Editor’s note: The following essay is part of a speech delivered by David L. Holmes, church historian and author of “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.” Dr. Holmes provided the essay to The Press because this Sunday, CNN will begin airing a special series on the life of Richard M. Nixon called “Tricky Dick.”
In corresponding with Press editor Mike Patrick, Dr. Holmes wrote: “[Nixon] was always interested in religion, read widely in the field after retirement, and was the first president in a century and a half to hold Sunday services in the White House. Yet secretly he denied the divinity of Christ and was essentially a non-theistic Unitarian from his 21st year on.”
Here’s more information about the nation’s 37th president that you might not know.
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Richard Milhaus Nixon was raised a Quaker. The Religious Society of Friends (or “Quakers”) emerged from the left, or radical, wing of the Puritan movement in England. The Puritans attempted to “purify” the Church of England from what they considered unbiblical beliefs and practices.
And the Quakers were the Puritans of the Puritans. They didn’t just remove things that Christianity had added in the Middle Ages. Instead, they eliminated all clergy, sermons, liturgy, sacraments, and creeds. In their place, they emphasized the direct revelation of Jesus Christ within each individual. And because they believed Christianity had become the vassal of secular government, they also opposed not only military service but also social hierarchies and titles.
Originally, Quakers worshiped silently. Silence was broken only when members felt prompted by the Spirit to speak. Yet religious movements pick up new ideas. And in the 19th century, some American Quakers embraced revivalism and evangelicalism. These reinvented meetings continued to emphasize plainness and pacifism, but to traditional Quakerism they added structured worship, clergy, music, organs, choirs, Sunday schools, and even revivals.
Richard Nixon’s background lay in this evangelical wing of Quakerism. In California, his home church was fundamentalist. It opposed dancing. It worshipped like an evangelical church. And during World War II only two of the church’s male members declared themselves conscientious objectors.
Nixon was born in 1913, the second of five boys. The family lived 30 miles east of LA in the Quaker town of Whittier. On his mother’s side, Nixon’s ancestors had been orthodox, evangelical Quakers for over 200 years.
Nixon’s father, Frank, had been raised in the emotional “shouting” days of Methodism. Upon marrying Hannah Milhous, he converted to her evangelical Quaker faith—but he never lost his impassioned approach to Christianity. In Whittier, the elder Nixon ran a general store and gas station, and his sons worked there.
Writer after writer has depicted Nixon’s childhood as troubled. And biographers do seem correct that something scarred his character—but it’s almost impossible to determine what it was. Biographers from the left and right agree that he was insecure, socially awkward, and unable to trust. He had difficulty looking people in the eye, difficulty showing affection. Nixon’s college debate coach remembered that “There was something mean in him. . . [mean in the way he] argued his points. . . .”
Nixon also had no close friends throughout life—something that particularly bothered Dwight Eisenhower. Three members of Nixon’s presidential staff—not one, as often written, but three—declared that he was “the strangest man I ever met.”
When he entered politics, Nixon tended, as politicians will, to adopt an “us” versus “them” mentality. As the years went on, he simply had to defeat or to avenge himself against so-called “enemies” by any means possible. And throughout life the number of people he considered enemies grew.
In Whittier the life of the Nixon family revolved around work, education, and religion. The family held daily prayers. On Sundays they sometimes went to church four times. The father took the family to revivals. And at one revival in the 1920s, the family walked forward and committed themselves to Christ.
And in school Nixon was an excellent student. When he was president, foreign leader after foreign leader expressed admiration for his intelligence. As a high-school senior, he received a small scholarship to Harvard, but the family could not afford the remaining expenses. Not going to Harvard was a blow to a small-town boy with dreams.
Instead, Nixon enrolled—with some bitterness—in Whittier College, an evangelical Quaker school. And there, despite not being especially popular, he held high class offices.
And in his senior year, Nixon enrolled in a two-semester course that introduced students to modern developments in religious thought. And remarkably, Nixon’s papers in Yorba Linda contain the twelve essays he wrote for that course.
And they are a treasure trove! The dozen essays display the changes that had occurred by age twenty-one to Nixon’s fundamentalism. In one essay, for example, Nixon writes:
“My parents . . . had ground into me, with the aid of the church, all the fundamental idea. . . . The infallibility of the Bible, the miracles, even the whale story, all these I [believed] when I entered college. . . .
Many of those childhood ideas have been destroyed, but . . . some I cannot bring myself to drop. . . . I still believe that God is the Creator, the first cause . . . [but] I am no longer a “seven day-er!”. . .
“[College] has taught me that the Bible. . . is a work of man and consequently has . . . mistakes.”
In another essay, Nixon declares:
“The important fact is that Jesus lived and taught a life so perfect that he continued to live and grow after his death in the hearts of men. . . . The Resurrection story. . . symbolically. . . teaches. . .that men who achieve the highest values in their lives may gain immortality.”
