JFK’s Speech to the Houston Ministerial Association:
An Analysis of Audience
Rhetoric is a concept that can be tricky to define. Some define rhetoric as “the study of all the processes by which people influence each other through symbols” (Campbell and Huxman xviii). Larson chooses to define rhetoric as “the use of persuasion” (11). If rhetoric is a person’s attempt to persuade or influence, then rhetoric must be addressed to an audience. A skilled rhetor is able to analyze his or her audience, and skillfully craft the rhetorical piece to most effectively achieve the desired result. At first glance, it may appear that a rhetor is addressing a single audience, all those to who hear or read the rhetorical act. Closer examination, however, shows that the rhetor is addressing up to four audiences with the same rhetorical act: the empirical audience, the target audience, the created audience, and the agents of change. On September 12, 1960, before the Houston Ministerial Association, John F. Kennedy gave a speech with each of these four audiences in mind.
The first audience is the empirical audience. The empirical audience is the “all those exposed to the rhetorical act” (Campbell and Huxman 192). For example, the empirical audience of a speech would be those individuals who hear the speech. The immediate empirical audience would be those individuals in attendance at the venue while the mediated empirical audience is those who will hear the speech through another mediated channel such as television, radio, or the internet. When examining the empirical audience, it is important to keep in mind the context in which the rhetorical act is taking place as well as the rhetor’s relationship to the audience.
Kennedy, like many speakers, addresses the immediate audience with a thank-you in the opening line of his speech. The immediate audience was the Houston Ministerial Association, an organization made up of Protestant ministers. Being his party’s presidential nominee, he makes sure to not offend the empirical audience as he gives his speech. He does this by expressing gratitude for their “generous invitation” (1). Many of the men present at the association’s meeting had likely expressed concerns about having a Catholic president so Kennedy wanted to begin the speech in a positive way. When he points out the “the real issues have in this campaign have been obscured” (4) he adds that some had done so intentionally although by those in “quarters less responsible than this” (4). This statement likely would not have offended those present, but Kennedy would have clearly been challenging those in attendance to not intentionally obscure the issues further. In this way, Kennedy was able to speak generally to the empirical audience that was present.
The next audience that Kennedy spoke to was his target audience. “Rhetorical acts are designed to reach people with certain characteristics” (Campbell and Huxman 193). These people make up what is known as the target audience. The target audience may include all or none of the members of the empirical audience. While it may seem that a rhetor is addressing everyone who will listen, this is almost never the case even in epideictic rhetorical acts. For example, a eulogy may not appear to target any particular audience; the speaker, however, actually has the grieving friends and family of the deceased in mind, and his humorous stories are meant to provide them comfort. It is important when analyzing any piece of rhetoric to identify the rhetor’s target audience.
Kennedy’s target audience was those who were hesitant about voting for him because he was a Catholic. This becomes apparent when Kennedy said, “So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again-not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in” (4). This statement, which appears to be the thesis for the entire speech, speaks to a concern that many voters had. His goal in the speech is to shift focus from his religion to his commitment to his country as evidenced by his repeated use of the phrase “I believe in an America” (5, 6, 8). This focus would not have been necessary for those in the audience who did not consider his Catholicism an issue when casting their vote. His target audience likely included people in his mediated audience as well. Kennedy would have been well aware that news sources would spread his message to those outside of the immediate audience. Knowing this, Kennedy was able to speak to many Americans who had concerns about the way his religious beliefs would affect his national policies.
The next audience a rhetor seeks to speak to is his or her created audience. The created audience is formed when the rhetor invites the audience to “play roles and take on one or more personas” (Campbell and Huxman 193). Rhetors seek to change the attitudes and actions of the audience by creating scenarios the audience can participate in. By feeling like they are part of something important or by imagining themselves in a different role, the audience begins to better understand the rhetor’s message. For example, many charity organizations invite potential donors to see themselves as a part of the brotherhood of all men. This links the potential donor with the recipients of the charities efforts and will likely make the donor more willing to give.
During his speech to the HMA, Kennedy speaks to his created audience to convince the members that his Catholicism should not be an issue in the campaign. Kennedy invites his audience to identify with himself and take on the role of someone being denied his rights as an American because of his religious convictions. Kennedy states: “For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and my someday be again, a Jew-or a Quaker-or a Unitarian-or a Baptist…Today, I may be the victim-but tomorrow it may be you” (7). He is telling his audience to imagine their roles being reversed. Kennedy creates an audience of potential victims. He argues that this victimization will continue until “the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril” (7). By creating an audience of victims, Kennedy is able to reframe the question as one of national security and not just one man’s run for the White House.
In addition to the created audience of potential victims, Kennedy also invites his audience to play the role of faithful American. Throughout the speech, he takes on the persona of the patriot concerned about the well being of his country. As stated previously, he does this through the use of the phrase “I believe in an America” (5, 6, 8) as well as speaking about his time in the service (12). The invitation for the audience to join him in this role comes when he uses words like “our” in paragraphs 13 and 22. Kennedy is uses this plural pronoun to create his audience of faithful Americans by portraying himself as a patriot concerned only for the well-being of his country and then identifying his audience with himself.
The final audience to look at is known as the agents of change. The agents of change are the members of the audience who “have the capacity to do what [the rhetor] desires” (Campbell and Huxman 193). The agents of change have the power, money, or resources to follow through with action after being persuaded by the rhetor. Businesses advertise most to audience who will potentially use their product. For example, a high-end jewelry store is unlikely to place a billboard in a low income neighborhood. The residents would not be able to afford the jewelry sold by the store so they would not be agents of change.
Voters are the agents of change that Kennedy addresses in his speech. He most clearly targets them when he says, “I ask you tonight to follow in that tradition” (14) of judging politicians on their stances on political issues rather than religious issues. He also states: “And I hope that you and I condemn with equal fervor those nations which deny their Presidency to Protestants and those which deny it to Catholics” (16). These statements call the hearers to take action by not allowing Kennedy’s religious beliefs to affect the way they vote. Because they are agents of change, it is important for Kennedy to convince them to do this.
Kennedy was a skilled rhetor who was able to target his audience in a way that was appropriate and effective. When confronting the issue of his religious beliefs, he was able to craft a speech that was able to change the minds, and possibly the votes, of those in the audience. It is not likely that he became president because of this single speech, but had he not given it then it is possible he would not have been elected. Kennedy spoke to the members of his target audience and those agents of change who were present to achieve his goal- having a fair chance in his run for the presidency.
Effective rhetors analyze their audience and craft their rhetorical acts to best suit that audience. They are able to speak to the empirical, target, and created audiences and to the agents of change to accomplish their goals. It becomes evident that many times the same person may be part of all four of these audiences. When analyzing rhetoric it is important to keep in mind the overlap, for example, of the target audience and the agents of change. By analyzing the audience, one can further understand the intentions of the rhetor and the effectiveness of the rhetorical act.
Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs, and Susan Schultz Huxman. The Rhetorical Act. 4th ed. Australia:
Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.
Kennedy, John F. Campaign speech. Houston Ministerial Association. Houston, TX. September
Larson, Charles U. Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility. 11th ed. Australia: Thomson