Can anything or anyone in human experience replace the yearning for a right relationship with our Creator?
The worldview narrative of historic Christianity involves the fourfold sequence of humanity’s creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. In examining the first two events, one could say that being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27) makes people worshippers and the spiritual void of the fall makes them idolaters (Romans 1:18–23). Moreover,as idolaters, fallen people remain worshippers. Upon being separated from the triune God, fallen humans naturally gravitate toward the pursuit of three worship replacements: sex (sensualism) money (materialism), and achievement(egotism).1
Intriguingly, sex, money, and achievement are good things, not bad things. But these good things can never satisfy a human being’s profound existential needs. Yet, by fallen creatures who are broken and disordered by sin, the path toward these pursuits has been well-traveled in life.
Enter the Man Who Had Everything
But what about a man who seemingly had all the worship replacements in abundance and, thus, didn’t need to pursue them? Would that man be able to find fulfillment and satisfaction apart from God?
The person I’m talking about is former American President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963)—often referred to as JFK. I offer this brief sketch of the man’s life as an example of how the Christian worldview applies to someone who seemingly had everything that the world considers to be important. I also intend to illustrate that the human condition is universal and always involves some form of pain and suffering—whether it is physical, mental, or existential—even for the rich and famous.
I became interested in Kennedy because of my parents. My mom and dad were Kennedy Democrats and converts to Catholicism in the early 1960s. My dad and Kennedy were from the same generation and both had served in the Second World War. My parents liked Kennedy’s policies and his charismatic political style and charming wit. My father even wrote a letter to President Kennedy and received in return a signed photograph of the president. That framed photo hung on the wall in the home I grew up in.
I was five years old when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Yet I still remember pictures in my mind of his state funeral with the flag-covered coffin, the military drum beats, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy dressed in black walking behind the caisson that carried her slain husband’s body. My whole family watched the funeral on our black-and-white television. Such was the impact that I would go on to read about Kennedy over my whole life. I have some fifty books in my personal library about John F. Kennedy, including his life, family, presidency, and especially his shocking assassination.
Kennedy Biographies: A Man of Virtue and Vice
The books about Kennedy that appeared for the first couple of decades after his death were hagiographic in nature, treating him virtually as a martyred saint.2 Thus, Kennedy has often been identified by the American public as one of the country’s best presidents even though he served in the office for just over one thousand days (less than three full years).
Over time, books began to appear that described aspects of Kennedy’s rather reckless personal life.3 Friends and political associates described him as a compulsive womanizer whose promiscuity continued during his marriage, in the White House, and apparently up until his death.
These later books also mention that he was seriously ill nearly his entire life. He had multiple health problems, including Addison’s Disease (also called adrenal insufficiency, an uncommon, potentially life-threatening disorder that occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones).4 Younger brother Robert Kennedy, who served as Attorney General and United States Senator, said that his brother had spent much of his life in pain and had even received the Catholic Church’s last rites three times. The elder Kennedy’s long experience with serious illness had forced him to consider the brevity of life and his inevitable mortality. His hedonistic pursuits may have been at least partly motivated by his view that he was destined to live a short life.
A Privileged Upbringing
“Jack” Kennedy, as he was called by family and friends, came from a large, wealthy Catholic family. He had five sisters and three brothers and was second in the birth order. His famous father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was one of the wealthiest Americans and the Ambassador to the United Kingdom during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. The tremendous wealth gained by his father meant that Jack had his clothes washed, room cleaned, and meals prepared by servants. His elite social class meant that he hadn’t heard of the Great Depression (the worldwide economic downturn of the 1930s) until he was a student at Harvard University, where he graduated in 1940.
With the outbreak of World War II, Jack pressured his father to pull strings to get him into the Navy and into combat. It is said that Jack Kennedy was one of the few servicemen who faked good health to get into the United States Armed Forces during the Second World War.
