Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was an American politician. In turn, he was a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Vice President and President. He first became famous as an anti-Communist crusader during the late 1940’s. In the 1950’s he served as Vice President under President Eisenhower. He was elected as President in 1968. During his term he continued the Vietnam War. In 1974 he was forced to resign the Presidency due to his cover-up of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices.
Nixon wrote 15 books, including Six Crises; RN: the Memoirs of Richard Nixon; In the Arena; Real Peace; 1999; and Beyond Peace. The first three are autobiographical; the others are political. The autobiographical books are oddly self-serving. It is as if they were composed by an actor speaking lines on a stage. The political books were written to regain respectability after his resignation. They are lucid and lawyerly and focus mostly on foreign policy.
As well, Nixon played the piano. He played during services at East Whittier Friends Church and in public on the Jack Paar Show, the Grand Ole Opry and at the White House. He composed a piece called “Piano Concerto #1”.
Nixon was raised a Friend. His ancestors were Irish Quakers. (Joshua and Elizabeth Milhous, his great-grandparents, were the models for Jess and Eliza Birdwell, the lead characters in Friendly Persuasion, the book written by Jessamyn West, his cousin). He was a member of East Whittier Friends Church. His branch of Friends were evangelical Quakers with ministers, choirs and revivals. They forbade dancing, drinking and gambling. The testimonies, like peace, were observed, and cultural legacies, like plain language, were used. Silent graces at meals were practiced in his home. On Sunday mornings he attended a service and taught Sunday School, and on Sunday evenings he attended another service and a young people’s group. On Wednesday evenings he attended another service.
Nixon left Friends as an adult. When Hannah, his mother, asked him if he felt led to become a minister, he didn’t respond. He distanced himself from evangelical Quakerism while attending Whittier College, stating that he no longer believed in the literal truth of the Bible and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In 1943 he dropped the peace testimony, becoming a “Fighting Quaker” when he joined the Navy and served in World War Two. After he became a professional politician, he rejected the integrity testimony, engaging in any sort of devious or corrupt tactics. Nixon attended the Methodist Church in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s he grew close to fundamentalists like Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham. He declined an offer by Friends Meeting of Washington to hold services for him in the White House, as they had for President Hoover.
Nixon, however, always stated that he was a Friend. He mentions this especially in his writings. Until his death he also retained his membership in East Whittier Friends Church. It is difficult to determine why he did this. He was a secretive man, and most of the files on his religious beliefs in the Presidential Library in Yorba Linda are still unavailable.
Clearly Nixon was a driven, ambitious man whose primary goal in life was to become powerful. It is probable that he dismissed Friends as unimportant. (He himself commented that he was not “a professional Quaker”). It may be that he also used his religious upbringing to humanize himself for voters.
I began attending Friends Meeting during the early 1970’s. The Vietnam War was central in my life in those days. And for me it was always a real struggle to find that of God in a man who butchered two million Indochinese and twenty thousand Americans