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Presidents and prayer

The presidency has changed dramatically since the days of Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley. But our presidents are still drawn to prayer.

It happened, it turned out, on a Sunday. As President Bill Clinton and a high-level delegation of negotiators worked out an agreement on Haiti in mid- September, a White House speech writer began the lonely task of crafting a speech that the president would deliver on the subject to a nationwide television audience. Clinton liked the draft. But there was one line that left him feeling uncomfortable, as if it were right, but only half right. "I assure you," the draft said, "that no president makes decisions like this one without deep thought." The president read it again and yet again. Then, without apparent hesitation, Clinton penciled in two words at the end of the sentence that altered its meaning. Speaking that night to the American people, Clinton said: "I assure you that no president makes decisions like this one without deep thought and prayer."

The president of the United States, commander in chief of its armed forces -- arguably the most powerful man in the world, the best briefed, the most informed -- had spoken to diplomatic and political advisers before making one of the most important decisions of his presidency. But beyond that, he told us, he had sought the wisdom of God. Presidents do that. There are no atheists in the foxholes of the American presidency.

Abraham Lincoln saw the Civil War as an expression of God's wrath and once told his secretary, "I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." William McKinley made his decision to seize the Philippines on his knees as well. Hour after hour, night after night, McKinley walked the floor of the White House, agonizing about America's role in the world and the prospect of making it a colonial power. Later, to a group of ministers, he confided: "I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night." In the end, McKinley decided to take the Philippines and its people, to "uplift and civilize and Christianize them," and then, the problem resolved, he said, he went to bed "and went to sleep and slept soundly."

The presidency has changed a lot since the days of Lincoln and McKinley. But presidents still are drawn to prayer. In the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, paused for prayer at St. Matthew's Cathedral, a few blocks from the White House. In the dark days of Watergate, Richard Nixon, reared as a Quaker, prayed with Henry Kissinger, a Jew. That same summer, in their bed, Gerald and Betty Ford, Episcopalians, prayed for guidance -- and help. And four years later, Jimmy Carter, the Southern Baptist who had taught Sunday school since he was 18, prayed for the wisdom to break an impasse between Anwar Sadat, the Muslim, and Menachem Begin, the Jew, at Camp David.

"There's no doubt that during my time as president I prayed more intensely and more fervently for God's guidance than at any other time in my life," Carter said this fall in an interview on spiritual issues. "I wanted to do the right thing, and the problems that came to my desk were so complex that I sought counsel. My religious life in the White House had an exalted tone and intensity. We realized we had a special need for our religion."

Americans always have had a special need for religion, even though the Constitution calls for the separation of church and state. Our sense of ourselves as a nation is drenched in the language and liturgy of faith. We have had, in 19th-century popular wisdom at least, a Manifest Destiny, presumably sent from God, to occupy the continent, sea to sea. We have also seen it as our national duty to bring the blessings of popular rule to every corner of the land and even, as missionaries of democracy, to extend it elsewhere.

There are, of course, startling similarities between pulpit and podium, and so the emphasis on religious themes in American politics provides plenty of room for mischief, even an invitation for it. The presence of public officials at events such as a blessing of the fleet, the appearance of candidates in yarmulkes, the faux solemnity of some politicians in their stump speeches -- all are examples of how religion and houses of worship can easily become stage sets for politicians looking for advantage. Indeed, few politicians are so inept as to appear to disregard God, religion, or prayer.

As a result, the danger in American society comes not only from the money- changer in the temple but also from the vote-seeker. "I worry that the invocation of God has become too prominent in our politics," says Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law School professor whose recent book, The Culture of Disbelief, deals with religion in American public life. "Politicians too often say, 'God bless you,' or, 'God bless America.' Since everybody says these things, I have to believe that they are some kind of rote recital, without meaning, and that I don't like."

But there are settings and moments when the impulse toward spirituality in American politics, and especially in American presidents, is neither strained nor false. Nor is the notion, so prominent in our political tradition, of public service as "God's work." John Kennedy concluded his celebrated inaugural address -- it is little known that Rev. Billy Graham was a contributor -- with a vow to "go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."

As a young man, Bill Clinton was drawn to religious themes, music, and language. In the heat of the Arkansas racial battles of the 1950s, the 11- year-old Clinton persuaded a Sunday school teacher to drive him 50 miles to listen to Rev. Graham. Later, "because of the impression he made on me then," the president recalled at a prayer breakfast nearly two years ago, he

sent a little bit of his allowance to the Billy Graham crusade.

