Nixon’s First Cover-Up, The Religious Life of A Quaker President

Nixon’s First Cover-Up, The Religious Life of A Quaker President. By H. Larry Ingle. University of Missouri, 271 pages.

Reflections on a “Quaker” President Who Wasn’t Actually a Quaker

By Lon Fendall

[Note: This essay was originally presented to a panel at the 2015 American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.]

I want to first thank Stephen Angell for the invitation to be a part of the discussion of Larry Ingle’s intriguing book about Richard Nixon I regret that circumstances prevented me from being present for the discussion at AAR and appreciate Stephen being willing to present my thoughts about the book.

    There are many reasons I would be considered an “outlier” in this discussion and especially at this venue. I’m not in any sense a theologian or church historian and am grateful that those perspectives are being provided by the other panelists. My interests in the Ingle book come especially from a decade as a staff member for another Republican who had some interesting encounters with President Nixon, namely the late Mark O. Hatfield, Republican Senator from Oregon. Nixon and Hatfield’s relationship was mostly pleasant, but in a few cases awkward. I will say more about that. 

    Another part of my personal history that drew me into the Ingle book was a lifetime of involvement with the segment of Quakerism that Ingle discussed extensively in his book, the evangelical Friends. Quakers in Oregon brought with them in their late 19th century migrations from the Midwest many of the same components of evangelical Quakerism that took shape in California during the same period. I was born into a family active in a Friends church in Oregon, one that in its origins was what Ingle calls a “community church” and currently am its presiding clerk. There are many similarities and a few differences between evangelical Friends in the Pacific Northwest and in the Southwest and the similarities have been helpful in shaping my thoughts about the book.

    I want to begin by acknowledging Dr. Ingle’s strengths as a historian of the Quaker movement, a movement which has so many puzzling features that make the themes of this book challenging. And I especially want to give credit where it is due, expressing admiration for his diligent research and his hard work in tackling two aspects of the book that are not within his natural terrain—U.S. politics and evangelical Quakerism. It’s apparent from reading the book that Ingle worked very hard on this project and those interested in Nixon and his Quaker roots have every reason to be grateful for his efforts.

    My first concern is with the inappropriateness of the book’s title in view of the author’s conclusions. I’m well aware that publishers and editors sometimes insist on using titles that are not what the author would have liked. I’m not sure if this was the case with the Ingle book, but had I been the author, I would have been chagrined with the title. Ingle made the case very convincingly that Nixon had no substantial faith experience to cover up, at least nothing compared with the horrific Watergate cover-up. The subtitle is equally misleading on two counts. Nixon didn’t have what most would consider a meaningful religious life and as Ingle clearly shows, he was not really a Quaker. The closest one could come to that association was Ingle’s appropriate use of a word from the early period of Quakerism, “ranterism.” Nixon, says Ingle, did what the ranters did, creating “his own religion without formally repudiating Quakerism” and in so doing gave himself the liberty to ignore a great deal of the Quaker ethos. (Ingle, p. 6)

    I found it puzzling that Ingle continued throughout the book to describe Nixon as a Quaker, primarily because he never followed through on his thoughts about joining another denomination. There is a problem here with Ingle’s view of membership in the Quaker movement. He rightly points out that “birthright membership” was no longer emphasized during the years Nixon was growing up in the East Whittier church. But as Ingle points out, there were those who called on the leaders of Nixon’s church to remove him from the membership rolls, especially during the days leading up to his resignation. In fact there was an article in Christian Century during this time calling on the church to exercise what some would call “excommunication.” A subsequent article from the East Whittier pastor defended the decision of the church not to terminate Nixon’s membership, saying such an act would be unchristian and hurtful. A survey of the membership policies of evangelical Friends churches today would probably reveal that there are those still on their membership rolls who are not practicing their faith, but come from “good Quaker families” who would be embarrassed by the dropping of their loved ones from the membership roster. Was Nixon really a Quaker? No. Was he a member of a Quaker church throughout his life? Yes.

    As Ingle says many times in the book, Nixon got away with asserting that Quakers are not at all vocal about their spirituality. It was a way of avoiding direct answers to the numerous awkward inquiries of reporters about the depth of Nixon’s Quaker values. The reporters knew enough about Quaker theology and ethics to be curious how Nixon could keep insisting that his own spiritual values were very much rooted in his Quaker heritage, especially that of his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon. This is a difficult subject for Ingle, since his Quaker experience has been entirely among what are variously called “unprogrammed,” “non-pastoral,” and “liberal” Quakers. The reporters quizzing Nixon about his attempt to label himself a Quaker should have asked him about the movement’s founder, George Fox, who was an outspoken evangelist and preacher, and whose theology would fit within the category of “evangelical” that came into use later. What wouldn’t be apparent to most readers of this book is that not only in the early period but among contemporary Quakers, especially when viewed globally, evangelicals are in the majority.

