2016-07-27
If elected, General Wesley Clark would be America's first modern Christian "seeker" president. What comes through clearly in his intimate Beliefnet interview is that he has been on a lifelong spiritual search, trying in place after place to find the right match with his personality, values and emotional needs. At various points in his life, he was influenced heavily by Methodists, Baptists, Jews, Catholics and Presbyterians, and his quest seems not to be over.

There are parts of the interview-the first of a series with the candidates--that will no doubt strike readers as idiosyncratic, such as the fact he became alienated first from both Protestantism and then Catholicism as a result of the anti-military comments of individual clergy. Some Catholics may scoff--or be offended by--Clark's statement that he remains a Catholic even though he goes to a Presbyterian church.

But in many ways, Clark is a prototypical modern American Christian. He shops for faith. His decisions are based not only on family considerations, region and theology but spiritual fit--the type of music, quality of the sermons, or the message of the preacher. His faith seems both deep and, at the same time, not fixed to a particular affiliation.

When Clark was almost four, his father Benjamin Kanne, a Chicago alderman and lawyer, died suddenly of a heart attack, prompting the family to move back to Little Rock where his mother had family. Clark's mother, Veneta, was a Methodist but gave the young boy the choice of where to go to church.

Five-year-olds are not likely to choose a church on the basis of its views on salvation or premillennial tribulation theory. "I remember the Methodist church in Chicago had these beautiful stained glass windows," Clark recalls. "I saw a church in Arkansas that had those beautiful stained glass windows and it was right across the street from this barber shop that had a miniature barber's chair complete with the razor strap and everything."

So he chose the church with the pretty windows across from the barber shop with the cool chair. That's how Clark became a Baptist.

Remarkably, week after week the five-year-old went to Emmanuel Baptist church. His religious life, he said, was of "tremendous comfort" in dealing with the death of his father. As he got older, they switched to Pulaski Heights Baptist Church and his connection to his faith grew even deeper. In high school, he would often go to both the morning and evening Sunday services. He was in the Baptist training union and the Royal Ambassadors.

His spiritual path veered after he met Gertrude Kingston, whom he would later marry. She was a Roman Catholic from Brooklyn who was quite insistent on sticking with her church, so Clark would occasionally attend Mass with her.

When he was in England as a Rhodes Scholar, Clark tried worship services offered by two Protestant churches, one Baptist and one Methodist. He hated them, not because of their theology but for their approach to the Vietnam War. "In both cases the sermons were anti-American military and full of wildly overstated claims about how bad the American military was. My West Point roommate was serving over there-he was killed during that period. I wasn't about to go to a church like that who didn't respect my friends who believed they were praying to the same God and serving their country." In an interview with Slate, Clark also said he preferred the structured nature of the Catholic Church.

Around that same time, some relatives visited him and gave him startling news. His father had been Jewish. Clark says he was mostly excited by the news, as it filled out some missing pieces to his family puzzle. But he confronted his mother.

"I don't understand why you didn't tell me."

His mother started to cry. "Wesley," she said. "You just had enough problems. You didn't need one more. You'd lost your father. You came down to Little Rock. You were in fights a lot. You had a Chicago accent. You just didn't need one more problem." She was convinced that self-identifying as a Jew would bring nothing but trouble because "she'd seen the prejudice in Chicago." Once the family secret was out, Clark's mother explained the discrimination she and his father had experienced. "There were restaurants they couldn't go to. There were clubs they couldn't belong to. There were resorts they couldn't go to vacation to. There were friends they didn't really have. This was a prejudiced society."

Kanne's parents had fled Russia, reportedly to avoid pogroms. According to The Jewish Week, Clark told a Brooklyn yeshiva (a religious school for observant Jews) in 1999, "I am the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son - at least five generations, and they were all rabbis." In hindsight, Clark says, he always had an inexplicable affinity for Jews. "It was a funny thing," he says. "It was the way they thought, the way they talked, I just felt a certain familiarity. So when I found my father was Jewish, a lot of pieces just seem to slip into place the right way."

For Clark, the religion that was feeling most comfortable at that time was Catholicism. Once in Vietnam, he continued the process of conversion. Gert gave him a St. Michael's medal--the warrior saint who led the heavenly forces against Satan--which he wore with his dog tags. Every day, the soldier would finger his rosary beads and say his Hail Mary's and the "Our Father."

For most of the interview I was quite impressed with Clark's unpolished candor about the nature of his choices. (For instance, he did something I've almost never heard a politician do: criticize churches and preachers.)

The one moment when he seemed somewhat unreflective or defensive was when I asked if he'd ever had any spiritual doubts. He said no, twice. Is it really possible he's never had any doubt? Even when he's witnessed killings and mass tragedy?

To the contrary, he says it was during Vietnam that he had his most profound spiritual experience. While leading a platoon to ferret out Viet Cong, he came under attack. In his book, 'Waging Modern War,' he describes the scene. "Our force found a small group in an old bunker complex--the buzzing around my head wasn't hornets but AK-47 rounds whizzing by, the dark stains on my leg and shoulder weren't perspiration but blood, and there was a white bone sticking out from my right hand as I looked down to see why I had dropped my rifle."

He recuperated in Japan and recalls a moment after attending services near the hospital. "I remember coming out of that church and feeling like I had been--at that point I just felt very, very close to God and that I'd done the right thing with my life."

Clark's spiritual journey would gradually take another turn. He began to miss singing the hymns that had been so important a part of his Protestant experience. And he found himself not liking the homilies at the masses he attended. He remembers one time when he walked out of the church in the middle of the service. Again the issue was a religious leader denigrating the military. "The priest said that we should never have fought the Revolutionary war and every war was bad. It was 4th of July! It was an outrageously political statement. I just never felt right when people in the church would take these overtly political positions especially when I felt like I was a good Christian, I was serving my country, and I just didn't feel like I deserved to be lambasted by the priest on the 4th of July."

He found that he liked the minister at a Protestant church recommended by friends and began attending non-denominational Protestant services as he moved from country to country in the army. After he retired and moved back to Little Rock, he and Gert began attending the First Presbyterian Church of Little Rock.

So what is Clark now? "I'm spiritual. I'm religious. I'm a strong Christian and I'm a Catholic but I go to Presbyterian church. Occasionally I go to the Catholic church too. I take communion. I haven't transferred my membership or anything."

Since the interview was done by phone, I couldn't tell whether Clark was smiling when he said that. And he had to cut off the interview before I could probe further.

To critics of Clark--those, for instance, who noted the confused nature of his statements on the war--his spiritual choices might seem part of the same contingent style. His choices may seem fickle. Do you really leave a faith because you don't like the sermons or the music?

Well, actually, yes. That's a fairly typical approach these days. As a soldier, he moved around continuously, attending non-denominational services and a constantly shifting array of clergy and churches. In a sense, the rest of the country has become more like the military. Americans move from town to town, families from church to church. Non-denominational churches are growing as the mainline denominations--Methodism, Lutheranaism--decline.

Sometimes such "questing" can seem superficial. I probably shouldn't pass judgment based on one brief conversation, but my sense was that Clark's shifts were born of a real seriousness about spirituality. Church was a major influence on him as a child and, despite his shifts, the importance of spirituality in his life does not seem to have waned.


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