Half a century after the assassination of the 35th President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy's stature remains mythic: he's seen as a champion of civil rights and a fearless Cold Warrior. But the New Frontiersman we remember was really a calculating, dispassionate politician who used archaic imagery to foster what author James Wolfe refers to as "Civil Religion", or the worship of a state and its leaders.
Wolfe, an Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Indianapolis, has just published his PhD thesis on Kennedy that was originally written in 1975. The Kennedy Myth: American Civil Religion in the Sixties examines how Kennedy bounced from crisis to crisis; creating and then solving each one.
At the outset of his Presidency, Kennedy, "... didn't have strong convictions and political values," explains Wolfe. "Civil rights was kind of an irritant rather than a cause when he began." JFK was instrumental in moving the "March on Washington" from the Capital to the Lincoln Memorial. After the speeches were given, Kennedy became more invested in racial equality, telling black leaders he was now "in it up to the neck" and advising the organizers on how best to lobby their congresspeople.
Cops turning dogs and fire hoses on protestors in Birmingham convinced JFK to act further – but legislation stalled in Congress. It wasn't until Kennedy was killed that Lyndon Johnson won enough support to push legislation like the Voting Rights Act in honor of America's fallen icon. "Kennedy was more powerful dead than alive," says Wolfe, and it was this very power from beyond the grave that engendered JFK's "mythic charisma", according to Wolfe.
Jack's brother Robert seems to possess more of the traits we might attribute to JFK. "JFK was so cool and cerebral, and Bobby was so passionate," says Wolfe. Additionally, JFK was frustrated by the 'religious question' – political opponents tried to paint Kennedy as a man whose Roman Catholicism might make him more beholden to the Vatican than the US Constitution. In reality, though, as Jackie Kennedy observed, "He's such a poor Catholic, I don't know why they're making a fuss." Kennedy himself pointed out that "My body goes to Mass, but my mind goes to Harvard."
In fact, Kennedy deified the state – the inaugural exhortation for his countrymen to "ask not what your country could do for you, but what you could do for your country" and the promise to pay any price for liberty is what Wolfe calls "archaic holy war language." Taken as a whole, all of those moments and images, in the wake of JFK's very public murder, transformed the dead President into a figure whose legacy outweighed his accomplishments.