Ted Sorensen, JFK's Unitarian speechwriter

Ted Sorensen, JFK's Unitarian speechwriter

In Kennedy's inaugural address, he concludes saying, "With history the final judge of our deeds . . ." That's not what other churches would say. That's Unitarianism.
Jane Greer


In his new memoir, Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s closest advisor and major speechwriter, celebrates his Unitarian upbringing in 1930s Nebraska. "Like the Good Samaritan, of whom Jesus spoke," Sorensen writes in a chapter about his religious and political development as a young person, "Unitarians have a love for the least, the last, and the lost, a belief in integrating faith with works."

Sorensen, who was born in 1928 in Lincoln, Nebraska, was one of five children. His father, C.A. Sorensen, was a well-known progressive politician and lawyer who served four years as Nebraska's attorney general. As a student at Grand Island Baptist College C.A., a talented debater and orator, competed in the Nebraska State Oratory Contest with an address entitled "The Dead Hand of the Past," in which he impugned the importance of religion. The speech won him first prize and expulsion from college. C.A.'s story made the news, and he was soon after contacted by Walter Locke, associate editor of the Nebraska State Journal, who told him that he needed to be at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and, also, that he needed to go to a Unitarian church. Locke helped with his university admission, and the Lincoln Unitarian minister arranged for a scholarship covering his tuition. So began the Sorensen family's relationship with Unitarianism.

Unitarian values, Sorensen writes in Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, are reflected in many of the speeches he drafted for Kennedy. Sorensen worked with Kennedy from his start as a senator in 1953 through his assassination as president in November 1963. A graduate of the University of Nebraska law school, Sorensen was only 25 when he started with Kennedy. However, even as a young man, he had already asserted himself as a civil rights activist, conscientious objector, and liberal.

Religion was an especially important issue in the 1960 presidential race, when many Protestants viewed Kennedy's Catholicism as a detriment, fearing that the pope and the Catholic hierarchy would unduly influence him. In probably his best-known speech on the subject, delivered to the Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, Kennedy asserted, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote. . . ."

After his White House years, Sorensen worked as a private attorney in the field of international law. In 1966, he joined the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where he specialized in representing clients on relations with foreign governments, a task that took him all over the world. As part of these assignments he had the opportunity to meet with world leaders ranging from Nelson Mandela to Manuel Noriega.

Sorensen suffered a stroke in 2001, which left him visually impaired. With time on his hands, he was finally able to turn to writing his memoir, which he did with the help of Adam Frankel, a Princeton University and London School of Economics graduate. The book took six years to complete.

Sorensen spoke with UU World at his apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City in September 2008. His sister, Ruth Sorensen Singer, was visiting and offered an anecdote from her childhood, which is included in the interview. An abridged version appears in the Winter issue of UU World.

How did people feel about Roman Catholics in the 1950s and '60s?

Clearly there was a very large number that didn't think Catholics should be president of the U.S. There was an organization in which Unitarians, along with Southern Baptists, probably played an important role. It was called POAU, Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State [now known as Americans United for Separation of Church and State]. I think that a Methodist bishop [Garfield Bromley Oxnam] may have been the president at that time, and I had a secret meeting with him to enlist his help with the campaign.

To support Kennedy?

To at least support a statement by a lot of leading Protestant clergymen saying that religion should not play a role in the selection of a president. They were not thereby committing themselves to campaign for Kennedy, but it's a little like when I mobilized the South Africa Free Elections Fund foundation many years later. The reason it was a foundation and contributions were tax-deductible was because it was for voter education in South Africa. Mandela was smart enough to realize immediately that the whites didn't need voter education; they'd been voting all their lives. So a statement saying religion should not play any role in the selection of a president could only benefit one person.

How did religion feature as a campaign issue?

Clearly, whether we liked it or not, Kennedy's religion was a major issue. A group of leading Protestant clergymen had a conference at the Waldorf Astoria, which they called the Conference on Religious Freedom, which was to discuss the presidential election, because they thought religious freedom was at stake if a Roman Catholic became president. In fact, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, did not have such positive thoughts about Kennedy and said something like, "I'm not saying that we should be opposed to his election, I'm just saying it would be a different country if he were elected." To which Kennedy said, "He could have been complimenting me."

Richard Nixon, Kennedy's opponent, piously said, "I am not going to raise the religion issue." To demonstrate his sincerity, he said that in every state. So, of course it was out there. We would see hate mail coming into the office; we would see people holding up anti-Catholic signs on the campaign trail, along the routes of the motorcade. Finally, in what I have to assume was an annual meeting, the Houston Protestant ministers invited Kennedy and Nixon to come speak to them. Nixon shrewdly declined, saying he was busy. I remember the discussion, which Robert Kennedy, who was [his brother's] campaign manager, joined. We decided that we had no wish to avoid [the issue], bury it, or ignore it. We needed to take this on.

The President of the American Unitarian Association issued a statement on Kennedy's death on how much he had meant to freedom of religion and free speech in this country. That was an extraordinary thing for a Unitarian to say about a Catholic politician. Kennedy was clearly more than a Catholic politician.

What are some of the Unitarian principles in Kennedy's speeches?

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.

Did your family go to church?

My father had been a Unitarian ever since his change of fortune that I describe in the book. My mother was born and raised Jewish, even though, for one reason or another, she was no longer an observant Jew. She went to church most of the time, probably not as regularly as my father. All five children went to church. After I was too old to go to Sunday school, I went to church.

Did the minister talk about God?


