Richard Nixon and American Religion

The Christian Century, May 11, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Richard Nixon and American Religion


Evangelist Billy Graham, pastor to presidents and a friend of Richard Nixon since 1950, says he is confident that "history will be generous" toward the former president. "From the very beginning of our friendship, I realized he had one of the most brilliant minds I was ever to know," Graham declared in a statement issued from Los Angeles April 23, the day after Nixon died.

In his six-paragraph statement, Graham characterized Nixon as "a man of genuine faith, rooted simply in the teachings and prayers of his devout Quaker mother." Graham said that with Nixon's death "the world has lost a great citizen, America has lost a great statesman, and I have lost a great personal friend." Nixon, he added, "had no peer" in foreign affairs. The evangelist's statement did not mention the Watergate scandal which drove Nixon from office and made him the only president to resign.

Graham, who has close ties to Christian missionary work in China, predicted that Nixon will be remembered for inaugurating a new era in U.S.-China relations. "Even in my own work I turned to him frequently for advice, especially about my trips to Eastern Europe, China, and more recently, North Korea," Graham said.

Graham was introduced to Nixon while Nixon was still a member of Congress from California, and the two men developed a friendship that endured over the years. Graham was chosen to give the invocation at Nixon's first inauguration in 1969, and the evangelist and his wife stayed with the Nixons during their first night in the White House. Graham also helped Nixon initiate the practice of Sunday worship services in the White House. Twenty-six such services, which drew criticism from across the religious spectrum, were held during the first two years of his presidency. Nixon, a Quaker, said he wanted the services to remind the administration that "we feel God's presence here, and that we seek his guidance here."

Over the years of his public service some of Nixon's most persistent critics came from the religious community. Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, citing Nixon's abuse of power, called for his impeachment a full six months before he finally resigned in August 1974. Even before he introduced articles of impeachment against Nixon, Robert Drinan, a Roman Catholic priest and former Massachusetts congressman who served as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, made the infamous White House "enemies list" for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam war.

Two other clergymen also made the list: Eugene Carson Blake, then general secretary of the World Council of Churches, and Ralph Abernathy, then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And though he didn't make the list, ethicist and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr raised the ire of the White House when, in one of his last major articles, he warned that the White House worship services were an inappropriate mix of religion and secular power.

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