The last sentence of his address gets relatively short shrift from contemporary media:
“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”
Thurston Clarke, in his book, “Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America,” dismisses it by saying, “it is customary for an inaugural address to call upon the Almighty for His blessing and assistance, and Kennedy adheres to the formula in his concluding paragraph.”
Yet it goes beyond simply calling on the Almighty—the final clause turns that request on its head by reminding listeners that they are the ones who must do the Lord’s work. At first glance, they don’t seem to be the words of a Catholic. And they aren’t. While Kennedy outlined the basics of what he wanted to say, his principal writer for the speech was Theodore Sorensen, a Unitarian, His mother, though, was of Russian Jewish descent. And Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, in his blog, “Martini Judaism” (May 29, 2017), writes that “God's work must truly be our own” was “the most Jewish thing JFK ever said.” Salkin goes on to explain:
“We can’t recite motzi (the blessing over bread) over wheat. And you can’t recite kiddush over a cluster of grapes. Here is why. God makes wheat and grapes. But people have to transform those raw materials into bread and wine.”
For Episcopalians (and Roman Catholics), that same logic applies to the Eucharistic Prayer. And Salkin goes on to give another example:
“As the Talmud states, ‘Every judge who renders a fair decision is like a partner of the Holy One in the act of creation.’ (Talmud, Shabbat 119b). The Talmud also promises that ‘a judge who decides a case in accordance with true justice causes the Shekhinah, God’s Presence, to dwell in the midst of Israel.’ By seeking justice, we can bring God into the world.”
And in that sense, JFK’s final sentence clearly applies to Christians. It echoes Micah 6:8, which Presiding Bishop Michael Curry regularly invokes in his call for his Way of Love: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV) And it surely reflects Jesus’ summation of Jewish Law, which recite in the first Eucharistic Rite:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
This January 20th, we’ll witness the swearing in of the second Roman Catholic president. No one is expecting Joe Biden to echo President Kennedy’s inaugural. For one thing, the nation is deeply divided today. Vice President Richard Nixon, who might have challenged the election over voting irregularities in Illinois and Texas, did not, in order to help unify the nation in the Cold War. (There are others who say he knew there was as much vote stealing for Nixon in the Chicago suburbs and Downstate as there was in Cook County for Kennedy, but in any case, he didn’t challenge the election.) Today we have an outgoing president who refuses to concede, with millions of followers who believe him unquestioningly.
So when it comes time to “to call upon the Almighty for His blessing and assistance,” President-elect Biden could do worse than to recall the last sentence of President Kennedy’s inaugural.
Note: I wrote all but the last two paragraphs for "The Tower," the newsletter of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church. While the Episcopal Church is no longer "The Republican Party at Prayer," even in Elkhart, Indiana, there are enough diehard Trump supporters in the congregation that I wanted my audience to consider the JFK's 1960 remarks without directly bring up the world of January 2021. Photo from History.com