    During the months I have been thinking about the points made in the Ingle’s book I came across a full text of the memorial service for Hannah Nixon. Two of those who gave tributes in the service to Richard Nixon’s mother had previously been her pastors. The third speaker was Billy Graham. Ingle appropriately devotes considerable attention to Graham’s relationship with Nixon, a relationship that became increasingly strained during the White House years. Graham preferred to stay out of politics during most of his career as an evangelist, but during the Nixon presidency set about to persuade Nixon to be more open about his spiritual values in the hope of reassuring those Christians who might have been wondered about Nixon’s spiritual values. For him to have spoken about not only his mother’s faith but also his own at his mother’s memorial service would have been comforting to Graham. But that would have required a dramatic departure from Nixon’s public silence about the subject and Ingle effectively deals with the reasons for that silence.

    Ingle says many times in the book that Nixon constantly deflected questions about his personal faith, hoping that it would suffice to talk about his mother’s faith. Nixon did his best to avoid answering questions about the differences between his own faith and practice which differed so dramatically from that of his mother’s, who by everyone’s account was both an emphatic evangelical and a committed Quaker. Neither of these labels fit Richard Nixon. It would have been a subject Nixon could have profitably discussed with his fellow Republican and friend, Mark Hatfield, Governor of Oregon, then one of its Senators. Unlike Nixon, Hatfield spoke very openly about his conversion experience to evangelical Christianity as an adult at a time when he was already active in politics. At first Hatfield wondered if it would doom his further political ambitions to speak so freely about his faith in Christ, knowing that so many of Oregon’s Christians equated evangelical Christianity with conservative Republicanism. But Hatfield’s success in winning repeated Senate races indicates that Oregon’s voters understood and in most cases admired his spirituality, even if not completely agreeing with him on that point.

    Ingle attributed Nixon’s caution about owning his Quaker heritage in part to his presidential ambitions. Nixon’s first cousin, Jessamyn West, was much more serious about her Quaker faith than Nixon was and she said she saw no way a practicing Quaker could become President and Commander in Chief. On this issue, the comparisons and contrasts between Hatfield and Nixon are interesting. Hatfield was so emphatically pro-peace and anti-war during his thirty years in the Senate that there were some Quakers who said he was a better Quaker than a lot of Quakers. Hatfield, in turn, gave high praise to the efforts of the Quaker lobby group in Washington, the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Some of those active in this group were all but ready to designate him as an honorary Quaker. So what Nixon failed to understand was that supporting Quaker values would not and did not doom his political career, but it mattered how clearly and sincerely he spoke about these values.

    Both Hatfield and Nixon enlisted in the military and served in World War II and both were proud of this service. As a Baptist, Hatfield didn’t need to explain to voters how he could consider being one step away from becoming Commander in Chief. His efforts toward peace and his opposition to nuclear weapons and excessive military spending were well known and didn’t rule out his being considered for the Vice Presidential nomination. It may have been that the choice of Spiro Agnew could be attributed to the strong concerns about Hatfield’s support of civil rights legislation, not acceptable to such powerful southern Senators as Strom Thurmond. In short, Hatfield accepted the need for a strong national military capacity, but disagreed with those who wanted to spend exorbitant sums for defense spending during peacetime. Having visited Hiroshima while in the Navy and after seeing the horrible results of the use of a nuclear weapon there, he became far more active as an opponent to further use of nuclear weapons than he might have been without having had this experience. Hatfield probably could have served comfortably as Commander in Chief, but would have tangled regularly with the “hawks” in the Pentagon.

    There is an interesting anecdote included in one of Hat-field’s books that supports one of Ingle’s major points that Nixon had very little in the way of a faith experience. This was after Hatfield had agreed to give one of the seconding speeches for Nixon at the Republican National Convention in 1968. Hatfield met with John Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager and asked what issues he should emphasize in the speech. Mitchell suggested he talk about the need for peace in Southeast Asia and the importance of religious values in the presidency. Hatfield had known Nixon for many years, but told Mitchell he was unsure of the methods Nixon might have in mind to bring about peace in Vietnam and he was not sure about the specifics of Nixon’s spirituality. Mitchell tried to assure Hatfield that Nixon would indeed get the U.S. out of Vietnam, but could not say how this would be done. Mitchell went on to suggest to Hatfield that he follow Nixon’s lead in speaking of the wonderful faith of his mother in the hope of reassuring the convention delegates who wondered about Nixon’s religious values. Hatfield said he didn’t think voters who valued spiritual faith would be impressed with Nixon’s frequent invoking of his mother’s faith, as if it were something he had automatically inherited.

