In teaching John F. Kennedy’s presidential inaugural address, I noted, for the first time, how the speech ends: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
First, Kennedy intends to do God’s work – a constant trope of American rhetoric, and one that I hope will invite my readers to comment. Second, he appeals to history as the final judge of our deeds. One might often think the Final Judge to be Someone Else, but President Kennedy has collapsed whom Patrick Henry called: “a just God who presides over the destinies of nations” into the very destinies of nations themselves.
Why do God’s work? Why do good? The Jewish tradition, to my knowledge, says little about eternal punishment, more concerned with what goes in the land of the living than in the realm of those who have lived. Man is meant to do right, as I see it, for love of good and not for fear of heavenly displeasure. More about this tomorrow. For now, I invite comments.