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50 years ago today, Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis followed different paths to the grave

Published: Friday, Nov. 22 2013 9:09 a.m. MST

Sen. John F. Kennedy speaks at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Sept. 1960. Photo - Deseret News Archives

Deseret News Archives

President John F. Kennedy was aboard Air Force One between Fort Worth and Dallas when the famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis died of kidney failure in his brother's arms in Oxford, England. An hour later, at 12:30 p.m. in Dallas, a sniper sent Kennedy out the same exit. Another famous author, Aldous Huxley, followed Kennedy and Lewis into eternity that same day, dying in Los Angeles of throat cancer as doctors in the hallway clustered around television sets for updates from Dallas.

Kennedy’s glamorous life and dramatic death has long overshadowed the other two, both on that day and at anniversaries since. But the three men together embody a trio of distinct spiritual and religious choices at a time when traditional Christianity was losing its historic grip on the Western mind.

They were three thoroughly modern men, three nearly simultaneous deaths, three very different lives. Kennedy was nominally Catholic but very much a man of this world; Lewis was an atheist who converted to Christianity; and Huxley was a worldly intellectual drawn to Buddhist mysticism. Fifty years later, with the grip of faith looser still, their three divergent paths remain compelling models to millions of skeptics and seekers alike.

Where doubt lives

Just how religious was Kennedy? "Not very," says David Holmes, an emeritus professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary and author of "The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents."

"He has to be looked at first as a Roman Catholic," Holmes said, "but he was a disengaged Roman Catholic." It is, Holmes agrees, thus ironic that Kennedy, a Catholic in a still-suspicious Protestant land, was compelled to sharply define himself by his religion, even giving a historic address on the role of faith in American politics.

"Jack hung out more with lapsed Episcopalians and secular people than with Irish Catholics," Holmes said.

If one sets aside Kennedy's compulsive adultery, the best evidence that Kennedy may have been religious at his core lies in comments from his close friends Kenny O'Donnell and Lem Billings, who both said Kennedy prayed each night before bed.

"That always puzzled me," Holmes said, "until shortly after my book was published and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s interview with [Kennedy’s widow] Jackie was released." In the interview, conducted shortly after Kennedy died, Schlesinger asked about JFK's internal religious views. Jackie replied, “Well, I mean, he never missed church one Sunday that we were married or all that, but you could see partly — I often used to think whether it was superstition or not — I mean, he wasn’t quite sure, but if it was that way, he wanted to have that on his side.”

According to his wife, JFK's nightly prayer ritual was essentially crossing himself on his knees and took only 3 seconds each night. “It was just like a little childish mannerism, I suppose like brushing your teeth or something,” she said.

"Church bored him. He hardly ever went,” said Henry James, a classmate of John F. Kennedy at Stanford. “Religion didn't interest him. He was all for being au courant, very much up to date with the things that were going on at the time, but not for eternal verities."

A Harvard classmate once asked the future president why he attended church. The friend, Holmes relates, reported that Kennedy "got this odd, hard look on his face and replied, ‘This is one of the things I do for my father. The rest I do for myself.’ ”

"Jack has traveled in that speculative area where doubt lives," said Chuck Spaulding, a Catholic and close friend of Kennedy.

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