A divisive election and Rhode Island’s legacy of organized crime have gotten lots of media attention lately. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay reflects on an anniversary that he worries has become an afterthought.
Last week brought us turkey dinners with sides of a bitter presidential contest. The local media also focused on "Crimetown," a new podcast mining the rich vein of organized crime in the Ocean State. What was given only scant mention, if any, was an event that those of us of a certain age never thought would be forgotten.
That’s the Nov. 22, 1963 murder of President John F. Kennedy. It was the 53rd anniversary of this dark event, an odd number to be sure, but for those of us much closer to social security than high school graduation, JFK’s death remains a vivid moment.
Kennedy’s death shocked many around the nation and around the globe. That such a charismatic leader could be cut down by a sniper’s bullet in the prime of life seemed other worldly, more a topic for Ray Bradbury’s science fiction than Walter Cronkite’s evening news.
Rhode Island loomed large in Kennedy’s life. In 1942, even wealthy Ivy Leaguers such as Kennedy signed up to fight in World War II. JFK had a bad back, so he was given a desk job in Washington, D.C. He was soon bored and wanted in on the action.
Young Kennedy lied about the extent of his back troubles, and with the help of his influential father, got into the PT boat service at the navy’s Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center at the Melville boat basin in the Rhode Island community of Portsmouth.
His 1953 wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier at St. Mary’s Church in Newport drew the cream of society and local gawkers catching the glimpse of the dashing young senator and his new wife. The reception was held at Hammersmith Farm, her family’s summer residence, which would later serve as the summer White House.
On his last campaign swing of 1960, Kennedy stumped through Providence, where he was greeted by a throng of thousands at Exchange Place. (After his death, it was renamed Kennedy Plaza.) The next day, in one of the closest elections in the nation’s history, Rhode Island voters gave the 43-year-old JFK 64 percent of the state’s vote, the highest of any state.
We live in a time of identity politics, when sharp debate swirls round civil and religious rights. One of the reasons Kennedy was so beloved in Rhode Island, of course, is that he shattered what had been a religious ceiling, becoming the first Roman Catholic to ascend to the presidency.
It’s never easy to be a path-breaker. Kennedy confronted religion during his campaign by giving a speech to a group of Texas Protestant ministers who were wary of a Catholic at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. As we confront the aftermath of a polarizing election, Kennedy’s words as relevant today as they were then.
Kennedy acknowledged that his religion had become a campaign issue. He said "it is apparently necessary for me to state once again – not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me but what kind of America I believe in."
Kennedy said he believed in a nation where the separation of church and state is "absolute," where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners how to vote. A country where no church school is granted any funds or political preference, and where no one is denied public office because of religion.
Kennedy said he believed in an America that where no religion is given government imprimatur and where religious liberty is so "indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
"This year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed. In other years it has been – and may someday be again – a Jew, a Quaker, or a Unitarian or a Baptist," Kennedy said.
As we enter the seasons of Christmas and Chanukah, let’s reflect on Kennedy’s words. That would be more uplifting than the recent talk of internments or government registries of Muslims.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our On Politics Blog at RIPR.org.