On page 87 of Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, Roger Morris narrates Richard Nixon's public conversion to Christ at the age of thirteen:
a sultry night after he began high school in September 1926, his father
drove Richard, Harold, and Don to Los Angeles to hear Paul Rader.
There, with his mother absent but in an episode something like her own a
quarter century before in small Whittier First Friends, Richard
solemnly and emotionally went through his public conversion and
reawakening. On Rader's command, the wide-eyed, sometimes wailing, and
almost frantic crowd leapt to its feet and surged in the aisles and
about the platform for the cleansing rebirth. 'We joined hundreds of
others that night,' he recounted, 'in making our personal commitments to
Christ and Christian service.'"
I should note two things. First
of all, Richard's conversion came during a particularly difficult time
in his family's life, for Richard's little brother, Arthur, had passed
away, and Richard's father Frank was becoming more religious in response
to that. Frank thought that God was punishing him for keeping his
grocery store open on Sundays, so, after Arthur's death, Frank closed
his store on Sundays, became more vocal in church about the need for
revival, and took his family to hear such evangelists as Aimee Semple McPherson, Bob Shuler, and Paul Rader.
Moreover, concerned that Richard's brother Harold was getting out of
control, and that the Quaker school that Harold was attending was too
permissive, Hannah Nixon sent Harold to Dwight Moody's Mount Hermon
School, which was in Massachusetts. There, Morris narrates on page 88,
the boys "took cold showers at five-thirty in the morning, coming back
upstairs outside in New England winter temperatures that plunged to
twenty below zero, appearing at breakfast after prayers with icicles in
their hair." That reminds me of the Waltons episode, "The
Sinner," in which John Ritter plays a pastor who says that cold showers
can guard the male against fleshly temptation. In fact, an evangelical
once told me that one way to deal with sexual temptation is to take a
cold shower, do push-ups, and fall on my knees in prayer!
the Quakerism of the Nixon family was heavily influenced by
evangelicalism. Morris quotes someone who remarked that their Quakerism
was similar to Methodism.
Although there are many ways in which I
am anti-evangelical, I still feel a nostalgia and coziness (if you
will) about the evangelical subculture: the idea of feeling a deep need
for God and for a change in my life, and coming to the front of the
church to make that formal commitment; the people I have known who were
trying to cope, and they turned to God for security; the idea of a God
who would save us from a hell that we deserve on account of our sins.
Does the doctrine hell put me into a cozy state of mind? Not
particularly, but I can still enjoy a sermon about God's wrath, as long
as I don't take the part about hell overly seriously. A sermon about
God's wrath highlights that God cares about right and wrong, and that
all of us have done (even do) what is wrong. Even if I have problems
accepting that God would torture someone forever and ever for not saying
the sinner's prayer before he died, I can still appreciate the
evangelical notions of a moral God and our fallible humanity.
Nixon's conversion last, if you will? Well, he did maintain some
religiosity throughout the course of his life, for he read verses from
the Bible every night before he went to bed. As President, he
established a church service within the White House. But my impression
from reading Morris was that Nixon was roughly the same throughout his
life, in terms of his good and bad qualities: responsible, rather
insecure, a good speaker and debater, quiet. Morris talks about
Richard's favorite books as a child, which were about "A shrewd,
thrifty, achieving young Yankee who craftily pretends to a certain
ingeniousness [and] invariably triumphed over evil or folly" (page 74).
Nixon was concerned as a child about the Teapot Dome scandal and wanted
to become a lawyer who would stop such things from happening, and
people may argue that this reflects a youthful innocence that Nixon
departed from when he became an adult. But Nixon in his memoirs seems
to indicate that he had not departed from his loathing of the Teapot
Dome scandal, that he hated when politicians were on the take, and that
he took care not to be such a politician. There are many critics,
however, who maintain that Nixon was that kind of politician.
Nixon was in college, he struggled with how to reconcile his faith with
science. His theology at that stage became more liberal than what he
probably held when he was younger, for Nixon says in volume 1 of his
memoirs that he "thought that Jesus was the Son of God, but not
necessarily in the physical sense of the term", and that "I wrote that
the literal accuracy of the story of the resurrection was not as
important as its profound symbolism": that Jesus' influence went on, and
that people "who achieve the highest values in their lives may gain
immortality" (pages 19-20). In becoming more theologically liberal,
however, Nixon probably still held on to the values that he learned in
his evangelical Quaker upbringing, even if he did not believe the exact
same way anymore.
Can we escape who we are, the influences of our
childhood, our temperament? Can one truly convert, when one can easily
become pulled back by who one is, or have one's Christian faith
challenged as one learns new things? There are people who have
conversions that are lasting. Some may convert, stray a bit, and then
come back to the altar. There are some people who come to the altar
every week! Something good about altar calls, in my opinion, is that
they remind us that we should make a periodic evaluation of our life
along with a firm decision to be and to do good; for me personally, it's
important to remember that I don't have to do this alone, for there is a
loving God looking out for me.