Undelivered speech reflects Kennedy's strong Catholic ties
November 21, 2013 11:38 PM
Cecil Stoughton/White House photographs/Getty Images
President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Love Field in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They stand among the most eloquent words that John F. Kennedy never said. Instead, they exist in writing only -- forming the speech Kennedy was scheduled to deliver at the Trade Mart in Dallas to influential business and research leaders early in the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.
Kennedy was assassinated en route to the gathering, and the words hovered in obscurity amid the panic and devastation that followed.
But over the years, people have taken a fresh look at the Trade Mart speech. The words have inspired a tribute book, choral works and a video tribute in Dallas. They've inspired legislation -- and litigation -- in Kentucky.
For those who continue to ruminate on Kennedy's truncated legacy, the words have become something of an unintentional last will and testament -- a soaring call for progress in space exploration, civil rights, national security, foreign aid and even in critical thinking.
And it quoted freely from the Bible, invoking broad religious sentiments that may seem surprising coming from Kennedy. The nation's only Roman Catholic president is better known for proclaiming a strict separation of church and state during the 1960 presidential campaign, seeking to allay fears that he would take orders from the Vatican.
"We, in this country, in this generation, are -- by destiny rather than by choice -- the watchmen on the walls of world freedom," the text said, alluding to Isaiah, chapter 62.
"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 ... the ancient vision of 'peace on earth, good will toward men,' " the text continued, quoting from the angels' announcement of Jesus' birth in Luke 2.
"The righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength," Kennedy would have continued, concluding with a nod to Psalm 127. "For as was written long ago: 'except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.' "
The words serve as a bookend to the speech Kennedy gave elsewhere in Texas three years earlier -- an address to Houston-area Baptist ministers in which Kennedy sought to downplay his Catholicism. That was a political liability in the then-Democratic stronghold of the Bible Belt. Kennedy badly needed Texas' electoral votes in 1960, and his Dallas trip represented his attempt to retain them in 1964.
Kennedy had said in his 1960 Houston speech that he believed in "an America where the separation of church and state is absolute" and where a president's "religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him."
In Dallas in 1963, Kennedy planned to quote freely from the Bible to fuse faith with American interests.
There's less of a contradiction there than it might seem. Kennedy was using the Bible to connect with his mostly Protestant audience.
"This kind of language is something that presidents often use in moments when they are in need of an inspiring tone," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, which monitors church-state law.
Kennedy wants to keep a "low profile about the Catholic issue but he wants a high profile about being a biblical Christian," Mr. Haynes said.
"Whether this undelivered speech speaks to Kennedy's Catholic life, or religious life, or personal life is very hard to tell," said the Rev. John Sawicki, assistant professor of political science at Duquesne University and a Roman Catholic priest. "It does certainly speak to his political life as a truly American President. His trip to Texas was going very well and he was getting great reviews in the heart of the Bible Belt. His public religion was playing well before a tough audience and I think creating bridges."
Rev. Sawicki said that in 1960, Kennedy had proclaimed a concept sometimes called the "naked public square" -- a belief "that the commons of American life, especially government, exists devoid of coloring from other sources and absolutely separated from any religious specificity." And Kennedy portrayed his Catholicism as "a private devotion which neither informs his politics nor governs his governing."
Despite these political calculations -- and despite Kennedy's now-well-known adultery and urbane reputation -- he maintained a devout Catholic practice, writes author Thurston Clarke in the new book, "JFK's Last Hundred Days."
"Few presidents have been as religiously observant as Kennedy, yet reluctant to discuss their faith," Mr. Clarke wrote. Kennedy attended Mass regularly, prayed at bedtime, lit votive candles and did other devotional acts. John and Jackie Kennedy drew on their faith following the death of a newborn son, Patrick, barely three months before JFK's assassination.
In fact, the tragedy-haunted couple had planned to name a daughter Arabella before her own still birth in 1956 -- named for the ship that carried the Puritans to Massachusetts. It was a remarkable choice, as Kennedy's fellow Massachusetts Irish-Catholics had long resented the discrimination their forebears suffered from the Puritans' descendents. But the name also fit Kennedy's political vision.
In his farewell speech in the Massachusetts State House before becoming president in January 1960, Kennedy quoted from colonial governor John Winthrop's speech on the Arabella, calling for a "city upon a hill" in the New World.
Days later, Kennedy said in his inaugural address that "the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God."
Kennedy's rhetoric had an enduring effect on a Kentucky teenager, Tom Riner, who admired the president's call for strong national security and an ambitious space program. Mr. Riner, 67, now a Southern Baptist pastor and Democratic state representative from Louisville, said he still hasn't gotten over the news of Kennedy's assassination, which reached him in high school shop class.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Riner added language to the legislation that created the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security, quoting from the final paragraph of the Trade Mart speech and requiring the new office annually to publicize its "dependence on Almighty God" in agency materials.
"No one at that time in the 1960s would ever have dreamed that people thought that the separation of church and state meant what some think it means today, that no mention of God is allowed," Mr. Riner said.
But a sharper separation was in the works. The early 1960s saw landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings against mandated prayers and Bible readings in schools. In fact, a group of Kentucky citizens sued to challenge their state's Homeland Security legislation, unsuccessfully challenging the language as government-sponsored religion.
In Dallas itself, some have drawn on the Trade Mart speech to ease the shame felt by many over the assassination and the anti-Kennedy hostility that preceded it. In the 1960s, a Jewish business leader, Stanley Marcus of the Neiman-Marcus stores, had copies of the speech printed in elegant form.
More recently, a pair of British immigrants produced a new series of seven videos titled, "Unspoken Speech," in which Dallas residents recite, speak, rap and hold signs depicting some of the more poignant phrases from the text: "Words alone are not enough." "Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected." "Strength will ... always be used in pursuit of peace."
"JFK asked us to be a country of givers," said one of the film's creators, Peter Wood, in a statement. "... We wanted to provide a platform for the community of Dallas to give back."
In the final segment, a choir stands in the Trade Mart building before a single candle, singing the final paragraph with its biblical cadences. The scene fades to a photo and audio recording from the building on Nov. 22, 1963, after the audience had learned Kennedy wouldn't be arriving. A speaker calls for prayer in inclusive language similar to that of Kennedy's text: "I'm sure there's a desire in each of our hearts to bow our heads in the presence of Almighty God, each in our own way."
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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