'We Dare Not Forget'

1/1/2011

Kennedy's historic speech urged us to remember the divine source of our rights and civic responsibilities

by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

Carl A. Anderson

Fifty years ago this month, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president of the United States. His inaugural address inspired a generation of Americans, and his words "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" became the byword of a generation. Those words, coming toward the end of the address, were its rhetorical highpoint. But the speech's intellectual foundation came at the beginning, when Kennedy asserted that "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."

He concluded his speech this way: "[L]et 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."

Kennedy had just won one of the closest and most controversial elections in American history. Much of the opposition centered upon the prejudice that a Catholic could not serve as president. In this regard, some might have expected Kennedy to downplay the theme of religion in his speech. But he did not.

If it were to have taken place amid the political landscape of today, Kennedy's election would have been less controversial than his words. Given the ongoing debate over religion in American life, his inaugural address would have generated enormous disagreement.

Though some today might be shocked by the presence of religious ideals in a speech of this importance, such sentiments have been prominent throughout American history. Kennedy's predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, began his first inaugural address with a prayer he had composed. Eisenhower said, "At such a time in history, we who are free must proclaim anew our faith. This faith is the abiding creed of our fathers. It is our faith in the deathless dignity of man, governed by eternal moral and natural laws."

Both Kennedy and Eisenhower understood that the "abiding creed of our fathers," and those "revolutionary beliefs" for which they fought, had been summarized by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote that each of us has been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.

We might well say that the 20th century was defined by the struggle between those committed to the proposition that our rights "come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God" and those who seek to replace those "eternal moral and natural laws" with the unlimited power of the state. Both Kennedy and Eisenhower understood this, and it was one of the reasons they supported the initiative in the 1950s to add the words "under God" to the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance — a cause that was championed by the Knights of Columbus.

In my recent book Beyond a House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored by Washington, Wall Street and the Media, I have put forward statistical evidence showing that the American people by a large majority remain committed to the moral foundations of our country. These findings should give us confidence as we continue to promote the traditional moral values that offer the best hope for the future of our nation and the world.

Some may say that these "revolutionary beliefs" should be a thing of the past. But in his inaugural address, Kennedy himself made the best response to this contention: "We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution" and that we are "unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed."

May the Knights of Columbus remain steadfast in the defense of those "revolutionary beliefs" about which our brother Knight and first Catholic president spoke so eloquently.

Vivat Jesus!