Presidential inaugural speeches can define an administration’s character either through the ambitions set forward, the historical context in which they occur, or the contrast with the history that unfolds after the words are spoken. President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961 contains one of the most recalled and quoted lines of politics during my life time… well almost, as I was somewhere between a twinkle in my parent’s eyes and the maternity ward. Being reared in a conservative, Baptist home, I do not recall hearing much about JFK during my formative years. I was intrigued when I read the speech, now 50 years on.
The character that first stood out to me, was the number of times that he evokes the concept of the divine in our history and future. For all the controversy about electing a Papist, I would have anticipated that he would have contained religious references to social cliches. However, I read a sincerity in his reference (whether I agree or not that God has much to do with politics). In contrast to our current climate of You-Gotta-Be-More-Born-Again-Than-Your-Opponent God-and-Country rhetoric today, JFK says “… the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”
The second quality of his address is his drawing upon the past and looking toward the future, “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolutions.” The ideals of the Founders set the basis for the ideals of his administration. But, JFK recognizes that dreams and ambitions are fulfilled over time, not in 100 or 1000 days, one administration, “… nor perphase in our lifetime…”.
The third aspect is his use of contrasts: “friend and foe”, “tempered by war, disciplined by hard and bitter peace”, “little we cannot do in a host of cooperative adventures. Divided there is little we can do”, “civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof”, “the final success or failure of our course…” In using these images, JFK attempts to bring together the poles of opposition to highlight that often the goals are the same, though from different vantage points.
Finally, the most famous line from this address is better understood when placed in its context: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow American: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Freedom, liberty, cooperation… what novel concepts compared our lives caught somewhere between bureaucratic regulations and rigid claims to follow the one true way.
The remaining two years of JFK’s life were hardly time to see his ambitions come to pass. Foes appeared to dominate the global political scheme, rather than cooperative players. Yet, we have been trying to figure out how to apply the simple principles that Christ held up for our ideals for 2000 years too.