Kennedy’s military career involved combat action in the Navy. While some fault him for allowing a Japanese destroyer to ram and cut his PT (patrol torpedo) boat in half, Lt. John F. Kennedy’s courageous actions afterward helped save his crew, and he was decorated with the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
But Kennedy’s health problems remained. When he returned home from the war, Kennedy, at six feet tall, weighed a mere 120 pounds. His family and friends thought his health challenges would preempt any possible career that would otherwise await him. Yet, cortisone shots would help.
A Storied Political Legacy
Though skinny and often ill, Kennedy amazingly willed himself to campaign first for the US House of Representatives, then the Senate, and in 1960 for the presidency. He would defeat Richard Nixon in a razor-close election. JFK’s inaugural address is considered one of the best political speeches in American history. The most-remembered line from the address is: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Some people thought he was too young and inexperienced for such a critical leadership position, especially at the time of the Cold War. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President Kennedy’s calm and decisive actions played a key role in avoiding a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The likable JFK was one of the most charismatic presidents of the twentieth century. Nellie Connally, Texas governor John Connally’s wife who was in the car with her husband and Kennedy when the two men were shot, said she thought she knew what charisma was until she met President Kennedy. Though Kennedy knew he was vulnerable to assassination, nevertheless he ordered the secret service agents off of his convertible during motorcade tours, saying that an American president cannot show fear.
Some say Kennedy was a nominal, if not humanistic, Catholic with no genuine faith convictions.5 Others, however, suggest that in the last year of his life, particularly with the death of his son Patrick, he was searching for something deeper.
President John F. Kennedy was young, handsome, and charming. He had sex, money, and achievement in abundance. Yet he also suffered from debilitating illness that forced him to consider his fragile and temporal state. With help from his inner circle, he also carefully compartmentalized aspects of his life. Thus, JFK seemed to have what writer Gabriel García Márquez called “three lives”: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.6 But with it all, arguably one of the most famous people of the twentieth century was still restless, discontented, and longing for deeper answers to life.
All Humans Yearn for God
Blaise Pascal described the human condition as an enigma of “greatness and wretchedness”7 (greatness because of the divine image and wretchedness because of the fall). Kennedy, the man who seemed to have it all, nevertheless was still searching for fulfillment. He seemingly exemplified both greatness and wretchedness in his short but extraordinary life.
The Christian worldview message is that all people are made by God for God. Thus, no other temporal reality or entity can ultimately satisfy humankind’s existential longing, even if the person seems to have everything.8 As St. Augustine said to God in a prayer: “Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. . . . The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”9
The historic Christian message is that pleasure, fortune, and fame are fleeting and true rest and peace for the soul can only come from the God who made us.
Reflections: Your Turn
What have you been tempted to worship in place of God?
• For a discussion of whether the Christian faith can make sense of human longing and suffering, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chapter 12.
• For an article about my studies concerning John F. Kennedy and C. S. Lewis, who both died on the same day, see “How JFK and C. S. Lewis Influenced My Life.”
• Various commentators have said that Kennedy conveniently compartmentalized his life. For the challenge of compartmentalization to moral integrity, see my article “Does Everyone Have Three Lives?“
• For an introduction to St. Augustine and his pursuit of a disordered life, see chapter three of my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.
1. See David K. Naugle, Philosophy: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 50.
2. See Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers with Joe McCarthy, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1972); William Manchester, One Brief Shining Moment: Remembering Kennedy (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1983).
3. See Thomas C. Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (New York: Free Press, 1991), 241; Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 2004), 706.
4. Mayo Clinic, “Addison’s Disease,” November 24, 2020.
5. See Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982).
6. Gerald Martin, Gabriel García Márquez: A Life (New York: Vintage, 2010), 198.
7. Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York: Penguin, 1966), 117/409.
8. For more about the Christian anthropology of humans as fallen image-bearers, see my article “Worshippers by Nature.”
9. Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961), bk. 1, 21.