Kennedy's sad legacyFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
C.S. Lewis feared what JFK was doing to U.S. politics. They died on the same day.
As between the men of ideas and the men of power, the death of the latter is more observed. Politics greatly shapes the world in which we live. But it is the culture from which politics takes its lead, and so the men of ideas tell us more about who we are than the politicians who tell us what we would like to hear. The coincidence of the three deaths has invited much comparative commentary, including a delightful little book by philosopher Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley.
I have visited the various Kennedy shrines — the grave in Arlington, the compound in Hyannis Port, the presidential library in Boston and even, just a few weeks ago, the church in Providence where JFK and Jacqueline Bouvier were married. I have remained thoroughly immune from the Kennedy intoxication that afflicts so many. His presidential record is middling at best, animated more by the pursuit of power than principled public service. The corruption of the Kennedy men is well detailed. His rhetoric does remain inspiring and, above all, he was one of the first global celebrities as the age of celebrity dawned. That he was killed young preserved the image and obscured the rest.
Kennedy's great achievement was to capture in his person the spirit of his age. As the commemorations this week indicate, that age is still with us. It was C.S. Lewis, writing 20 years before JFK was killed, who best sketched out the figure JFK would become in his book The Abolition of Man. He wrote there of a coming generation of "men without chests." JFK had the hair, the handsome face, the vaulting ambition, the unrestrained appetites. He was though without a chest, and in that he was indeed the standard bearer of a "new generation" as he styled himself in his inaugural address.
Kennedy's most lasting impact on public life was unwitting. Bidding to become the first Catholic to be elected president, JFK neutralized the prevalence of anti-Catholic sentiment by saying, in effect, that his religion, and indeed all religion, would be relegated to the private sphere, sealed off from public life. One could have religious views, but they would have no influence on the practical matters of politics.
To adapt the language of Lewis, ideals are translated into action by the largehearted man, "the chest" that restrains the appetites — including the appetite for power — by custom, tradition, virtue, morals. In relegating one important source of all that — religion — to the private sphere, Kennedy weakened the tether between politics and those larger ideals. Politics is like other undisciplined appetites, always hungry and never satisfied. It is the ideals above politics that keep it in its proper place. Such ideals are not only religious, but religion is the primary practical conveyance of that cultural patrimony. JFK's life and legacy was the diminishment of that patrimony in favour of the unrestrained autonomous appetite as a driver of public life.
"We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise," predicted Lewis in 1943, in the bracing style he employed in controversies. "We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."
On Nov. 22, 1963, what Lewis saw was not yet manifestly evident. His genius was to see it clearly ahead of time, even more clearly than JFK could see that, in relegating the life of the spirit, he was weakening the heart of the culture, the culture which keeps politics in its proper place.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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