Sometimes he would wander over to the Pentecostal Gospel Sing at Red Field, between Little Rock and Pine Bluff, and explore issues of spirituality with considerable seriousness. He was a buff, poking around these issues the way some people study the Civil War, but he was also on a journey of self- discovery. As a boy, he was far more religious than his mother, Virginia, whose nursing job and demanding hours often kept her away from church. So he would walk, Bible in hand, down the street to the Park Place Baptist Church. ''It was something that was within him, something that he had to do," recalls David Leopoulos, one of Clinton's oldest friends. Later, when the family moved next door to the preacher of the Second Baptist Church, he would wander there from time to time, often to hear the preacher's daughter, Carolyn Staley, sing "O Holy Night" at Christmas.

"None of us had any idea of what was going on in Clinton's house -- the drinking, the other stuff," says Staley, still one of Clinton's closest friends. "We had not even a suggestion. And now, looking back, I think coming over to the preacher's house was something that comforted him."

The Southern Baptist boy grew toward manhood at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., a Jesuit school where he encountered Rev. Otto Hentz in an introductory philosophy class. Hentz took his student out for a beer and burger and, unaware of his religious background, proffered a stunning suggestion: Clinton should become a Jesuit himself. "He was a bright guy, interested in people, and I thought he was a natural," Father Hentz recalls. ''He laughed out loud, and he said he would have to be a Catholic first." Years later, as a presidential candidate, Clinton appeared at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, and said that he was "deeply drawn to the Catholic social mission."

Clinton's friends and associates say that they believe his impulse to pray is genuine, one of the keys to the locked-up places inside the president. Staley remembers popping over to the governor's mansion to baby-sit for the Clintons' daughter, Chelsea, when Bill Clinton had an evening function and the governor's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was out of town. When the governor returned, Chelsea bounded out of bed, got down on her knees, and bid her father to join her in their evening prayer. "I heard the prayer of his heart," Staley says.

Clinton once told Staley that C. S. Lewis' book Mere Christianity was one of the most meaningful books he had ever read. These issues are always with him. Once, in a Washington taxicab riding to an interview with the editorial board of Time, he and his wife broke into a spontaneous discussion about the nature of faith. Since becoming president, Clinton told religion writers in October, he has "spent a lot more time than I ever have in my life reading religious books." He says they have helped him endure "the pretty significant isolation of this job."

Those who know the president well say that he worships most easily amid gospel music and in Pentecostal services, explaining that he loves the raw, unbridled honesty of Pentecostal worship, during which people pray and move their hands and speak in tongues. His friends believe that when he attends those sorts of services, he is, as Staley puts it, "going home, to a place where he loves to worship, because there his religion can flow from down deep inside."

As governor, he used to join state Rep. Ted Mullinex, a lawmaker from Hot Springs, onstage and sing gospel songs. Clinton would also often visit black churches. "I've seen him at a lot of places," says Michael Gauldin, Clinton's press secretary for six years of his governorship, "and I don't think I've ever seen him more at home than at black churches."

At the governor's mansion, Clinton often sat at the end of the piano bench and asked for hymns to be played. On the day he formally announced his candidacy for the White House, a few friends and a handful of cousins lingered at the Clintons' home and sat around the piano singing "Amazing Grace." And one day, at the Heights Shopping Center in Little Rock, while his wife was shopping for some clothes at the Toggery, Clinton saw Staley and implored her to sit in a parked car with him and listen to a cassette of a Pentecostal singer from Louisiana, Mickey Mangun, singing "In the Presence of Jehovah." The song is about troubles vanishing and hearts being mended in the presence of God, and Bill Clinton, listening in the car, had a faraway look. "Have you ever heard anything more beautiful?" he asked.

The president's devotion to gospel music is so deep that he has asked that the gospel song "Goin' up Yonder" be played at his funeral:

If you want to know

Where I'm going

Where I'm going soon,

I'm goin' up yonder

Goin' up yonder

Goin' up yonder

To be with my Lord.

Now that he's in Washington, the president has a weekly telephone conversation, a kind of pastoral conversation, with Rev. Rex Horne, the senior pastor of the Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock. "The president knows how to pray," says Rev. Horne. "I truly believe that. He understands the Bible teaches he has a right to go to God in prayer without a mediator. He knows that God hears us when we pray. He recognizes the Creator and speaks to him about whatever concerns him, and he does so both freely and frequently."

But many of the president's critics, especially those on the right, are skeptical of the president's spirituality. As a result, his private religious life, like almost everything else, has become a matter of political discourse -- and dispute.

These critics point to his policy positions -- he advocates abortion rights and fought for gays to serve in the military -- and brand him a hypocrite. "When it comes to Bill Clinton," wrote Philip Yancey, editor at large of Christianity Today, a leading evangelical Protestant publication, "I sense in many Christians a feeling beyond anger, something closer to betrayal." Indeed, half of those identified as "Clinton haters" in a U.S. News & World Report poll the week before the midterm election also said they are born-again Christians.

