Few events in American history have brought more sorrow, grief and confusion than the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Astounded by the intensity of Americans’ reactions, a British journalist wrote, “One would think that one was reading about the death of a pharaoh in ancient Egypt, when people did indeed think that the sun would be darkened forever.” In pulpits across the nation, clergy expressed Americans’ intense anguish and showered effusive praise on the slain president. The assassin’s bullet, a Presbyterian pastor declared, had not only killed Kennedy but had also penetrated the country’s heart.
Theological differences were ignored, James Wolfe observed, and “the separation of church and state forgotten” as Protestants, Catholics, and Jews “knelt at the national altar, proclaiming their common devotion to God, country, and Kennedy.” Kennedy’s death caused millions to question such bedrock assumptions as the sovereignty of God, the rationality of the universe, and America’s status as an innocent and invincible chosen nation.
Kennedy was widely celebrated as a hero and a martyr. Many ministers, priests and rabbis lauded his faith. A Lutheran clergyman called the Democrat “a just man, a devout Christian, [and] a man of moral character.” Kennedy, asserted a Methodist minister, “was a sincere and practicing Christian” whose “faith was a vital part” of his life. “Kennedy revered God,” asserted a Jewish rabbi. Few American presidents, opined an Episcopal rector, were as devoted Christians as Kennedy. A priest claimed that he “was a Catholic in the mind and heart and spirit of Pope John XXIII” who was committed to charity, justice and peace.
Many clergy labeled Kennedy’s death vicarious. In his benediction at Kennedy’s funeral, Richard Cardinal Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, asserted that Kennedy had made “the supreme sacrifice of dying for others.” Popular author Norman Vincent Peale maintained that Kennedy “literally died for his country.” He was “a martyr to the cause of human freedom,” asserted a Lutheran pastor. Some admirers compared Kennedy with Christ and the Apostle Paul: “like Christ he did not shirk from his cross, but welcomed it”; like Paul he had fought the good fight.
Eulogists praised Kennedy’s political policies, family life, and personal attributes. They especially appreciated his dedication to the cause of peace, negotiation of the nuclear test ban treaty, and commitment to civil rights. Kennedy, insisted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, worked harder to avoid “nuclear catastrophe than any other contemporary leader.” Many applauded Kennedy’s efforts to ensure equal justice for black Americans and to aid “the poor, the outcast, and the depressed.” The Democrat was also frequently lauded for his “exemplary devotion to his family.” A Lutheran pastor praised his “exciting marriage, responsible parenthood, and stable family life.” Pastors, college presidents, and politicians commended many of Kennedy’s personal traits, especially his courage and compassion.
Kennedy’s death was widely attributed to the nation’s climate of hatred, intolerance, injustice, and fanaticism. A Presbyterian pastor insisted that all Americans were complicit in the neglect of law, decline of morality, glorification of violence, and atmosphere of malice that had produced the assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald was “simply the executioner,” argued a Methodist minister. He had “millions of accomplices who must now” submit to the query: “Where is your brother?” One pastor attributed the packed churches the Sunday following Kennedy’s death not simply to people’s need to express their grief but to their need for cleansing. Many ministers urged their parishioners to move beyond “superficial and sentimental grief coupled with self-righteous condemnation of Oswald” as a Marxist or an insane man and recognize that all Americans had contributed to the president’s death.
Clergy proclaimed that God was still sovereign, grappled with the problem of evil, and urged Americans to take up the causes Kennedy championed. Numerous ministers argued that God would bring good out of this evil event. “The Bible maintains on almost every page,” William Sloane Coffin, Jr., chaplain at Yale University, declared, “that God not only cares for but suffers with His people.” A rabbi insisted that their misery and pain could inspire people to express greater compassion and take action against evil. God’s answer to evil, declared Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the “Cross of Christ on Calvary and the Resurrection on Easter morning – for there it is apparent how God can turn suffering into a triumph of love and sacrifice.”
Struggling to find meaning in the midst of sorrow, numerous pastors hoped that Kennedy’s death would increase efforts to extend freedom, justice, and righteousness and to end discrimination and hunger. “His martyred blood,” announced a black pastor in Mobile, Alabama, would “produce new champions of our cause.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. undoubtedly spoke for many when he argued that Kennedy’s death involved even “greater pathos” than Abraham Lincoln’s or Franklin Roosevelt’s because he had so much more “to give to his family, his nation, his world. … The best way to serve his memory” was to promote the values of decency, rationality, civility, and honor for which he gave his life.
Given what we now know about Kennedy’s faith and family life, some of the claims clergy made are misleading and ironic. Nevertheless, their eulogies and sermons shed light on the pathos Americans experienced when their youthful, charismatic, popular president was assassinated and on how millions responded to this tragic event.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).