Saturday, January 7, 2012

Politics, Religion, And The Nixon Covenant

In this post on some Christians' opposition to Mitt Romney on the basis of religion, I left off what I thought. This morning a couple of smart Facebook friends called me out. First, a buddy from Andover:
Half my ancestors are Mormon, going back to the beginning of the church. It is entirely legitimate to question the judgment of someone who enthusiastically participates in a fantasy based on an obvious fraud, concocted to feed the appetites for power and sex of the founders. And I don't just mean the GOP.
In reply, an Episcopal church friend:
I remember when I was a child and JFK was running for President. The “Protestant” fear was that if a Roman Catholic was elected, the Pope would rule America. Maybe the same people who are so critical about separation of church and state can now find some comfort in it.
I wrote:
You have [cogently] set the goalposts of a debate that will almost inevitably occur if Romney is nominated. I defer to [my first friend's] personal insights and confess to some concerns about the tenets of Mormonism. Of course [Christopher] Hitchens felt the same about orthodox Christianity. [The Episcopal] church has rightly been stressing comity among the three Abrahamic faiths. Any proponents of that view, who would naturally and correctly aver that there would be nothing wrong with electing a Jew or a Muslim, would, I assume, want to take the same view about a Mormon. In the end, the only way to avoid a descent into sheer chaos is to respect the covenant we've reached about a religion test that [my second friend] described.
As I wrote that, I imagined someone saying, "What covenant is that, and when did I sign it?" Hold onto your prayer books, because it was written by Richard Nixon, and it's stood all these years. The question is whether it will survive 2012.

Nixon's covenant was a promise he made to himself and the country and courageously kept throughout one of the closest campaigns in history. As the the GOP nominee in 1960, he said he wouldn't make John F. Kennedy's Roman Catholicism an issue. In Nixon's own words, from the third of their four debates:
[A]s far as religion is concerned, I have seen Communism abroad. I see what it does. Communism is the enemy of all religions; and we who do believe in God must join together. We must not be divided on this issue. The worst thing that I can think can happen in this campaign would be for it to be decided on religious issues. I obviously repudiate the Klan; I repudiate anybody who uses the religious issue; I will not tolerate it, I have ordered all of my people to have nothing to do with it and I say to this great audience, whoever may be listening, remember, if you believe in America, if you want America to set the right example to the world, that we cannot have religious or racial prejudice. We cannot have it in our hearts. But we certainly cannot have it in a presidential campaign.
Nixon was ideally positioned to enunciate and enforce this principle. A Yorba Linda and Whittier Quaker and a deep introvert besides, most of his theological inquiry and conversation with the divine was interior. He was a skeptic about the bodily Resurrection of Christ. He loved upbeat preachers such Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and Robert Schuller, but he wasn't a consistent churchgoer. In the White House, his interfaith services were a model that liberal seminaries would have been proud to borrow.

His faith may have deepened late in life. I worked for him from 1979 until his death in 1994. In the 1980s, when I was his chief of staff, he talked a lot about his philosophical reading. I regret that I never had a chance to ask what he thought about my call to ordained ministry. I couldn’t have, since it occurred in part because of professional and personal turmoil after he died. But he made a telling eschatological prediction not long after Mrs. Nixon’s funeral in 1993, when I was meeting with him and a potential library contributor in his New Jersey office. The man, from Japan, diplomatically mentioned a possible gift. Nixon said, “Mrs. Nixon would be pleased.” He paused and added quietly, “Is pleased.”

Still, the free-thinking Nixon probably wouldn't have been mainstream American Protestants' first choice to negotiate the terms of their political engagement with Roman Catholicism. And yet his rule has essentially been followed for a half-century. Outside of reporting about the narrative of the candidates' lives, religion rarely came up, for instance, when Mormon George Romney was preparing to run in 1968 or born-again Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter ran and won in 1976.

The boldest challenge to the Nixon covenant came from the right in 2008, when Fox News and others smeared Barack Obama with the extreme views of his United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I can understand those who said that Wright opened the door with his harsh denunciations of U.S. policy. But any systematic effort to load a religious leader's baggage onto a parishioner-candidate's back would shatter the Nixon covenant -- and more candidacies than one might at first think.

Many politicians, for instance, have sought the counsel of Billy Graham as well as the PR benefit of associating with him. He served as a gracious officiant at President and and Mrs. Nixon's funerals, which I oversaw at the Nixon library. In June 1993, as he and I waited alone in the lobby for the family to arrive with Mrs. Nixon's casket, I asked what he was up to. He said he had just decided to sell his memoirs to Rupert Murdoch's publishing company, though he’d been reluctant at first because of the risqué photos that appeared in some of Murdoch’s London tabloids. “But then I realized,” Graham said, “that those photographs are actually inducements so that his working class readers will have the opportunity to encounter a good conservative editorial message.”

I asked if he thought that anything would come along to reverse the general decline in cultural standards that had become so glaringly obvious.

“Why, yes,” he said.

“What will it be, in your opinion?” I said.

“Armageddon,” he said.

According to Fox News' Jeremiah Wright rule, a reporter would have the right to ask all candidates who are friendly with preachers who believe as Graham does whether they agree that the Almighty LORD was about to send his avenging angels to smite the world in its wickedness. "Will that be in your first or second term?" the reporter might ask. "Aren't those views indistinguishable from Ahmadinejad's? How will your belief in the imminent end times affect your decisions about how to use military power?"

You see where that leads. Here are more examples of what could happen to conservatives and progressives alike if we hold each other accountable for our religious views. Mitt Romney may well believe he'll get a planet when he dies, maybe two if he's really good. But we still need the Nixon covenant, now more than ever.

1 comment:

DJC said...

Nixon said, “Mrs. Nixon would be pleased.” He paused and added quietly, “Is pleased.

I'm glad you shared this quote Mr. Taylor, it says a great deal about how much Pat meant to him. I'm sure they're together again.

Those of us who admire President Nixon and his wife, who buy the books and histories, we really enjoy reading some little anecdote or insight into their lives. Especially when it comes from those who knew them and cared for them.

More people who actually knew President Nixon should share their experiences, before they're lost and the accurate image is overwhelmed by fabrications.