the close of the 18th century killed an incredible number of its own citizens in what has rightly been called “the Reign of Terror.”
Rights – and especially the rights of life and liberty – were subordinated to the state. And no one – not even the architects of that regime itself – were safe from the guillotine that came in the end to symbolize that revolution. This is not to say that everything was perfect in the United States. But here there was no reign of terror. Though it would take decades until “equality” before the law would apply to all – especially African Americans and Catholics – the history of the United States from the 1770s to the 1960s is certainly one of steady progress.
Within their lifetime, many voters in 1960 would have remembered another Knight of Columbus, Governor Al Smith, the previous Catholic candidate for president who was the victim of a vicious campaign by the Ku Klux Klan and who was defeated in no small part because of his Catholic religion.
The question of where our rights come from is not simply an academic question. Our answer to that question is one on which our rights themselves depend.
Writing from a jail in Birmingham, Martin Luther King cited these “constitutional and God given rights” – and the “Judeo Christian” heritage present in the Declaration of Independence as the foundation for his claim to equality for all Americans.
The affirmation today that our rights come from the hand of our Creator rather than the generosity of the state continues to inform our nation’s political discourse.
The belief that our rights to life and liberty come from the Creator compel millions of our fellow citizens to question how the state can supersede that right with legalized abortion or euthanasia. Millions more question how we can believe that God is the foundation of our rights, and remain silent as others attempt to rid the public square of religious values in order to fashion a completely “secular” society.
Kennedy’s words are a timely reminder to all of us to remember the source of our fundamental rights.
The British journalist, Henry Fairlie in his book, The Kennedy Promise, suggests that “the inspiration of the inaugural address was religious.”8 And I think there is much truth in this insight. But this is not unique to Kennedy as president.
President Washington said this in his Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
President Lincoln at Gettysburg referred to this “nation under God,” and in his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln would carry this theme further with a reflection on America as a nation under “the judgments of the Lord.”
President John Quincy Adams had warned in his Inaugural Address that “except the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain.”
Even President Jefferson, often cited – quite erroneously – as having wanted to keep the public square free of religion, said something quite remarkable in his Second Inaugural Address. He asked the “being in whose hands we are” to enlighten the minds of [the nation’s public] servants and guide their councils.”
Not surprisingly, almost 9 in 10 Americans still see importance in Kennedy’s words on the source of our rights according to a Knights of Columbus-Marist Poll conducted this past January. The principle that we remain a nation under God who is the source of our rights is deeply engrained in us.
If we have God-given rights that must be respected, then it stands to reason that our human dignity is likewise bestowed by our Creator and not by the state.
Kennedy had said in 1958, our understanding of liberty is based upon “the idea of equality of all men before God.”
So what we do for our country is always tied to what we do for our neighbor – for it is our neighbors who make up our country.
We must be our brother’s keeper because our country is a nation of brothers and sisters “under God.” We share common rights and dignity bestowed on each of us by the Creator of all of us.
In fact, the God-given basis for human dignity ought to motivate us both to the legal protection of our rights and to charity as well.
We ought to continue to work for both today.
I think it is no accident that John Kennedy and Sargent Shriver were the men who would found the Peace Corps. They were men with experience with charity through their work in the Knights of Columbus. The idea of helping a neighbor in need, even beyond our country’s borders, flowed from the philosophy of human rights and human dignity expressed by Kennedy at his inauguration.
Kennedy did not speak of “charity for all” as did Lincoln. But he did speak to those “struggling to break the bonds of mass misery” and those who sought help in “casting off the chains of poverty.” And to them he “pledge[d] our best effort to help them help themselves” not because we could gain something from our efforts “but because” he said “it is right.”
Kennedy challenged America with this moral imperative and he was strongly applauded by those attending his Inaugural.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln found it “strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Kennedy admonished us that “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
Kennedy’s words were not designed to reinvent the country as a religious utopia or a Catholic theocracy. He saw religious principles as underpinning our rights, dignity and government. Some may consider these radical ideas today. But, Kennedy’s Address was far less religious than that of his predecessor.
President Eisenhower began his Address with a prayer that he had written. Certainly there was nothing wrong with doing that.
But Kennedy, unlike Eisenhower, had had to overcome anti-Catholic prejudice in his campaign. And he had promised while campaigning in Houston to govern as an American, not as a Catholic, adding that if his religion and his duties as an elected official ever came into conflict, he would resign his office.
Kennedy wasn’t without his critics for his speech delivered in Houston – and many today criticize his speech for leaning too far in a secular direction.
But in his Inaugural Address Kennedy found a way to present America’s Judeo-Christian heritage in a way that Americans – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – could agree.
Obviously, he believed that he could re-affirm America’s moral and spiritual heritage without imposing his Catholic beliefs. And Americans for their part overwhelmingly approved of Kennedy’s speech. It served for years as a source of unity for millions of Americans.
As Catholic Americans, we seek neither theocracy nor secularism. We do not believe that to be a just country, America must be ruled by the doctrines of the Catholic Church or of any church.
Nor do we believe that religious values, or Catholic values, ought to be excluded from our nation’s public discourse.
