In their book, The Final Days, Woodward and Bernstein record that on the evening before his resignation from the Presidency, Richard Nixon invited Henry Kissinger to join him in the Lincoln Sitting Room. "Henry," he said, "you are not a very orthodox Jew, and I am not an orthodox Quaker, but we need to pray."
For those of us interested in the issue, we may wonder whether Nixon was any kind of Quaker. Certainly, he was reared as a Quaker in a Friends’ evangelical church. His second cousin, Jessamyn West, the famous Quaker author, attended the same church. However, West matured into a more expansive Quakerism that was rooted in the silent, “unprogrammed” style of worship while Nixon largely left Quakerism behind as he pursued political power.
Nevertheless, the young Nixon was a birthright Quaker. In Nixon’s First Cover-up: The Religious Life of a Quaker President, H. Larry Ingle recounts his mother’s claim that young Nixon went to church three times each Sunday and once on Wednesday. Nixon regularly played the piano in these services, including the popular “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” For the Nixon boys there was a scripture lesson every day before breakfast; and, as time went on, Nixon taught Sunday school classes.
In his Senior year at Whittier College, he took a course in which he had to write twelve essays about his faith. These compositions reveal a Nixon who had moved away from biblical literalism and a literal Resurrection. “The important fact, “he wrote, “is that Jesus lived and taught a life so perfect that he continued to live and grow after his death—in the hearts of men.” With such a belief, Richard Nixon was closer to primitive Quakerism than the evangelical religion practiced in East Whittier Friends’ Church.
Nixon never (strong word) spoke of the Inner Light. He did speak of a “Peace at the center” that sounds Quakerish. However, for Nixon, this peace was really his inner conviction that he was acting rightly and could ignore his critics. Nixon’s inner peace was his ego, his personal sense of strength and power. This inward self was the source of his famous statement, “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.”
In the pursuit of power, Nixon could ignore the Quaker testimonies when they were inconvenient for his personal ends. Of course, Quakers do not have to adhere to all the Testimonies of their faith, but someone who doesn’t practice non-violence and truthfulness should certainly feel uncomfortable in the Society of Friends. It is true that Nixon won the Presidency with a pledge to bring peace to Vietnam; but instead of immediately withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, he continued the war for some five years and even invaded Cambodia in the process. Candidate Nixon was willing to secretly sabotage the Paris peace talks because he feared that progress toward peace would undercut his own campaign for the Presidency. This duplicity may have cost both American and Vietnamese lives and violated both Testimonies mentioned above. Of course, the Watergate scandal was created by Nixon’s elaborate cover-up of the truth.
If we accept Nixon’s membership in East Whittier Friends Church as sufficient, Richard Nixon was a Quaker. However, in all his adult years, Nixon never attended East Whittier or any other Quaker meeting. He never “showed up” at Quaker events; and—according to Mary McKinney—the bare minimum for being a Quaker is to show up and to be as authentic as possible. Unfortunately, Nixon was an inveterate liar who only mentioned Quakerism when it served his political purposes. In fact, he came to rely on Billy Graham and evangelical Protestantism to present himself as a Christian trying to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
In short, the adult Nixon was not a Quaker at all.
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