J.F.K. and C.S. Lewis: A Courage Shared

The great Christian moralist and cool, ironic former U.S. president have more in common than you’d think.

The following is the transcript of a speech given to St. John’s Episcopal Church in McLean, Virginia on November 17, 2013.

I’ve been asked to speak about John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis, who died on the same day, November 22, 1963 — 50 years ago.

You all know J.F.K., or course, and most of you know C.S. Lewis, or know his work. He wrote those wonderful Narnia Chronicles, some of the greatest children’s literature ever, and also a really good book on grieving, A Grief Observed. His own grieving over his wife was made into a splendid movie called Shadowlands; I recommend it to you. Lewis was a longtime professor at Oxford and Cambridge and, among other things, a marvelously clear writer.

But what do C.S. Lewis and John F. Kennedy have in common?

One was a great Christian moralist, the author of Mere Christianity, who earnestly lectured large audiences on morality. The other was all cool and ironic, a notorious philanderer and according to his wife, not even a very good Catholic.

So . . . what did they have in common other than that they were famous, and they died on the same day?

Well, I thought about it and re-read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, which I highly recommend to you, and I went back and read up on Kennedy a bit, and there is one thing that the two men shared:

They put a very high value on the virtue of courage.

There’s a great line, usually attributed to Winston Churchill. Of all the virtues, courage is the greatest virtue because without it, you can’t have any of the others. Think about it.

What good is it being chaste, or merciful or honest only when it’s easy? It’s when you are afraid that it is hardest, as they say, to choose the harder right over the easier wrong.

In his writings, C.S. Lewis said much the same thing. In Mere Christianity, he ticks off various virtues like prudence and temperance and justice and fortitude — fortitude, by which he says he means courage. He writes of the cardinal virtues and then says of fortitude, “You will notice, of course, that you cannot practice any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.”

In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis writes “that courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” What good is it being chaste, or merciful or honest only when it’s easy? It’s when you are afraid that it is hardest, as they say, to choose the harder right over the easier wrong. Pontius Pilate, Lewis notes, was “merciful until it became risky.”

Now Kennedy was less philosophical than Lewis but just as obsessed with the virtue of courage. He was himself physically brave, of course, a hero in World War II, rescuing his men after his PT boat was cut in half and showing quiet courage, from a young age, dealing with a lot of chronic ailments. But he valued courage in others, I would say, above all other virtues. The way J.F.K. put it, was, “Are you tough?” That was a big Kennedy word, tough.  Meaning do you have grit, can you stick it out, or will you run when the going gets rough. The tough get going . . . tough was Kennedy’s greatest accolade — that guy is tough.

So, courage. Now, here’s another thing Kennedy and Lewis had in common.

But, you may say, but, but . . . Kennedy seemed so secular. And, he was, generally speaking. His wife, Jackie, really did say he was not a very good Catholic. And I guess that’s true, certainly compared to his mother, Rose, who was very pious, and his brother Bobby, who followed after their mother.

And yet . . . .

Here’s an interesting detail: J.F.K. apparently prayed every night. He got down on his knees and prayed (so did Richard Nixon, by the way, but that’s another story). On the road, he would sometimes slip away from the crowds and go to Mass.

Kennedy seemed to have understood that courage comes from some place, maybe deep inside, but also, finally, from some force outside yourself — possibly, from on high?

In June 1961, he went to a summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. It was the height of the Cold War, and nuclear war seemed like a real and terrible danger. At the summit, Khrushchev bullied the young American president and threatened to go to war, to start World War III. Kennedy, normally so cool, was shaken. His secretary later found a piece of paper, on which the president had written a passage, paraphrasing an old quote attributed to Abe Lincoln from the time of the Civil War: “I know there is a God and I see a great storm coming. If he has a place and a role for me, I believe I am ready.”

This sounds a lot like someone who was turning to God for God’s help, who was relying on his faith to find the great virtue of courage. So perhaps J.F.K. was even more in tune with the great Christian philosopher and ethicist than I first thought.

And yet, my story is complicated. . . .

Kennedy was brave, or as he might put it, tough.

Still, there is no doubt: J.F.K. was a sinner. Look at his treatment of women — pretty  sordid. There is a book, recently out, by a woman who was a pretty 19-year-old summer intern at the White House, a nice well brought up girl, a virgin when she arrived, and she makes it clear that the president had his way with her in the most callow fashion.

It’s a little hard to reconcile this Kennedy with the Kennedy who got down on his knees at night and prayed for courage to do the right thing. Was Kennedy just pathological? Obsessed by some compulsion? Maybe. But maybe there is another explanation.

And this is where C.S. Lewis comes back into the picture.

To me, one of the most affecting chapters in Mere Christianity is chapter eight, entitled “The Great Sin.” If courage is the great virtue, what then is the great sin?

