Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Tags: 1968, Audio, Maine, Robert F. Kennedy, Roman Catholicism
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, June 6, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A year of tumult and assassination: Reflecting on the life and legacy of Robert F. Kennedy 50 years after his death
It was 50 years ago this morning just after 2 o'clock A.M. California time that Frank Mankiewicz stood before reporters in Los Angeles and read this statement, "Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 A.M. June 6, 1968. With Senator Kennedy at the time of his death were his wife Ethel, his sisters Mrs. Stephen Smith, Mrs. Patricia Lawford, and his brother-in-law Mr. Stephen Smith. He was 42 years old. Thank you." With those words, Mankiewicz, who had served as press secretary to Senator Kennedy, simply walked away.
That statement brought an agonizing end to an agonizing 24 plus hours that America had endured. It was the day previous, on June the 5th, 1968, that Robert Francis Kennedy had won the California primary and had gained enough political momentum that he was by all accounts the likely Democratic nominee for the Office of President of the United States. We're talking here about the year 1968. Of course, a presidential election year in the United States. A year that is now seared in American history and in the American conscience. We're talking about a year of revolution.
It was a year that saw political revolutions, often undertaken by young people and students in major European cities such as Paris and Berlin. It was a year that saw that same spirit of revolution come to the United States with riots in major American cities and of course, unrest and protests on most of the major college and university campuses within this nation. 1968 in retrospect looms large 50 years later as a year that symbolizes, as something of a capstone year, the massive cultural, political, and moral changes taking place in the United States. Looking back from the perspective of 2018, you can see 1968 and divide modern American history.
You can see a before and an after. Before 1968 and after 1968. The politics, the morality, a good deal of America's culture had changed radically during that period. In the United States, 1968 was a year of tumult and a year of assassination. It was on April the 4th, 1968 that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Barely 60 days later, it was on June the 5th, 1968 that Robert F. Kennedy, the Junior United States Senator from New York and the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 was shot just after he had claimed victory in the crucial California primary, then the last primary of the presidential season, and had just spoken to supporters in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. It's haunting to us now to recognize that America, at least on June the 5th of 1968 during most of the day, it had appeared to be a very different country as it perceived threats and the reality of evil.
What's telling is that a major American presidential candidate, in this case, the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, himself the brother of an assassinated President of the United States, would have apparently no security protection whatsoever. The assassination came as Kennedy was walking through the kitchen, getting ready to leave the Ambassador Hotel. A man later convicted of the crime named Sirhan Sirhan pointed a handgun and fired several shots into the entourage of the senator, hitting the senator and some others in the kitchen as well. As it turned out, Senator Kennedy would die just over 24 hours later, mortally wounded from a headshot by Sirhan Sirhan.
During the criminal precedings, Sirhan Sirhan blamed Senator Kennedy because of his support for the State of Israel. Some historians look back to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan and pointed that as the emergence of terrorism and violence linked to the Middle East in Modern America. Mark Kurlansky, author of the book "1968: The Year that Rocked the World," in a recent column written for The Los Angeles Times looked back to June the 5th and 6th, 1968 and wrote, "50 years later, we tend to talk about 1968 as though it was a single experience, but everybody had their own '68. The first half of mine," he wrote, "Was spent thinking Bobby was the solution."
"The second half, and really my life ever since, was spent thinking there is no solution." Now in those words, Kurlansky seems to distill a certain kind of response that came to the generation that came politically alive during the 1960s and had invested such revolutionary expectations in the United States. It is really interesting in retrospect to see how many of those hopes and expectations had been symbolically attached to Robert F. Kennedy and to his presidential race in 1968.
As we are thinking as Christians about this 50th anniversary and as the world is trying to figure out if it's really important or what it means, we need to recognize that there are some hugely important issues as we think in Christian worldview analysis that come to mind and come to history as we think about this 50th anniversary. For one thing, we need to think about the fact that every single human being is situated in history. We don't choose when we are born, where we are born, to whom we are born. Robert Francis Kennedy was born the seventh child and the third son of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald-Kennedy.
These are some of the most famous names in American history especially as you think about the 20th century and beyond. Kennedy was considered the runt of the family. Physically smaller than the other boys, he was thus discounted by his own father until he emerged with a certain kind of tenacity, a very important personal and political tenacity. Courage was widely admired within the Kennedy family and Kennedy, that is Robert Kennedy, earned his own father's respect for courage by, for instance, playing with a broken leg in the Harvard-Yale game as he was a member of the Harvard football squad.
