Wednesday, February 11, 2015

President Kennedy's Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast

By the time John F. Kennedy assumed the office of the President of the United States in 1961, the President's participation at the annual National Prayer Breakfast was expected by everyone. Kennedy was no stranger to religious concerns by Americans. Enough people were so alarmed over the implications of where a Catholic President's loyalty would lie, that he sought to salve those concerns.

"I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party candidate for president, who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and the Church does not speak for me. 
Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise. 
But if the time should ever come, and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible, when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise." (1)

Kennedy questioned whether the 40 million Catholic were considered ineligible for the office of President based on their baptism. Catholics had a long tradition of making the same kind of sacrifices as Protestants had. He once stated, "No one asked me my religion [serving the Navy] in the South Pacific." (2)

The 35th President continued Eisenhower's tradition by taking the podium at the ninth annual National Prayer Breakfast on February 9, 1961 and addressed the crowded room.

Mr. Chairman [US Senator Frank Carlson from Kansas], Dr. Graham, Mr. Vice President--gentlemen:

I think it is most appropriate that we should be gathered together for this morning's meeting. This country was founded by men and women who were dedicated or came to be dedicated to two propositions: first, a strong religious conviction, and secondly a recognition that this conviction could flourish only under a system of freedom. 

I think it is appropriate that we pay tribute to this great constitutional principle which is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution: the principle of religious independence, of religious liberty, of religious freedom. But I think it is also important that we pay tribute and acknowledge another great principle, and that is the principle of religious conviction. Religious freedom has no significance unless it is accompanied by conviction. And therefore the Puritans and the Pilgrims of my own section of New England, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Catholics of Maryland, the Presbyterians of North Carolina, the Methodists and the Baptists who came later, all shared these two great traditions which, like silver threads, have run through the warp and the woof of American history.

No man who enters upon the office to which I have succeeded can fail to recognize how every President of the United States has placed special reliance upon his faith in God. Every President has taken comfort and courage when told, as we are told today, that the Lord "will be with thee. He will not fail thee nor forsake thee. Fear not--neither be thou dismayed." 

While they came from a wide variety of religious backgrounds and held a wide variety of religious beliefs, each of our Presidents in his own way has placed a special trust in God. Those who were strongest intellectually were also strongest spiritually. 

Today our Nation is passing through another time of trial. In many ways, our dangers and our problems are far greater--and certainly infinitely more complex. We will need to draw upon the best that this Nation has--often--and draw upon it physically and intellectually and materially. 

But we need also to call upon our great reservoir of spiritual resources. We must recognize that human collaboration is not enough, that in times such as these we must reach beyond ourselves if we are to seek ultimate courage and infinite wisdom. It is an ironic fact that in this nuclear age, when the horizon of human knowledge and human experience has passed far beyond any that any age has ever known, that we turn back at this time to the oldest source of wisdom and strength, to the words of the prophets and the saints, who tell us that faith is more powerful than doubt, that hope is more potent than despair, and that only through 'the love that is sometimes called charity can we conquer those forces within ourselves and throughout all the world that threaten the very existence of mankind.

Keeping in mind that "when a man's ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him," let us go forth to lead this land that we love, joining in the prayer of General George Washington in 1783, "that God would have you in His holy protection, that He would incline the hearts of the citizens .... to entertain a brotherly love and affection one for another .... and finally that He would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with .... the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, without an humble imitation of whose example we can never hope to be a happy nation." 

The guiding principle and prayer of this Nation has been, is now, and shall ever be "In God We Trust." 

Thank you.(3) 

[The President spoke first to the gentlemen in the hotel's main ballroom and then to the ladies in the east room. ]

Madam Chairwoman [Mrs. Olin D. Johnston, wife of US Senator Johnston of South Carolina], Dr. Graham, Mr. Vice President: 

It seems to me that in the true Christian spirit next year we should all sit down together, and that we should have gentlemen and ladies pray and reason together, and not confine them in different rooms.
But we are glad we came here--the Vice President and I came under the protection of Dr. Graham.
I do want to say that it is a pleasure to be here and to have participated in the breakfast this morning. I had an opportunity in the White House the other day to talk to a group of men and women from the Baptist World Alliance who have been missionaries, some in the Congo, one lady who has been in Bengal, India, since 1926, others who have been in Thailand and Korea. 

I do not regard religion as a weapon in the cold war. I regard it as the essence of the differences which separate those on the other side of the Iron Curtain and ourselves. 

The whole basis of the struggle is involved in the meeting this morning: our strong belief in religious freedom, our strong conviction, as I attempted to say in my inaugural, that the blessings which come to us come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God--and this alternate concept that the state is the master and the people the servants. 

This is really the essence of the issue. We cannot have religious freedom without political freedom, and therefore what we really need is not to confuse a system of freedom with one of disinterest, uninterest, cynicism, materialism, but like the ladies and gentlemen whom I talked to the other day, who have been willing to spend their lives under the most difficult of circumstances, in great hardship, in order to carry the message in which they have such great conviction, it seems to me it shows a lesson for us all. 

We must match that faith. We must demonstrate in our lives, whatever our responsibility may be, that we care deeply. 

I see no reason why the servants of the Communist system should be marked by a discipline and strong conviction in the ultimate success of their cause. I believe that our cause is just, that ultimately it will be successful. But it can only be successful if we demonstrate our strong conviction in it.
Religious freedom and religious conviction are the two hallmarks of American society, and therefore as a strong believer in both, I wanted to say that I deem it an honor to share this evidence of our common belief in these two great principles at this breakfast this morning. What we do this morning, I hope we can do every day.

Thank you.(3)

Questions to review and understand President John F. Kennedy's remarks of 1961:

1. What were the two propositions of our nation's founders?
2. What principle is required for the principle of religious freedom to have significance?
3. Name the seven religions identified as sharing both principles.
4. (True or False) Though previous Presidents came from a variety of religious backgrounds and held a variety of beliefs, each of them placed trust in God.
5. What are the two hallmarks of American society?

Use the transcript above to grade yourself. Each question is worth 20 points.

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Here are answers to the February 10 Quiz on President Eisenhower's remarks:

1. What was the American objective for the first year of the Revolutionary War?
- To establish our right to be free British citizens.
2. What is the very basis for the American government?
- We hold that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain rights.
3. Why is prayer a necessity?
- By going our imperfections and making the effort to get in touch with the Infinite, there is something that ties us together.
4. Why should we remind ourselves occassionally about the basic truth our forefathers in 1776 understood so well?
- We can hold up our heads and be certain that we in our time are going to be able to preserve the essentials, to preserve as a free government and pass it on, in our turn, as sound, as strong, as good as ever.

How did you do?


(1) John F. Kennedy: “Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association,” September 12, 1960. Online by American Rhetoric. 

(2) Richard Reeves (1993). President Kennedy: Profile of Power, page 15. New York: Simon & Schuster.

(3) John F. Kennedy: "Remarks at the Dedication Breakfast of International Christian Leadership, Inc.," February 9, 1961. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

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