Back to C.S. Lewis: “We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others.”

Well, it turns out that the great sin — you already know this — is pride. “According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride,” writes Lewis. “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice; it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

This denunciation, a sort of fire and brimstone renunciation of pride, can be hard for us moderns to get our heads around. Isn’t pride, at least in many circumstances, a virtue? The sin of pride has a way of sort of sneaking up on you because there are good things about pride — you’re proud of your school, say, or your kids — or yourself. What’s wrong with that . . . ?

Well, nothing you say, and certainly we live in a culture where we are supposed to be proud of ourselves and our kids — all the time! — all those soccer trophies . . . Self-esteem is good, right?

But here’s the rub. Pride usually means you feel superior to someone else. There’s often some enmity, some small-mindedness or meanness, in pride. Back to C.S. Lewis: “We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.”

I think this was, at heart, J.F.K.’s problem, his real sin if you will. Pride can lead to all sorts of problems, and Kennedy’s need to show his sexual prowess was only one of them. Many of you know the book The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. A great American tragedy, it portrayed the people around Kennedy — the Best and the Brightest — so proud, so sure they were better than others. If only we could make the rest of the world more like America! Surely we know best.

The ancient Greeks understood this phenomenon. They had a word for it — hubris. The gods are forever bringing down mortals who are too prideful, who forget they are mere mortals. And in the Bible of course — pride goeth before the fall. In The Best and the Brightest, Halberstam writes of how this hubris helped get us into the Vietnam War.

Hubris is not just something from the past that we need to study. Vietnam was not just an accident. We seem to be able to make the same mistake again and again. Our culture today is pretty prideful. I would not say that humility is a common virtue.

Which returns me to the virtue of courage. Now this is hard, because pride can give you courage. Think of the Marines, or the super Special Forces types, like the Navy Seals. But I would argue that that the really brave ones are actually pretty humble — they don’t boast and swagger. In my experience, the most boastful and arrogant types are actually kind of fearful and insecure, and the truly confident people are humble.

Where does this deep humility come from? Well a lot of places, but it can come from humbling yourself before God. At some level I think J.F.K. knew this, but it was hard, in his culture, to admit it. He had to be the cool guy — cooler than the rest.

I see this again and again in our culture. I teach at Princeton, and of course, the kids, when they get there, are pretty proud. They have been repeatedly told how great they are! And they are — they are, by and large, great kids. But they can be a little cocky. They all have these amazing resumes. When I was 18, I don’t think I had a resume. But Princeton — like life — can be humbling. The kids get their first Bs! Think of that. They get rejected a lot — by eating clubs, and singing groups, and intern programs. These days it’s not so easy to find a job. Interestingly, as David Brooks of the New York Times has pointed out, in our secular age, they have very little sense of sin, of the essential sinfulness of man — and thus see no need to turn to a higher power for redemption. But a lot of them, despite all their achievements, just feel empty.

The kids who best deal with this world, rich in so many ways but barren in essential ways, try to find something to believe in, something, I would say, greater than self. It’s hard. We live in a self-absorbed culture. It’s all about me. Remember, from a few years ago, that army-recruiting slogan — An Army of One. What, I thought, have we come to? What happened to sacrifice for the greater good and your buddies? Where are the role models in public life? Just look at politics today. It’s all about fighting, tit for tat, one-upsmanship, and putting down the other side. Not about compromise for the greater good. I don’t see a whole lot of political courage out there. Mostly politicians yelling at each other on cable TV. You never hear politicians calling for shared sacrifice. That would be too risky. Your pollsters and consultants would think you were crazy.

To give up your pride and find courage, you need to feel your own vulnerability, then turn to a force that is greater than yourself.

I think pride gets in the way of courage. Pride makes us defensive and cynical, ready to cover over our fears with a veneer of sarcasm. It keeps us from facing our fears head-on and from recognizing our own insecurities. To give up your pride and find courage, you need to feel your own vulnerability, then turn to a force that is greater than yourself.

Pride stops you from turning to God. The ancient Greeks thought that the gods punished men for pride. C.S. Lewis is a little more benign. He writes in his gentle but pointed way, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

I have a hunch that J.F.K., at some level, when he was honest with himself, knew that he needed to be humble before God to be truly brave. But like us he lived in a world that makes it easy to think about yourself all the time, and to forget that you need to get outside of yourself.

I know this logic is circular — but to get beyond pride, to get beyond self, well, that takes courage. And to be brave, well, that takes a certain kind of humility.

It means that you have to be honest with yourself, always hard to do. You have to ask yourself what motivates your pride. If you are proud because of your good work or your great blessings — then give thanks to God. But if your pride is rooted in your fears, then it’s time to ask God for help.


Image via Shutterstock.

Evan Thomas
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