Kennedy would graduate from Harvard after he had spent some time in the United States Navy during World War II, but because of his age and his assignment, his experience in the war was stateside. That in contrast to his two brothers, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., who died in an air mission for the war, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his brother who became president, well-known as the captain of PT 109. As we're thinking about being fixed in history, we need to understand that Robert Kennedy did not decide the circumstances of his birth, nor the identity of his parents, but there's no way to separate them.
There's no way to talk about Robert Francis Kennedy without talking about Joseph Kennedy and Rose Kennedy. There's no way to talk about Bobby Kennedy, as he became known, without talking about the entirety of the Kennedy clan, a clan of enormous power and cultural influence, a clan that also had no shortage of dark secrets. As we seek to apply worldview analysis, we need to understand and concede for a moment that as we look back, we tend to look at history as a succession of freeze frames, not as an ongoing film. For one thing, every single one of us carries only certain dots, certain points, certain frames and sequences, certain pictures in our mind.
What's really interesting is how history over the last 50 years has transformed the reputation of Robert Kennedy. If you would have known Robert Kennedy in the 1950s, you would have been in a far smaller public than became true by 1968. In the 1950s, if you knew Bobby Kennedy, you likely knew that he was the younger brother of a United States Senator from Massachusetts. You might also know that he was a staff member and council to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Senator McCarthy, of course, one of the most controversial figures in American political life in the 20th century.
McCarthy who is now remembered in infamy rather than in fame, and McCarthy who is known for running ruthless hearings in the United States Senate trying to identify communist within the United States Government. Now an interesting footnote here is the fact that despite his unethical actions, it turned out that Joseph McCarthy was sometimes right as he was pointing to subversives and spies, Communist spies, within the American political and espionage apparatus. To put the matter bluntly, most Americans now remember Robert Kennedy as a liberal, but he would have been remembered as anything but a liberal, politically speaking, in the 1950s.
As you fast forward to 1960, Robert Kennedy was then known as the campaign manager for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was elected President of the United States in November of 1960. If you were looking inside that campaign, you would have understood that Robert Kennedy was known as a fixer. He was largely in place as a political fixer, put there by the authority of the father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Then came the stunning announcement that Robert Kennedy would become Attorney General of the United States. That would not even be politically or legally possible now, but it was possible in 1960.
In 1961, the younger brother of the newly elected President of the United States became his own brother's Attorney General. All this came when Robert Kennedy was in his mid-30s and had never actually argued a legal case in court, but he was confirmed as Attorney General of the United States. Again in retrospect, it was clear that he was largely put there by the insistence of their father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who convinced John F. Kennedy that he needed Robert Kennedy as a fixer and protector within the administration. As Attorney General of the United States, Robert Kennedy became known for crime busting, especially as it related to organized labor and organized crime.
He also became rather well-known for his defense of the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Most importantly, the way he managed the crisis within the State of Alabama and Mississippi. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November of 1963, Robert F. Kennedy first stayed on for some time as Attorney General under the then President of the United States Lyndon Baines Johnson. What was apparent to everyone involved was that RFK, as he was known, hated LBJ, the president. It was a combustible political situation.
In 1964, Robert Kennedy announced that he would be resigning as Attorney General of the United States and running for the United States Senate from the State of New York. Again looking back at it, it doesn't appear to make a great deal of sense. Robert Kennedy wasn't from New York, but this was a time when the Kennedy name could carry one to electoral success in the United States Senate even if the state was not one's home. Here we simply have to note that that was repeated in the year 2000 by Hillary Clinton, elected also to the United States Senate from New York having never previously been largely associated with a residence in the state.
One of the oddest issues in retrospect is that Robert Kennedy became the standard bearer and the hope bearer for so many especially more liberal figures in the Democratic Party in the 1968 race. That wasn't exactly what you might have expected especially if you had known Kennedy in the '50s or even in the early '60s. Then again the story is often not remembered very accurately. Senator Kennedy did not bravely enter the Democratic presidential race early in 1968. No, he waited. He waited until in the New Hampshire primary Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy had come close to defeating the incumbent President of the United States Lyndon Baines Johnson.