    Ingle mentions Hatfield’s characterization of an encounter he had with Nixon when accepting an invitation to attend a White House briefing on U.S. bombing in Cambodia, an initiative Hatfield had vehemently criticized. Waiting his turn to greet the President on entering the hearing room, Hatfield tried to lighten the moment by saying he wasn’t sure why he was there. Nixon didn’t see the humor in the remark and responded coldly, “You’re here because we have come to the ‘H’s’ in the list of Senators.” At that moment, Nixon chose to forget the many years during which the two had been friends and that Nixon had even gone to Oregon to support Hatfield in his first Senate race in 1966. In spite of Nixon’s treatment of Hatfield during this and other occasions during his presidency, Senator Hatfield and his wife, Antoinette, were among the few who journeyed to San Clemente to express support and understanding for the Nixons’ anguish over his having to resign from the presidency.

    Having grown up in and being a current resident of the town where Herbert Hoover spent his boyhood years, Newberg, Oregon, it’s been interesting to me to think about the comparative comfort level with the Quaker heritage of presidents Hoover and Nixon. Hoover was sent to Newberg to live with an uncle and aunt after losing both his parents in another Quaker town, West Branch, Iowa. Hoover is claimed as an alumnus by George Fox University since he attended the Quaker academy that preceded Pacific College, now a university. But Hoover did not maintain his ties with Quakers in any significant way after he enrolled at Stanford University. Nevertheless, he sometimes attended one of the Friends meetings in the Washington, DC area when he began his political career there. And his extensive relief and humani-tarian work in Europe after World War I, working with what became the American Friends Service Committee, would allow the case to be made that he was the only real Quaker president, even though he did not join what was called the “Florida Avenue Meeting.”

    More than once in the book, Ingle speaks of Nixon’s inaccurate characterizations of Quakers as a non-creedal faith group. One of Nixon’s points was that Quakers had no creeds, there was nothing that would define the faith of Quakers in the way that the Apostle’s Creed and other faith statements would for other Protestants. Both Nixon and Ingle were wrong about that. Nixon could easily have said that he didn’t subscribe to the major points of Friends faith and practice held by East Whittier Friends then and now, which in some ways resembled a creed. Ingle could accurately have said that few liberal, un-programmed Friends would support any creedal statement. But that is not true of evangelical Friends, who (it is true) would not normally recite creeds as part of their worship, nor ask for applicants for membership to assent to one or more of the faith statements of Protestantism. But East Whittier Friends Church still acknowledges the validity of the Richmond Declaration of Faith, developed in 1887 as the foundation of the evangelical Christian theology supported by most evangelical Friends today.

    In thinking about the issues Ingle raised in the book about Quakerism’s rapid movement into the fold of evangelicalism in California, I began to wonder whether East Whittier Friends Church no longer had any remnants of its Quaker past. One might expect to find that, since that is the trajectory Ingle would have predicted for the church. A friend of mine, Stan Leach, is the Superintendent of what is now called Evangelical Friends Church Southwest. I asked Stan about the indications that East Whitter Friends Church is still Quaker. He identified a number of historic Quaker practices that are evident in the life of the East Whittier church today:

  • There is an extended time of “open worship,” that is, un-programmed worship each Sunday.
  • The church conducts its business in the manner of Friends, corporately seeking the mind of Christ.
  •  The church is committed to the values in the Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, which includes such mainstays of Friends faith statements as George Fox’s letter to the Governor of Barbados and the Richmond Declaration of Faith.
  • The fact that the church has an African American pastor today is consistent with the extensive anti-slavery efforts of the Quakers in the past.
  • The church is reaching out to the marginalized in their community, something that would be valued by most liberal Quaker meetings as well.

    Having discussed in general terms the kind of extreme ranterism of which Nixon was guilty, Ingle says that a milder form of this disorder can be found among Quakers today. He says that evangelicals have jettisoned the Quaker emphasis on peace and the liberals have tossed Christ out of their faith.

    One could appreciate the balance in this statement if only the statement would not have been made in such sweeping terms. It would take very little effort to find many evangelical Friends today who fully embrace peace as a core Quaker conviction. And likewise one could find many liberal Quakers who understand that Christ was at the center of early Quakerism and should be treasured as part of modern liberal Quakerism. Hyperbole is not very useful in describing such a complex movement as Quakerism.

    I want to conclude by noting Ingle’s comment that this was a difficult book to write. He acknowledges this after citing a statement about Nixon made by Lou Cannon, a reporter for the Washington Post. Said Cannon, “Nixon just regularly and relentlessly lies. . . . He just has no inner sense of the truth.” (Ingle, p. 13) Ingle then says, “Try writing a study rooted in the life of such a ranter.” One suspects from this and other remarks that Ingle might have been tempted a number of times to abandon this project. But I’m grateful he did not do so. It is the difficult projects like this one whose insights we need.

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