Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford each opened the door to the influence of the Christian faith on their Presidencies though they did so in discreet enough of ways not to offend the public nor to offend the principles John F. Kennedy articulated. Chp 2 of Randall Balmer’s fine God in the White House sketches God in the White Houses of Johnson, Nixon, and Ford.
Any comments on the faith commitments of Johnson, Nixon or Ford?
One of Balmer’s themes is the presence, even if he wanted to downplay his influence, of Billy Graham in these three Presidencies. Here are some highlights of this chp:
1. Lyndon Johnson was Disciples of Christ, never really found institutional religion of much use, but was a man of the golden rule and the need for the strong to help the weak — and Balmer points to its good impact in the Civil Rights and Voting Acts and its destructive impact in the Viet Nam Conflict. His commitment to the latter, Balmer argues, minimized the former.
2. Graham was deeply committed to Richard Nixon and — this point is made a few times by Balmer — did not seem to have the ability, perhaps because of his closeness to Nixon, to see the darkness in Nixon. Watergate, of course, led to the conversion of Charles Colson.
3. Gerald Ford was a born-again Christian about whose faith there was not as much commentary. Ford had a friend, an odd one, named Billy Zeoli, who talked too much about the President’s faith and his spiritual advisory role and had to be shut down. Ford pardoned Nixon for theological reasons — he thought God’s mercy to him implied that he needed to be merciful to Nixon. The decision became a circus.
For me this period reveals a period in American history when the separation of Church and State was lived out by our Presidents. Faith was a private matter; it had influence but it was not advertised. But the foibles of Nixon would lead to Jimmy Carter who would bring faith much more to the center of public discourse, esp as it had to do with candidacy issues, and our country would never be the same.