That primary vote took place on March the 12th of 1968. Eugene McCarthy all of a sudden began to surge as it was clear that LBJ could be supplanted by another Democrat on the 1968 ticket. Robert Kennedy then took advantage of Eugene McCarthy's humiliation of LBJ and announced that he would be a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination on March the 16th of 1968. Just a few days later on March the 31st of 1968, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the incumbent President of the United States, shocked the nation by announcing that he would not be a candidate for the Office of President of the United States.
How the biblical worldview helps to explain the presence of both greatness and darkness in a single individual
Looking back at 1968, here's something for us to think about. The year was so tumultuous in American history that a sitting incumbent President of the United States, who had won the office by a landslide in 1964, just four years later decides he will not run for his own party's nomination for the very same office. That was a stunning political development. It required some explanation, and the explanation that must be provided takes us back to the late 1960s to the divisive issue of the war in Vietnam and to huge fundamental moral divides that were even then appearing in the American people. More recently, we have talked about the deepening partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans in the United States.
Of course, we have seen that even in just the last several months and in the 2016 presidential election. What's really important just to look back to 1968 and to see that all the fundamental issues were there already lining up in 1968. The Democratic Party was headed in one direction, the Republican Party was headed in a very different direction. Issues ranging from sex and birth control to divorce and abortion, issues about the size of government and the role of the United States in the world, the big issues morally and culturally that divide Americans today began to divide Americans very clearly in 1968. Of course, it's not just the politics and the foreign policy and the economics.
It was culture. It was in 1968 that massive changes came in American television and film and entertainment. The politicization of virtually every dimension of American life, well, it became very much evident and it was incredibly fueled by the developments of 1968. This anniversary also gives us the occasion to think about some basic principles of how we interpret people in history, how we look back in history, whether it's 50 years or 5 years or 500 years, and try to understand a historical figure. First, Christians operating out of a biblical worldview understand the complexities of human character.
We understand that a human being is a very complex organism psychologically, psychiatrically, and also morally, and of course, sometimes spiritually and theologically. You're looking at a complex organism, the human being, whether that be your next door neighbor or your great grandfather or grandmother or Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Looking backwards it is clear this is a very complex picture. Was it true that Robert Kennedy was the general council and the henchman to Senator Joseph McCarthy? Yes. Was it true that as Attorney General Robert Kennedy demonstrated courage in staring down some of the most divisive forces of racism in the United States? Yes, it was.
You're talking about the very same human being. Second, we need to understand that what this means is that the biblical worldview helps us to understand that we will and can find both greatness and darkness in a single individual. Every single fallen human being, every single human individual demonstrates the opportunity and often occasion of greatness, but then at the same time, the presence of real darkness. That darkness was very evident in Robert Kennedy, but so also was at least the seed of historical greatness and at times, great moments. Thirdly, the biblical worldview helps us to understand that individuals change over time.
Sometimes they change in a negative direction. Just think of the Old Testament narratives concerning for example King Saul. Sometimes they change in a more positive direction. Again there is ample biblical precedent. Sometimes the bible presents both virtually at the same time. Just consider the Old Testament narratives concerning King David. Fourth, the Christian worldview reminds us that leadership and character are eventually inseparable. Obviously this has relevance to our contemporary political context where there are now people arguing, the very same people who argued some time ago against the fact that leadership and character are inseparable.
The reality is they are eventually inseparable. Part of the proof for that is the very experience of looking back 50 years in time to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Here's the vital point, Robert F. Kennedy 50 years later cannot escape the moral context and the moral consequences for which he was known in the 1960s. 50 years ago. Fifth, we also need to understand that as we are Christians, we need to watch the fact that we tend to look backwards in time and freeze people where we remember them. Americans tend to look back to John F. Kennedy, the president, and think of him with youth and vigor. Of course, if John F. Kennedy were to be alive today, he would be 101 years old.
No matter how history might judge him, he was very much a creature of the early decades of the 20th century. Likewise, Robert F. Kennedy, if he were alive today, would be 92 years old, and likely Americans would know him as a very different individual than he is remembered at his death at age 42. Finally, as we're thinking as Christians about the massive changes that have taken place in American culture, well, let's just look back to 1960 and 1968 and let's think about two Kennedy's, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. We often remember them together and of course, all those iconic photographs in the Cuban Missile Crisis and other context.
