by Mark Tooley
(Rev. Frederick Harris at far left and Bishop Bromley Oxnam right of Nixon in 1953)
Last month was the centennial of President Richard Nixon’s birth. Religiously, he’s often thought of as a Quaker who, as a public figure, was longtime friends with evangelist Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist. As president, Nixon hosted Sunday worship at the White House, featuring clergy from many denominations, including rabbis. There had been some thought of President Nixon’s attending the Quaker Meeting House in Washington, D.C., which President Herbert Hoover had attended. But aides pondered that the Meeting House included anti-Vietnam War activism, which might embarrass the president.
Although raised Quaker by his devout mother, Nixon mostly ended his Quaker affiliation after marrying his wife Pat, who had been raised Methodist. Nixon’s father was also raised Methodist and became Quaker upon marrying. In his memoir, Nixon recounts that his father often took the family to “Fighting” Bob Schuler’s Trinity Methodist Church in Los Angeles. Schuler, who also had a radio broadcast, was a famed and feared conservative firebrand within Methodism and within California politics. He often challenged corruption in Los Angeles politics, and twice ran for public office with the Prohibition Party, including once against the Democratic congressman whom Nixon would ultimately defeat.
Nixon had many Methodist connections. He attended law school at Methodist-affiliated Duke University, where he worshipped at the famous chapel. During his years as congressman, senator and Vice President, Nixon often attended Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church near his home in northwest Washington, D.C. The church, at an earlier location, was the congregation of President William McKinley. During the 1960s while living in New York, Nixon attended the church of famed author and “power of positive thinking” advocate Norman Vincent Peale, who was originally Methodist.
As vice president, Nixon had spoken at the Methodist Assembly Center at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. He also received an honorary degree from Methodist-affiliated DePauw University. He joined other prominent politicians in speaking to the Council of Bishops during the 1959 meeting in Washington, D.C., although more attention was focused on their reaction to another presidential aspirant, a young Catholic senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy. Hosting the meeting was Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam of Washington, D.C., who privately in his diary noted his disapproval of Nixon. Nixon seems to have had friendly relations with the Rev. Frederick Brown Harris, the long-time pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. and also long-time U.S. Senate chaplain.
Upon Nixon’s resignation, the pastor at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist noted the President’s previous affiliation with the church and urged special prayers with “mercy and forgiveness.” Ironically, Methodism’s longtime tradition of bipartisan ties to presidents of both parties ended with Nixon. Shifting left, Methodist agencies and bishops became vociferously anti-Vietnam War during the Nixon years, making them unwelcome in Nixon’s White House. Washington, D.C. Bishop John Wesley Lord was especially outspoken against the war and Nixon. Several United Methodist bishops openly endorsed Democratic Senator George McGovern, a Methodist, for president in his 1972 race against Nixon. The United Methodist Board of Church and Society and Women’s Division were in the forefront of urging Nixon’s removal during the Watergate scandal. Bishop James Mathews would recall that when he hosted the Council of Bishops in Washington, D.C. in 1973, “Nixon declined to receive us! We could only guess at the reason.” After Nixon, United Methodist officials generally had only distant ties to Republican presidents.
The official Methodist hostility to Nixon is interesting in that Nixon’s policies often aligned with historic Methodist progressive goals. From the start of his career, he was an internationalist and opposed to U.S. isolationism. His administration integrated public schools in the south, created the Environmental Protection Agency, pursued nuclear arms control with the Soviet Union, opened relations with communist China (which United Methodist bishops commended), advocated a national health care policy, and boasted that it was the first post-World War II presidency to spend more on domestic programs than the military. Nixon also seems to have been a theological liberal, saying he was more interested in the deeds of Jesus Christ than in his divine identity. Nixon’s policies more resembled what early and mid-20th century Methodism advocated, compared to the more hardline leftwing stances developed during and after the Vietnam War. But it’s probably safe to say that a Methodist ethos shaped Nixon both through his family and his education.