This college course marks a defining moment in Nixon’s spiritual life. After that, he seems to have remained a believer in a personal God—but his private beliefs broke with orthodox Christianity. Since these essentially Unitarian views might have had a negative effect on his electability, he never revealed them to others.
Eleven years before his death, Nixon was interviewed by a journalist who had read the Whittier papers. And Nixon said that he had not changed those college convictions. He continued to believe, he said, that “one can be a good Christian without necessarily believing in the physical resurrection.”
After Whittier, Nixon attended Duke Law School. Three years later when he practiced law in Whittier, he continued to attend the Friends church. In 1940 he married Patricia Ryan (a teacher). After the war broke out, he worked in Washington, and then accepted a Navy commission.
During naval service, Nixon read and reread the Bible. After the war, he was elected to Congress, then to the Senate, and then to the vice presidency. In 1960 he ran for the presidency.
In Washington, the Nixons attended Presbyterian and Methodist churches. When he practiced law in Manhattan, he worshiped at Marble Collegiate Church—the same Manhattan church Donald Trump later attended. And despite his private beliefs, Nixon later had the closest of spiritual relationships with the evangelical Billy Graham.
Today church historians remember Richard Nixon best for the services of worship he held in the White House. There was a Quaker meeting house relatively close to the White House. But Nixon took office in 1969, when opposition to the Vietnam War was erupting.
And the congregation of that silent meeting was vigorously anti-war. Nixon’s advisors concluded that on Sunday after Sunday its members would arise and denounce his handling of the war. After all, it persisted until 1973. Ultimately the Nixon staff decided to bring Sunday services into the White House.
These services continued in the East Room until Gerald Ford became president. The staff or Nixon would invite a minister, rabbi, or priest to preach. A church or synagogue choir would receive an invitation to sing.
Usually the guests would be affluent political contributors, but some staff members and ordinary voters would also be included. Nixon would open each service with welcoming remarks. The service would end with a reception hosted by the President.
The Secret Service and Nixon’s staff liked this arrangement. It was supervised, convenient, and safe. But to theologically trained observers, there were serious problems stemming from Scripture.
The story of Kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat in the book of First Kings contains a specific warning against hired prophets. In the story, Ahab wants to fight a war, but Jehoshaphat is leery of joining in. The two ask the advice of the prophets who live in Ahab’s palace and eat daily from his table. As usual, the prophets tell Ahab what he wants to hear. Only one prophet does not, and he lives outside the palace. Ahab says he “hates him.” The next day the two kings go into battle where they are killed.
Rabbinical and Christian tradition has long interpreted the episode to mean that prophets are mandated by God not to eat from the table of a ruler. Because if they do, few genuinely prophetic words will issue from their lips. From the time of the Emperor Constantine through the 16th century, Christianity neglected this teaching. Monarchies had chapels and chaplains. But the Left Wing of the Reformation—churches such as the Mennonites and Quakers—emphasized it.
And the President or his staff did not select preachers for the White House services who were viewed as “unsafe.”As a result, the clerics who came preached sermons that often praised the president and his policies.
Probably there are several ways to evaluate these White House services. It could be that they caused the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the deaf to hear. But one thing does seem clear: At the height of the carnage of the Vietnam War, these services of worship brought no new ethical perspective, no moral challenge, no breaking-in of a new point of view to the President of the United States.
And so the war raged on, and the body count grew. In 1972, Nixon won a landslide victory over a Democratic peace candidate. But only two years later, he became the first American president to resign from office. And in August, 1974, Gerald Ford assumed the presidency of a deeply divided nation.
In retirement, ex-President Nixon read widely in religious and philosophical writing. In 1983, when an interviewer asked whether he believed that “there is a God who watches over you,” Nixon replied, “Oh, yes.” When the interviewer asked “[A God] who watches the things that you do,” Nixon replied, “Absolutely. . . absolutely. . . Oh, yes.”
But Nixon’s wife Pat apparently lost her faith. At her funeral in 1993, not one of her four eulogists—which included Billy Graham—mentioned any religious or spiritual dimension to her life. Her life as Richard Nixon’s wife was, clearly, tough.
Most people who knew Richard Nixon did see him as strongly influenced by Quakerism. But in his views of war, in his habitual profanity, in his anti-Semitism, in his prevarications, and in his vindictiveness, he departed in major ways from his religious heritage. The White House tapes are . . . well, you can read them for yourself. “One day we will get them,” one tape records President Nixon saying about political opponents: “We’ll stick our heels in, step on them hard, and twist.”
The Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation have caused many Americans to view his presidency as a failure. But those six years also witnessed notable achievements. They witnessed significant reforms in welfare, in energy, in weaponry, in civil rights, and in employment policy. Nixon normalized relations with China. He also established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In 1994, Nixon died of a stroke and was buried beside his wife at Yorba Linda. “I think he was one of the most misunderstood men,” Billy Graham said before the funeral, “and I think he was one of the greatest men of the century.”