The reality is that at the time, both of them were at their peak political influence. They actually represented two very different political worldviews. Their lives would be linked forever to the 1960s as Americans would remember them, but President Kennedy was in his policies. Whether they were foreign affairs or domestic affairs, economics, or his understanding of Congress and the United States Government, his ideas was very much rooted in the early decades and the middle decades of the 20th century.
Just eight years later, by the time his brother was assassinated on Los Angeles, Robert F. Kennedy represented a very different vision of America, a very different understanding of government. Robert F. Kennedy was far more an advocate of expansive federal influence and the expansion of the Federal Government. John F. Kennedy was no friend to the welfare state, but Bobby Kennedy had clearly identified with an expansion of the welfare state by the time he ran for president in 1968.
Robert F. Kennedy would gain political momentum in 1968 running for president declaring that he would get Americans out of Vietnam as quickly as possible, but it was his own brother, President Kennedy, who was the single most important agent in expanding the role of the American military in the Vietnam conflict. Bringing these thoughts finally together, it's interesting to note that Americans tend to respond to this kind of anniversary and to this kind of celebrity anniversary, even a tragic anniversary such as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, with either condemnation or celebration.
It seems to divide Americans between those who want to condemn the individual and those who want to celebrate the individual, both seeing the individual as the catalyst for everything the nation has either become or failed to be. Christian's understanding of biblical worldview and understanding what it means to look at history as the story not only of what Henry Ford said, one thing after another, but rather one issue that requires our thought after another. Our response to this kind of anniversary is to think. That's the most important responsibility. Neither first to celebrate, nor first to condemn, but first to think.
What is the meaning of these things? Finally, this comes down to understanding the importance of turning points in history. One of those turning points, 1968. There is no way to understand the America we know today and the challenges we face today without understanding how history shifted, seem to turn on a hinge in the year 1968.
When liberal ecumenicals have to choose between ecumenism and the sexual revolution, sex wins
Finally, a story that comes from Maine Religion News Services. Mark A. Kellner reports, "The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine, is withdrawing from the Maine Council of Churches in a bid to distance itself from LGBT advocacy and other stances that the church says could compromise its public moral witness."
Now this is one of those stories that looks just a little story, but it actually has a huge message. In the background to this is the ecumenical movement especially of the second half of the 20th century. A movement that was largely situated on the left of both Protestantism and Catholicism. An ecumenical movement that said that what was needed in the contemporary moment was to deny and minimize theological differences and find theological unity. By the way, Christ in John 15 makes very clear that his people, his church is marked by unity, but this is where we understand that that is a biblical and a theological unity, a spiritual unity, not an organizational unit.
Efforts to create that kind of ecumenical organizational unity have always come at the expense of doctrine and the confusion of theology. There is no shortage of both in the situation related to the news from the Maine Council of Churches. What is our interest here? Our interest here is noting that two of the great impulses that have been held in the ecumenical movement are the impulse to hold together and the impulse to join the moral revolution, the sexual revolution.
The story here is of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine withdrawing from the Maine Council of Churches and the Maine Council of Churches explaining that it was so because the council now comprised almost entirely of very liberal Protestants wants to be very clear and vocal about the fact that they are enthusiastic about the sexual revolution right down to LGBTQ issues. The executive director of the Maine Council of Churches Jane Field told Religion News Service, "Remaining silent on issues, especially related to LGBTQ justice and equality, wasn't tenable for all of our other seven denominations."
"It was enough of a discomfort," she said, "That it needed to be addressed openly. It wasn't healthy to be silent anymore." Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishop there in Portland, Maine released a statement saying, "Our continuing participation could result in me advocating for two different and even contradictory positions. What I advocate for," said the bishop, "Cannot be simply determined by majority vote. It is expected that my advocacy is grounded in the teachings of the church." He means the Roman Catholic Church. "Any other positions," said the bishop, "Would be contrary to my responsibility as the Bishop of Portland."
What's the most important issue here? What are we watching? We need to look at this, when you look at the modern ecumenical movement that has been about theological compromise, it turns out that they will not compromise on the LGBTQ revolution. When forced to choose between their ecumenical unity and their advocacy of the sexual revolution, you need to note very clearly that the signal has been sent from Portland, Maine. The sexual revolution wins. Ecumenism loses. Oddly enough, out of Portland, Maine comes a strange parable. We ought not to miss it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.