President Kennedy, America’s only Catholic president, planned a few references to Bible verses in the speech he was on his way to deliver when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet 50 years ago.
As the motorcade carrying President John Kennedy made its way through downtown Dallas on November 22, 1963, the president was set to deliver a speech at a luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart. A new report mentions three Bible verses that speech would have referenced if Kennedy had survived the journey to deliver it.
The first reference would have called America “the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.” This would have been an allusion to Isaiah 62:6:
“I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem;
they will never be silent day or night.”
Later in the speech, Kennedy planned to quote the angels who announce to the shepherds that the Baby Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. He would have referred to the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
Luke 2:14 contains this text as the angels praise God for the birth of Jesus:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
His third and final reference would have been a portion of Psalm 127, which he would have quoted as follows in the second half of this line: “The righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.'”
The first two verses of that Psalm read as follows:
“Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to those he loves.”
In 1963, the people of the Protestant Bible Belt — which certainly included Texas — would have been a “tough room” to a Catholic. Yet prior to the assassination, the president received enthusiastic welcomes from crowds despite fears that the opposite would happen.
The speech would have been intended to bridge a spiritual gap between Kennedy’s faith and that of the majority of his audience in Dallas.
A president quoting from the Bible is certainly nothing new. Former Chief Executives from Lincoln to FDR to Reagan have talked about the relevance and importance of the Bible, despite the doctrine of Separation of Church and State.
Among them, our first president:
“It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
— George Washington
Our third president, whose religious views were said to be more Unitarian in nature:
“I have always said, I always say, that the studious perusal of the Bible will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands.”
— Thomas Jefferson
And our sixteenth president who also met an untimely end at the hand of an assassin’s bullet:
““I am busily engaged in the study of the Bible. I believe it is God’s word because it finds me where I am.”
“I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man. All the good of the Savior of the world is communicated to us through the Book.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Kennedy himself was known to have quoted the Bible on another occasion, choosing a snippet of Luke 12:48:
“For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”
I don’t mind a president quoting the Bible, any more than I’d mind him quoting any other philosophy if it’s sound and can be interpreted in a manner that stays true to the original intent.