Mike McCurry —who, along with Marlin Fitzwater, is generally considered the gold standard of modern White House Press Secretaries— has written an interesting piece (“How My Party Found God”) for the Daily Beast about the role faith could play in the Obama Administration Mr. McCurry is currently a high-powered political consultant in Washington and a graduate student at Wesley Theological Seminary.
When I worked at the White House in the mid-1990s, I would not have dreamed of sharing my beliefs on faith with my colleagues. Our prayer and spiritual life was furtive even though we were all drawing on it to make it through rough and trying days. I sat next to George Stephanopoulos for a whole year on the campaign trail in 1996 and never discussed the moral turmoil he writes about in his book, All Too Human. More than once, I inadvertently interrupted Rahm Emanuel’s weekly session with his rabbi as they studied the Torah (yes, that Rahm Emanuel), but it never occurred to me to pull up a seat and join in the conversation.
All that is changing now. In Barack Obama, Democrats have put forth a man of strong religious faith who is comfortable connecting his spiritual life to his public role as a policymaker. Obama’s campaign benefited from a determined effort – which started during the 2004 campaign and accelerated since – to reach out to communities of faith and let them know that Democrats are their brothers and sisters.
Many Democrats are rediscovering the connections that exist between the moral teachings of religion and the things we must do to create a community of the common good here in America. Our nation is entering hard, troubled, and painful times. It’s not a bad thing that the Democrats who are about to inherit positions of power have had a Great Awakening about how their own personal faith speaks to the needs of a dispirited nation in need of a big lift.
Harry Truman had attended the First Baptist Church near Ford’s Theater, and President Eisenhower went to the National Presbyterian Church on Nebraska Avenue. President Kennedy went to mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. And LBJ church-hopped (partly because it suited his temperament and partly because, after the Kennedy assassination, the Secret Service discouraged regularly scheduled events outside the White House precincts.
(Above: RN with Msgr. John J. Kuhn of Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral, who conducted the White House Worship Service on 11 March 1973.)
RN decided to solve security problems and avoid denominational debates by holding frequent ecumenical services in the East Room followed by a reception in the State Dining Room. Within weeks of his inauguration in 1969, RN hosted the first of twenty-six Sunday White House Worship Services.
Audiences/congregations of almost three hundred invited guests were able to hear sermons delivered by the likes of Billy Graham (who worked with RN on setting up the program), Dr. Norman Vincent Peale of the Marble Collegiate Church (where he had married Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower in December 1968), Terence Cardinal Cooke of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York; Rabbi Louis Finkelstein of the New York Jewish Theological Seminary, and had bRoman Catholic Archbishop of New York, Terence Cardinal Cooke, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale of Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church, and R. H. Edwin Espy, of the National Council of Churches.
Last night I learned from listening to one of C-SPAN’s White House Week programs (does anyone ever not learn something from listening to C-SPAN?) that PN had taken a strong stand against the proposal, which was (and apparently still is) brought up regularly at the beginning of new administrations, to have a dedicated chapel space in the White House. She thought that would be inappropriate.
The half-hour Nixon White House services followed a prescribed formula: an opening prayer followed by a hymn; a 10-12 minute sermon, another hymn, and a benediction. Most services included the Doxology — the hymn “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”.
In March 1974, Dr. Peale conducted the last of the Nixon Sunday Worship Services; his sermon was titled “The Answer Is Love.”