Q&A: Finding Richard Nixon's faith in a legacy of scandal
Posted May 31
Pained by protests over an unpopular military campaign in Cambodia and fatal protests at Kent State University, Richard Nixon couldn't sleep. He called for his valet, suggesting a drive to the Lincoln Memorial.
Once there, the president met angry students gearing up for another day of demonstrations. He tried to connect with them, to share stories from his college days. Their anger deflated him, but he wasn't yet ready to return to the White House.
Instead, Nixon headed to the Capitol building, where another emotional encounter awaited him. A cleaning lady asked him to autograph her Bible, reminding him of the woman who softened his sharp edges.
"My mother read her Bible and my mother was a saint," he said.
Nixon's mother, while cold and demanding, was also the most important influence on his religious life. Her Quaker faith shaped his earliest worldview, turning him into a man who strove for peace, even while embracing aggressive political tactics.
"From his mother, he came away with a really classic Quaker hunger for peace. That was his really good side," said John A. Farrell, author of a new Nixon biography, "Richard Nixon: The Life" (Doubleday, $35).
By the time he was in the White House, first as vice president and then as president from 1969 to 1974, Nixon was mostly secular, viewing religious leaders as political allies rather than spiritual guides. He turned to a priest and rabbi for public support during Watergate, and preferred to speak with famed evangelist Billy Graham about politics instead of the state of his soul.
In this behavior, Nixon is not alone. President Donald Trump is awkward in attempts to address his personal faith, but enjoys enormous support among white evangelical voters.
Nixon's legacy will always be dominated by scandal, from his misuse of political contributions as vice president to the Watergate break-in and coverup. And yet digging into his religious life is a reminder that this man was more than just the sum of his failures, Farrell said. His Quaker background never left him, appearing as he autographed a Bible that morning or prayed with Henry Kissinger the night before Nixon resigned.
Farrell spoke with us about Nixon's religious background, tracing the ways Quakerism informed his political career. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe Nixon's religious upbringing?
He himself described it as quite rigid.
His mother was part of a large Quaker family in the Quaker town of Whittier, California. These Western Quakers were slightly different from the Eastern branch of the faith. As they moved westward, they adopted more of the trappings of mainstream Protestantism.
Pastors spoke from pulpits. In original, eastern Quaker rites, the congregation sits in a very plain room and speaks as the spirit moves them.
For the Nixons, there was church on Sunday and Sunday School, as well as an afternoon meeting for the youths and teenagers. There was also one or two additional church events during the week. In general, the family's social life revolved around the church. Young Dick sang in the choir and was an accomplished musician.
Nixon was raised with very orthodox beliefs. When one of his younger brothers died of meningitis, it was a great tragedy for the family. His father came away with the idea that the family was being punished because his father kept his small grocery store open on Sundays.
However, in college, Nixon opened up his vistas considerably. He arrived believing that all the biblical stories were literally true, but then learned about evolution, relativity and Marxism.
He took a philosophy of religion course, during which he kept a running diary of his thoughts and beliefs. By the end of the semester, he'd deconstructed his religious beliefs and rebuilt them.
From reading the diary, I'd call him vaguely deist. He thought there was a spirit that runs and pervades the universe, but not some guy with a white beard that you could beg for intercession and who would either punish you or reward you.
However, he was still concerned about his family. When he ran to be student president in college, he asked his aunts if they would be upset if he ran on the platform of allowing dancing on campus. He figured it was better to have students dancing in their socks on the gym floor rather than going to some roadhouse.
He left college still believing in Christ's teachings and that there was this spirit. But from that point on, he wasn't, I don't believe, very spiritual. If he had a religious service at the White House, he would say it was good for public relations rather than spirituality.
How did Nixon's Quaker roots affect his politics?
Quakers are all about social justice and pacifism.
He was never a doctrinaire conservative. His great dream, which was reflected in a quote on his tombstone, was to be seen as a peacemaker.
The way he played politics, which was very aggressive and very rough, came from his father. He was always a mixture of his mother's Quakerism and his father's blowhard personality.
