Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963: Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell

The mainstream media has been recalling the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, fifty years ago with specials showing the news reporting that day--all the images of men and women, all formally dressed with hats and suits and ties and nice coats, and all the cigarettes! Nearly all of the news anchors have a smoking cigarette between their fingers and an ashtray on their desk. All the conspiracy theories are being described and detailed--did Lee Harvey Oswald really act alone?

Catholic media organizations are also remembering the assassination of John F. Kennedy with analysis of what it meant that he was the first and only Catholic elected President of the United States. Was it good for Catholics, especially since Kennedy had to promise the Houston Ministerial Association that his Catholic faith would never influence his presidential decisions? Thank you, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale! As Russell Shaw commented:

Houston, September 12, 1960. John F. Kennedy is addressing the Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, has been buffeted for months by nativist anti-Catholicism. He and his advisors have concluded that he must address the problem head-on.

JFK's address to the ministers in Houston was the result. It's said to have been the work of John Cogley, Commonweal editor and later religion writer for the New York Times, who eventually quit the Catholic Church, became an Episcopalian, and was an Episcopal deacon when he died.

Although the speech's reasoning doesn't stand up under close examination, Kennedy's Houston text is a superficially skillful piece of work. There's hardly a statement in it to which, taken in isolation, a reasonable person could object. But the speech as a whole is a sustained exercise in privatizing religion. Declaring his faith to be his business and no one else's, Kennedy puts daylight between himself and his Church and pledges that, if he's elected, religion won't influence his performance. The Houston speech did the trick: Kennedy was elected. But the text stands as a landmark in the process of excluding religion from the public square that's still underway.

Shaw also analyzed the Kennedy candidacy and election and their influence on Catholic assimilation and secularization in his book, American Church.

I remember that my grandmother had a "funeral card" of President Kennedy in her prayerbook: a picture of JFK with prayers for the repose of his soul and another card with a poem (written by Kennedy in heaven!) expressing his love for his family and especially his pride when his little boy saluted the cassion during his funeral procession.

But on November 22, 1963, two other prominent men died--C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Peter Kreeft wrote a book (Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley) that depicts a Platonic style dialog among the men after they've died:

On November 22, 1963, three great men died within a few hours of each other: C. S. Lewis, John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley. All three believed, in different ways, that death is not the end of human life. Suppose they were right, and suppose they met after death. How might the conversation go?

Peter Kreeft imagines their discussion as a part of The Great Conversation that has been going on for centuries. Does human life have meaning? Is it possible to know about life after death? What if one could prove that Jesus was God? With Kennedy taking the role of a modern humanist, Lewis representing Christian theism and Huxley advocating Eastern pantheism, the dialogue is lively and informative.
Here's an excerpt:

Kennedy: That's just what I can't buy: that old-fashioned theology of God descending from heaven like a meteor.
Lewis: All right, then, let's be very specific. Who is Jesus, according to your faith?
Kennedy: The ideal man, the man so perfect and wise that his followers called him divine. Not God become man but man become God.
Lewis: A very nicely put summary of humanist Christology; but do you think this is Christianity?
Kennedy: Old Christianity, no; New Christianity, yes. The only form of it a modern man can believe without giving up his intellectual honesty. I heard a preacher put it this way: you can be honest, or intelligent, or a medieval-style Christian, or any two of the three, but not all three. Work that out for yourself.
Lewis: Very clever, but the same barb can be used to sting anyone. I can say you can be honest, or intelligent, or a modernist, or any two of the three, but not all three. The substantive point, as distinct from the debater's nicety, is the identity of Jesus. Let's zero in on that issue.
Kennedy: Fine. Who is Jesus?
Lewis: God become man.
Kennedy: Literally?
Lewis: Yes.
Kennedy: How can you as an educated twentieth-century man take such an outdated position?
Lewis: As distinct from your new, modern one?
Kennedy: Yes.
Lewis: Because for one thing, your new position is as old as the hills. Or, at least, as old as Arius.
Kennedy: Who?
Lewis: Arius, a fourth-century heretic who carried half the church with him even after the Council of Nicea addressed the issue by clearly and strongly affirming Jesus' divinity. The same thing is happening again today with modernism and humanism. Your so-called new Christianity is nothing but the old Arian heresy in new dress.
Kennedy: Really, now, there's no need to call each other names.
Lewis: I didn't call you a name; I just labeled your position accurately.
Kennedy: I wish you would avoid using labels like heretic.
Read more here.


  1. I haven't read Dr. Kreeft's book (though I've read others by him with enjoyment) and I'm not familiar with any particular christological convictions President Kennedy might ever have expressed publicly, so perhaps I'm missing something that would help answer this question. What I wonder in reading this is whether it's at all fair to Kennedy. Did JFK really reject the Church's dogma regarding the Incarnation as "an outdated position"? Do we know he was an Arianist? If not, it seems rather calumnious to ascribe the thinking to him.

    1. I guess you'd have to read Peter Kreeft's book to determine that!