JFK, Sorenson, and Unitarian Universalism

JFK, Sorenson, and Unitarian Universalism November 21, 2013

I was reading an article recently on “The Tyranny of Excellence,” which concludes with a fascinating passage about Unitarian Universalist influences on President Kennedy. This Friday’s 50th Anniversary of Kennedy’s tragic assassination seems like an appropriate occasion to share these words, which are from a review of Ted Sorenson’s book Counselor, A Life on the Edge History. Sorensen was a legendary speech writer for Kennedy as well as a trusted advisor, but it is less well known that Ted Sorensen was also a Unitarian Universalist:

As [Sorensen] and Kennedy were en route to Houston and working on the final draft of the church-and-state speech, Kennedy laughingly asked whether any of his Catholicism was rubbing off on Sorensen. “No,” Sorensen replied, “but I think some of my Unitarianism is rubbing off on you.” And undoubtedly it was — at least on Kennedy’s speeches. “Many of the speeches that I drafted reflect Unitarian principals,” Sorensen acknowledges. As for his influence on his boss’s politics, he confesses that over time he “gradually . . . crafted a more liberal perspective into some of his speeches.” Of course, he could hardly have done that without Kennedy’s assent. Still, Sorensen was very aware of having influenced Kennedy — so much so that a friend once remarked that the speechwriter looked on the president as “his work of art.”

(The book review is from Robert K. Landers, “Unitarian Advice,”  Commonweal (November 7, 2008), 25.)

For Further Reading

Ted Sorensen, “JFK’s Unitarian speechwriter” in UU World, available at  http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/121068.shtml. A highlight from that article: 

My favorite of all of Kennedy’s speeches—and usually I try to minimize my role, but in this I did have a major role—was his commencement address at American University [in 1963]. In that speech, one of the lines is, “Our problems are man-made—therefore they can be solved by man.” Sounds like good Unitarianism to me. In the inaugural address, he concludes saying, “With history the final judge of our deeds . . .” That’s not what other churches would say. That’s Unitarianism. 

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg)

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