The ministers' mistake

Did President Kennedy worship Baal and Asherah?

Issue: "Rebel with a cause," Jan. 30, 1998

Stories early this month about Michael Kennedy's skiing death placed a new spotlight on the Kennedy family and Seymour Hersh's recent book, The Dark Side of Camelot. That much-hyped work contains little that is news, since even its titillating detail of President Kennedy's rampant adultery is mostly old stuff by now. But the JFK legacy does prompt reflection on some religious mislabeling. The irony of the 1960 election was this: A group of influential Protestant ministers led by bestselling author Norman Vincent Peale opposed the Kennedy candidacy because, "It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic President would not be under pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies." The ministers did not know what Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorenson understood: His boss was only nominally Catholic and "cared not a whit for theology.... During the 11 years I knew him, I never heard him pray aloud in the presence of others." Candidate Kennedy frequently spoke about his lack of interest in what bishops said. When he emphasized the irrelevance of Catholicism to his job, the Jesuit weekly America insisted that "Mr. Kennedy doesn't really believe that. No religious man, be he Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, holds such an opinion." But America's editors did not understand that Kennedy was not a religious man, in terms of either theistic belief or any desire to apply the Bible to public-policy issues. President Kennedy made it clear that he believed in the separation of not only church and state but God and world. It made sense, when the governor of Pennsylvania sent a large wooden Bible stand as a present, for Jacqueline Kennedy to suggest that it be used as firewood. In the light of her husband's pursuit of adulterous sex at all costs, ministers should have been focusing not on Kennedy's Catholic background, but on his worship of power and sex. Before Senator Kennedy ran for president, Washington journalists knew he was Catholic only loosely. One piece of evidence they possessed came from Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Kater, Catholics who in 1958 rented a room to the senator's 21-year-old secretary, Pamela Turnure. The Katers, angered by Kennedy-Turnure illicit sex on their property, confronted the senator: "How dare you run for president under the guise of a good Christian? ... You are unfit to be the Catholic standard bearer of this country." The Katers told reporters and supplied evidence, but no story ever ran. Similar coverups occurred dozens of times. Author Hersh is appropriately huffy about journalistic malfeasance, but he misses the larger story of theological illiteracy among reporters. When the candidate met with the 51-member Council of Methodist Bishops, one Washington reporter said, "that's Daniel going into the lion's den." Back then, that would have been true if Kennedy had been theologically Catholic and the Methodist leaders had been theologically biblical Protestants. But Kennedy and most of his questioners had the common denominator of modernism, and it was reported that the bishops applauded him warmly at the end. JFK played the tolerance card brilliantly to cement his Catholic vote while making Protestants feel that a vote against him was a vote for bigotry. "Nobody asked me if I was a Catholic when I joined the United States Navy," Kennedy told cheering crowds. "Nobody asked my brother if he was a Catholic or a Protestant before he climbed into an American bomber to fly his last mission." One Democratic Party spokesman acknowledged that party workers were instructed to raise the question, "'Do you think they are going to keep Kennedy from being President just because he is Catholic?' It gets a good response. We are winning lots of new votes." John Kennedy, like some other presidents, knew the value of a religious cover. Jacqueline Kennedy traveled extensively and spent most of each non-travel week not in the White House but at her rented farm in Virginia. On evenings when she was away, numerous young women visited the presidential bed, after which JFK would fall asleep. Journalist Jim Bishop, however, was able to visit the White House on several carefully selected days in order to write his A Day in the Life of President Kennedy, which described a supposedly typical routine that ended this way: "Beside his bed, he drops to his knees. The last few minutes of the day belong to God." In God's providence, President Kennedy's emotional coolness served the nation well during some of the Cold War's most frigid days. But, judging by his actions and the accounts of both friends and historians, JFK all through the day worshipped Baal and Asherah, the ancient god of power and goddess of sex, and not the God of the Bible.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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