Many people know that Robert Frost read his poem, “The Gift Outright,” at the Inauguration of President Kennedy on January 20, 1961, quite a story in itself.  Many people do not know that the poet and president had known about each other for at least a while, as evidenced by a story told by the New England Historical Society:

Frost had campaigned for Kennedy ever since his 85th birthday on March 26, 1959. He held a press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City that day, just before the celebration. A reporter asked him about the decay of New England. Frost replied, “The next President of the United States will be from Boston.  Does that sound as if New England is decaying?”  Frost was asked who he meant. “He’s a Puritan named Kennedy,” Frost said. “The only Puritans left these days are the Roman Catholics.”

If scientists break things down in order to better understand them, poets are un-scientists.  Poets put things together in unusual ways, creating cognitive dissonance, in order to see things differently and understand ourselves better.  Puritans and Catholics had lived together in New England – and the rest of the United States – for generations until a poet stated the obvious that was not yet obvious:  they had a lot in common.  Indeed, Puritans and Catholics had and continue to have a hand in the making of America.  Thus, some important strands of history and religion came together in one of the most powerful and still very relevant inaugural addresses ever given:

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

President Kennedy began by assuring Protestant America that he, just like all those who came before him, honored the same God and nation by swearing the same oath. He then noted how much the world had changed in 1961 because of the nuclear threat, yet simultaneously how our revolutionary beliefs were just as important as ever, including, perhaps especially, the belief that the rights of man come from the hand of God.

According to Richard Tofel in Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Ted Sorensen said that this was Kennedy’s favorite “shorthand way to describe the difference between our system and totalitarian systems.”  The primary right on President Kennedy’s mind that snowy January morning may well have been the right of religious freedom, for without it, his election would have been impossible. He certainly knew that his Irish Catholic ancestors were not afforded this freedom under the British even into the early 20th Century.  

The belief that God is the source of religious freedom may sound strange to many contemporary ears, but it was the belief of founding fathers Jefferson, Madison, Adams and many others.  It was also a deep and long-held belief of President Kennedy, as evidenced by his remarks upon receiving an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame at winter commencement in January of 1950:

” . . . the American Revolution rested on three premises: 

that each individual is endowed by God with certain unalienable rights

that governments are instituted to protect these rights

and that when a government takes these rights away, the people must revolt

This is precisely the philosophy which you have been taught at Notre Dame. 

You have been taught that each individual has an immortal soul, 

composed of an intellect which can know truth 

and will which is free

Because of this every Catholic must believe in the essential dignity of the human personality on which any democracy must rest. Believing this, Catholics can never adhere to any political theory which holds that the state is a separate, distinct organization to which allegiance must be paid rather than a representative institution which derives its powers from the consent of the governed.”  (Bold added.)

I suggest that this fusion of Thomas Jefferson (with John Locke and Jean Calvin as inspirations) and Thomas Aquinas which Kennedy spoke of, however startling, is exactly the sort of belief that the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the strong protections of conscience in the Constitution and First Amendment and has much to recommend to us today.  

It was George Washington who led us in this direction during the War for Independence.  Having a polyglot army on his hands, he did care not what these young Catholics, Baptists Jews, non-believers or non-practitioners thought or did, so long as they maintained morale and followed orders.  Yet while he did not concern himself with what their religious practices were, he did take steps to ensure that their consciences, beliefs and practices were cared for by chaplains.  He even went so far as to suppress anti-Catholic celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day amongst his troops.  

While they would not have put things together that way, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and the rest would have mostly agreed with Kennedy’s Thomist understanding of the human soul, intellect and will.  Any remaining strict Calvinists among the Founding Fathers would have quibbled about free will, of course, but would certainly have come around to affirm that the human will was free enough to vote in elections and support the new constitution.  Take away free will in that sense and the whole struggle for political freedom is hopeless.

I suggest that their position would be, “Well, if this understanding of the soul, intellect and will is what the new president’s conscience demands and enables him to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, then so be it.  Is this not what we fought for?”  What amazing unrhymed poetry they wrought, articulated so well by a Puritan named Kennedy and maintained by countless others of various mixed ancestries and beliefs since the beginnings, Speaking of beginnings, Puritan John Harvard’s library of some 400 books contained the complete works of Thomas Aquinas.  

Everything that happens on inauguration day (except for the taking of the oath, which is clearly prescribed in the Constitution) is the prerogative of the President.  The President is free to say “So help me God,” or not; place his hand on a Bible (President Kennedy chose a Douay-Rheims Bible, Catholic cousin of the King James translation, that had been in his family for years), or not; pray, or not; hold a parade, or not; hire poets and musicians, or not; patronize inaugural balls, or not.  Should an atheist gain the highest office of the land, he is free to affirm the oath and leave the rest out.  If a strict Baptist is elected president, he does not have to dance.  That’s the American way.