Did his faith also drive his early civil rights activism?
He believed in racial equality because he was a Quaker. As far as civil rights were concerned, he was amazingly ahead of his time.
As a senator, he invited his town's only prominent black resident — the shoe-shine man at the barbershop — to visit his office. He took the man and his daughter to lunch in the Senate dining room. It was legal because public accommodations had opened up recently in D.C., but it must have been quite a shock.
As vice president, Nixon went to a black journalist's home. He and Pat stayed and engaged him in conversation.
He met Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King and Kenny Washington. They were all good friends of his. Nixon had a much better record on the 1957 Civil Rights Bill than either Kennedy or Johnson.
However, things shifted during the 1960 presidential election. Nixon and Kennedy were both trying to win the Southern vote without alienating black voters.
When Martin Luther King was arrested in the closing days of the campaign, John and Robert Kennedy chose to intercede and Nixon chose not to. His campaign said, "No comment."
From that point on his ardor for civil rights cooled. And yet, he had a very good civil rights record as president. He was the chief desegregator of Southern schools.
As you noted, Nixon was an aggressive politician. Was he hard on everyone?
Throughout his life, he would do quiet, good things. When somebody in his family or community ran on hard times, he'd send them a check. He had a shut-in aunt, and he'd send her roses.
There's a funny anecdote about when he, as vice president, read in the newspaper about a little girl who was not going to have a happy Christmas. He bought a doll on the way to work and explained to his press secretary that he was going to drop off the doll after work.
His press secretary said, "Oh great! This can help your image." But Nixon replied that if even one photographer showed up, he'd (be in trouble).
Nixon had this whole other side to him that was lost on people. It was very irritating to him, so from time to time he'd clumsily try to leak something he'd done.
How did faith play into his presidential campaigns?
As vice president, he became a devotee of Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale. I think Billy Graham definitely did counsel him. Nixon had him do the funeral service when he died.
But there was an element of politics in these relationships. These were mainstream, well-known evangelical preachers who could help him politically. When he knew he was going to run for president, he wooed them and they wooed him because he was going to be the candidate.
In 1960, he was running against Kennedy, a Roman Catholic. Norman Vincent Peale said something just bigoted enough, just anti-Catholic enough for the Kennedys to make it a huge rallying point among Catholic voters.
Nixon was stuck. He could follow these (religious advisers) down an anti-Catholic path or maintain his silence. The path he took was not to make a blatant appeal for Protestant votes.
What about when he was president? Did he have spiritual advisers?
Billy Graham was his main spiritual adviser. There's some correspondence between them. The most interesting thing is they weren't talking about the mysteries of the universe. They were talking about politics and issues.
Billy Graham liked Nixon. He thought Nixon was a good, square, small-c conservative politician who would uphold religious values. There was a natural affinity there. Through Billy Graham, Nixon could appeal to evangelicals and members of other faiths.
Nixon was very straight-laced all his life. At the end of his life, one of his aides asked him about Bill Clinton. Nixon drew a square in the air and said, "This is me, and the Clintons are anything but that. They're on the other side of the culture wars."
Speaking of Clinton, he turned to faith leaders for help and advice in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. What did Nixon do during Watergate?
He turned to faith leaders, but it was for political reasons. He had a Catholic priest and rabbi as defenders during the darkest days of Watergate.
They were drawn to Nixon because he was on their side in the culture wars, not because of a deep, personal connection. Nixon was a secular man while he was president.
Did he try to build up his moral image after he resigned?
I'm mildly critical of him in the book because he could have done more.
He sulked for a few years and was very ill at first. But he never did anything like Jimmy Carter or the Clinton Foundation. Ex-presidents have the opportunity to raise money from former donors and send it to places like Africa to fight AIDs.
He wrote a lot and was self-justifying and self-excusing. He wrote a very good memoir and talks briefly about his religious upbringing. He attributes some of his beliefs to Quakerism and then doesn't talk about God at all.
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