A shorter version of this appeared in at least one local newspaper
; the longer version may come out in the C-J
on Sunday and will come out in the Indiana Policy Review's journal next quarter. Enjoy!
marks the 50th anniversary of the death of three highly influential
people: Aldous Huxley, John F. Kennedy, and C.S. Lewis. Kennedy—in his life and
especially in his death—is the most famous of the trio. But all three had an impressive
impact during their lives and in the decades since.
All three have ancestral
roots in Great Britain:
Kennedy was a third-generation Irishmen; Lewis was born in Ireland and lived in England;
Huxley was from England.
Kennedy was a war hero whose family connections, wealth, and political
aspirations led to holding office in the U.S. House, the Senate, and the White
House. His assassination at age 46 is considered one of the most memorable
moments in 20th century American history. Huxley and Lewis lived
into their 60’s, didn’t have memorable deaths, and are not as well known—but
have arguably had a bigger influence on the world.
Huxley was an author whose
most famous novel, Brave New World,
is routinely rated in the Top 100 of all time. Brave New World covers topics from eugenics to a State-enforced
class system, from the massive use of prescription drugs to euthanasia. Alongside
George Orwell’s dystopian novels, Animal
Farm and 1984, Orwell and Huxley
have served as prophets of a technological, totalitarian, and bureaucratic society.
The thoughts behind these books have influenced generations of readers in a way
that is difficult to measure.
Lewis was a Literature
professor whose prolific writing ranged from academic to popular. He used a
wide variety of genres: children’s literature, science fiction, allegory,
poetry, and non-fiction Christian “apologetics”. Recently, his work has been a
significant player in pop culture. Max McLean has had a long and successful run
with his one-man play version of Screwtape
Letters. Some of Lewis’ Chronicles of
Narnia—a seven-book series that combines a children’s story with strong Christian
references—has been the subject of high-budget films. (The first was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.) Narnia
has been a staple of family reading for decades, selling more than 100 million
Lewis’ books on apologetics are
more popular than ever. From the “modern” logical approach of Mere Christianity to the “post-modern”
narrative approach of The Great Divorce,
Lewis showed remarkable literary range as he tried to make the Christian faith
reasonable and compelling—for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Lewis’ emphasis
on “mere” Christianity is also important—focusing on the “mere” essentials of
the faith, with its resulting pluralism and strong but broadly-defined unity.
The religious views of all
three men were also interesting. I became aware of this coincidence of deaths
through a neat little book by Peter Kreeft, Between
Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death. Kreeft writes as if
recording a discussion between the three as they await Judgment. For Kreeft,
Lewis represents biblical Christianity; Kennedy represents “cultural
Christianity” or a tepid Deism; and Huxley represents a combination of
agnosticism and pantheism.
As for Kennedy, beyond his
status as a historical figure and a cultural touchstone, his political impact was
also significant. From one angle, we can see echoes of Kennedy in Ronald
Reagan’s presidency. Both were effective with television and popular with the
general public. And Kennedy’s muscular (if not always effective) anti-communist
foreign policy and “supply-side” economics served as pre-cursors to Reagan’s
Kennedy reduced corporate
income tax rates and cut personal income tax rates dramatically across the
board. (Kennedy reduced the top tax bracket from 91% to 70%; Reagan then reduced
it from 70% to 28%.) As Reagan, Kennedy noted that in the presence of high tax
rates, “the soundest way to raise revenue in the long term is to lower rates”.
Likewise, Kennedy’s most famous
inaugural address line—“ask not what your country can do for you”—points to
fiscal conservatism and relatively small government, at least by today’s
standards. Tellingly, in a December 1958 TV interview, Eleanor Roosevelt said
that she would do all she could do to prevent a “conservative like Kennedy”
from being the party’s nominee. In these arenas, Kennedy’s distance from the
bulk of today’s Democratic Party is noteworthy.
But in other ways, Kennedy was a precursor
for those who led the charge for larger government and greater Executive Branch
power. Using techniques made famous by subsequent presidents, JFK (allegedly)
got the IRS and the FBI to target and wiretap groups that were hostile to his
In a speech to the National
Press Club as he campaigned for President in 1960, Kennedy argued against “a
restricted concept of the presidency”. Instead, a president “must be prepared
to exercise the fullest powers of his office — all that are specified and some
that are not.” Kennedy imagined a president who would “build more schools” (an
interesting role for the federal government!), “be the center of moral
leadership”, and who “alone…must make the major decisions of our foreign
policy”. As such, Kennedy’s vision for a more powerful presidency governing a
more expansive government has been prophetic as well.
As we observe November 22nd, we should
give consideration to the work of all three men. Kennedy’s short presidency
left a mixed legacy and his assassination is still the subject of
sensationalism. But the lives of Huxley and Lewis have a more enduring legacy
that should receive more careful reflection.