Was he more of a humanist?

Very much so.

Why do you not refer to yourself as a Unitarian Universalist?

I grew up a Unitarian, and I still am a Unitarian. I'm sure Universalists are equally wonderful.

Why are you not a current member of a church?

Before I lost effective use of my eyes, every Sunday morning I would play tennis. And I justify this when people ask me by saying, "It's OK because tennis goes back to the Bible." When they challenge that, I say, "Of course. There's a passage in the Bible: ‘Joseph served in Pharaoh's court.'"

I thought that it was one of the basic tenets of Unitarianism that "the whole world is my church." Look at the view out this window. What church could possibly be as beautiful as that?

[Ruth Sorensen Singer:] We didn't have church over the summer because it was a small church, and the minister got time off. But when I was around 10 years old, someone asked me, "How come you don't go to church in the summer?" And I said, "The minister needs time off." And they asked, "Don't you need God during the summer?" And I said, "I guess we don't need God in the winter, either."

Did you ever have any problems as a Unitarian working with a Roman Catholic?

No problem whatsoever. Fortunately, he did not go along with the Catholic hierarchy's position on church and state. He was opposed to federal funds for parochial schools. In those days, abortion was not a big issue. It was the days before Roe v. Wade. There was no big political debate about abortion. There was a modest debate about population control. And he was the first president of the U.S. to support U.N. funding for population control.

It sounds like Kennedy had character.

Yes, he did. And in many, broader senses of the word, he was a humanist because he looked to human beings to solve problems caused by human beings.

Are you concerned about the weakening of the divide between church and state?

I'm very worried about it. And I strongly disagree with it. It's so ironic that the religious right in those days opposed Kennedy because they said if a Catholic is elected president then members of the clergy might influence public policy. And a priest or a clergyman might even tell his parishioners how to vote, which is all going on now. From the very same quarters that were attacking Kennedy—from the religious right.

You support [Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack] Obama?

Very much so.

You have said that you see parallels between his being black and Kennedy's Catholicism.

I certainly do. We'll find out if being black is even a bigger obstacle than being Catholic. It might be bigger; people don't admit to their prejudices and bigotry.

Is eloquence still appreciated?

I hope so. It's words that enable a president of the U.S. to galvanize support in the country, to mobilize support in the Congress, and to attract support from our allies and others around the world. Kennedy was respected and indeed revered in many countries of the world because you could tell from his words, his statements, his speeches, his positions, that he was a man with a good heart and compassion, and wanted peace. Yes, I think words matter a great deal.

Is it too late for a Kennedy to galvanize the country?

I don't know why it should be. It requires remarkable leadership. Attitudes in this country are largely set at the top. Now we have a president who, with his cronies, has dumbed down governing and speeches, and it's not surprising that for some time the public has not had someone who could elevate their sights. That's what Kennedy did: He lifted up the sights of the American people. He didn't speak down to them. Another chap might do it again. I think Obama might just be that kind of president.

Kennedy seemed to have a special appeal to youth.

Nobody that young had ever run for president before. He appealed to the young. In part because his ideas were fresh and new, offering change and hope. And Bobby Kennedy likewise. I think it was the combination of those two deaths and Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.]'s death that added to the disillusionment of young people along with Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate. They became cynical, and no candidate had any particular appeal to them. Obama is bringing them back in, and I think that's very important and healthy for the country. Most of the activism is going to come from young people.

What do you think of churches supplying more and more social services?

It's fine as long as it's not with federal or other public taxpayers' funds. Because it's impossible for those churches to do it in a way that does not proselytize for new members in their churches, and taxpayer funds should not be used for that purpose. In terms of churches opening shelters and kitchens for the poor and things like that, good! When I was a young man working for civil rights, I looked to churches for a lot of the help I got in those days when civil rights was not a popular issue.

Kennedy seemed to favor a strong role for the executive branch.

He was in favor of a president who leads. He recognized that presidents could make it a better world and a better country. He felt it was their obligation to do that, and if that encourages presidents who are less competent and more right wing in their ideology to also be strong presidents and lead us in the wrong direction citing Kennedy, then yes, I do worry about that. I was worried when [George W.] Bush and Condoleezza Rice invoked Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis when they favored a unilateral invasion of Iraq, which was the last thing in the world Kennedy would have done.

Was Kennedy against war?

He had served in the war and had seen his brother and two of his best friends killed in the war. Although he was elected in part because he was a war hero, he was very antiwar. He was the commander in chief of the greatest military force in the world, maybe in the history of the entire world, and as Bush and even Clinton discovered, it's so tempting to say, "I've got all this military power; of course, I'll use it." Kennedy never invaded anybody.

What advantages has Unitarianism given you?

Unitarians know how to be skeptical; they're skeptics by nature. Unitarians know how to ask questions—hard, tough questions—and that's very important in a complicated world in which we now live.

And yet, in the book you describe yourself as an optimist.

I don't see any inconsistency between skepticism and optimism. You'll have a hard time knocking either one of them out of me.

What does freedom of religion mean to you?

Freedom of religion in this country is freedom to go to the church of your choice but also go to no church at all. I don't mind when children are asked to recite the Lord's Prayer at school. As my sister said, she could never keep it straight whether she was apologizing for her sins or her trespasses. Therefore I don't mind that the U.S. Senate opens with a prayer and things of that sort. There are some people who think that separation of church and state means being anti-religious. I'm not anti-religious. If we're all going to get along in one country, even Unitarians have to be reasonable.

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