We seek a moral way forward for our country, informed by the values which have historically guided our nation: that we are endowed by our Creator with rights, and that this is one nation, under God.
As Catholics, we might recall in this regard the words of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – who would become Pope Benedict XVI. He observed that “In the long run, neither embrace nor ghetto can solve for the [Catholic] Church the problem of the modern world.”
Pope Paul VI described our situation in a slightly different way. He said the great drama of our time is the encounter of the Gospel with culture.
We are called to transform society.
Our job is not an easy one.
Cardinal Ratzinger had asked: “How can Christianity become a positive force for the political world without being turned into a political instrument and without on the other hand grabbing the political world for itself?”9
This is our challenge.
But it is a challenge which the founders of our nation also understood.
And I believe we should consider the following as a way forward – a way consistent with those who pledged their “sacred” honor in the cause of our liberty:
First, our politics should be consistent with a “good” conscience. We should understand that humanity is imperfect, and that our politics also is imperfect. This ought to make us hesitate to seek after the perfect in our political solutions.10 The inherent imperfection of politics and the human condition ought to further motivate us to keep in mind that our nation exists “under God,” and our rights exist from Him.
Second, in seeking to protect rights, we must work so that our Christian values add to the ethical dimension of our nation’s politics. We do not consider political power to be an end in itself. Rather, our politics should be at the service of others.11 And it should respect the dignity of others in its policies and its rhetoric. We must have the same values in the public square that we have at church.
Third, we should remember that attempts to remove religious values from the public square threaten to sever our country from its roots. A nation’s heritage is not an abstract or artificial thing. It is a living thing. And just as with any living thing, to cut off a nation’s roots is to place its future in peril.12
On the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke of literature as “the living memory of nations” and of the “forcible interference” with literature which had occurred in his country during the twentieth century. He described this as “no mere interference with ‘freedom of the press’.” It was, he said, “a closing, a locking up, of the national heart, amputation of the national memory.” He warned that when this happens, “That nationality has no memory of its own self. It is deprived of its spiritual unity. And even though compatriots apparently speak the same language, they suddenly cease to understand one another.”13
Solzhenitsyn was speaking of the threat posed by a political dictatorship in his country. That dictatorship is now gone. But we know there is also a dictatorship of relativism which can also deprive a nation of its national memory and it spiritual unity.
As Senator Kennedy reminded us in 1958, “Upon what can we rely? …In what can we find hope for the future? The answer, I believe, lies ultimately in … the principles of our religious heritage.” And as President Kennedy insisted at his inaugural, “We dare not forget that we are the heirs of that first revolution.”
Some may consider that by supporting rights while denying their source, they may nonetheless do a good thing. But such action is fraught with peril, as T.S. Eliot, and the Rev. Martin Luther King who quoted him from a Birmingham jail, warned us: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
As Christians we can do this much for our country. We can lead by the example of our own lives. We can be known as Christians by the way we follow the God who is love. We can take to heart the dignity of our neighbor. He is like us because he too is one of God’s children. We can be our brother’s keeper. We can help our country by helping him.
It is as simple as this: If we love our country, then we must also love our neighbor.
As T.S. Elliot put it in his Idea of a Christian Society: “What we are seeking is not a program for a party, but a way of life for a people.”14 And we can show our neighbors that way of life in how we live our own lives.
Some may think it strange to speak of love in this context.
I did not think it so last summer when I visited the gravesite of President Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery and then walked the short distance to the final resting place of his brother Robert. As one looks down the hillside and across the Potomac River to the Lincoln Memorial one may also think of another American whose words stirred a generation – Martin Luther King – for he is present there in the words of Robert Kennedy.
At the gravesite of Senator Kennedy are carved into stone his words spoken upon learning of the death of Dr. King. He said: “What we need in the United States is not division: what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer.”15
We hear such words in times of national crisis.
But they call us to a way of life which should endure “in season and out of season.”
President Kennedy’s great challenge—“ask what you can do for your country”—remains with us still, more relevant than ever. For the Christian, I believe he answered that challenge with the final words of his Address:
“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”
And that is why President Kennedy’s Address still resonates after 50 years.
Thank you very much.
1Quoted in Richard J. Tofel, Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2005, p. 136.
2The phrase is Peggy Noonan’s cited in ibid., p. 151.
3Ibid., p. 124.
4Thurston Clarke, Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America, Penguin Books, New York, 2004, p. 96.
5Ibid., p. 31.
6Ibid., p. 18.
7Knights of Columbus Museum Archives.
8Henry Fairlie, The Kennedy Promise: The Politics of Expectation, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1973, p. 109.
9John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, The Essential Pope Benedict XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches, HarperOne, New York, 2007, p. XXXV (The quote originally is from an essay by Cardinal Ratzinger entitled "The Christian Orientation in a Pluralistic Society").
10Cardinal Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2008 (first edition German 1987), pp. 143-147.
13Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, The Nobel Lecture on Literature, New York, Harper & Row, 1972, p. 21.
14T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940, p. 14.
15Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.” (April 4, 1968).