Some of the president's critics have taken issue with his remark that God has made "everyone a sinner." Cal Thomas, a prominent conservative columnist and former vice president of the Moral Majority, argued recently that the president speaks a "bogus theology," saying that the president suggests that God be blamed for man's actions. "There is a difference between 'All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' -- a choice made by individuals -- and God making us sinners, which would mean that we cannot be held responsible for anything we do," Thomas says.

Clinton's explorations into issues of faith have given him several encounters with Judaism and have brought him into a relationship with Rabbi Eugene Levy, of Congregation B'nai Israel in Little Rock. The two have talked about issues of spirituality, leading Rabbi Levy to conclude that the president leads a rich contemplative life. "I think he takes religion to heart," the rabbi says. "To me, he does what religion is supposed to do: to tie yourself to God and work in the world with people of all kinds. Some people here say that if he weren't a Southern Baptist, he would be a Jew."

In fact, Clinton became the first president to attend a High Holidays service when, on vacation this past September, he joined worshipers at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center. The president and his wife actively participated in the service, and the two of them sang the Shema, or central statement, of the Jewish faith: Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.

White House officials told Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, the Jewish chaplain of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the leader of the Vineyard service, that the president loved Bible stories, and when they discovered that the rabbi was planning a sermon around a Hassidic story, they asked him to be sure to deliver it before Clinton left. Before the evening was out, the president and the rabbi had had a spirited discussion about the binding of Isaac.

Clinton models himself after President Kennedy, whose religion was an issue in 1960. A practicing Catholic, Kennedy was a regular churchgoer, seldom missing church on Sunday or a holy day of obligation.

Dave Powers, Kennedy's close and longtime associate, used to talk to Kennedy about the old tradition, revered among the Boston Irish, that those who visit a church for the first time are entitled to three wishes. One Sunday morning in Anchorage, during the 1960 campaign, Powers reminded Kennedy of the three wishes. Kennedy whispered: "New York, Pennsylvania, Texas."

The president prayed repeatedly during the Cuban missile crisis. Robert S. McNamara, then secretary of defense, is still struck by how both President Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, then attorney general, evaluated recommendations for an attack on Cuba through the prism of morality, believing ''that it was totally inconceivable that a great nation attack a small nation." And when, in a private moment at church during those 13 days in October 1962, Powers reminded the president of the three wishes, Kennedy said that this time he had but one wish.

The last summer of the president's life, when Jacqueline Kennedy was pregnant and resting at Hyannis Port, Powers and Kennedy often would have a swim at the White House and then sit on the Truman Balcony. Kennedy didn't want to be alone. Every night, before going to bed, Kennedy would get on his knees. "The White House," Powers recalls, "is a place where you do a little bit of extra praying."

The extra praying may help, because doing God's work can be rough business, especially in politics. For that reason, prayer -- or simply, as former vice president Dan Quayle put it in a recent interview, "running a conversation with God" -- becomes a refuge for embattled national leaders. Prayer, say the men who have been in the White House, is an impulse, as natural in its way as pulling away from a hot stove. "Although I prayed probably more actively as president, I wasn't conscious of it then," Gerald Ford recalled in an interview this autumn. "As I look back, I am. It was just the thing to do at the time: You've got a problem, you need the reassurance that prayer gives you, and you do it."

One witness to this phenomenon is Michael G. Ford, the former president's son and a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in South Hamilton. He watched his father tugged toward his faith, the spiritual side of his life growing deeper, richer, with each day in politics. "I saw it early on, in Congress and as minority leader, and even on the Warren Commission, but greatest of all as president," says Michael Ford, now the director of student development at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina. "There was a need to acknowledge there was a power greater than all of us. It wasn't so much to get answers but to find strength and resolve to press on."

As Nixon's resignation neared in 1974, the elder Ford asked his son to help ''center him" spiritually, and together they looked at Proverbs 3:5-6: ''Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight."

As a family, the Fords retreated into a private room in the White House the day that Nixon left office in August 1974. There, alone, they read that passage. They joined hands and prayed together -- "for wisdom," Michael Ford remembers, but also "for strength, for the sense of being led by God to this new responsibility, and for the ability to do it with grace and clear direction."

The Bible was open to the passage from Proverbs as Gerald Ford took the oath of office. But the oath that mattered most, a private one, had occurred minutes before. "We committed ourselves and committed Dad to this new role," Michael Ford says. "He believed God would be with him and would offer guidance."

It wasn't the last time Ford prayed in the White House. The day he pardoned former president Nixon he walked to church. "I felt very strongly I was about to make a monumental decision, and I wanted the feeling that I had prayed and hoped for the best," Ford says. He prayed again during the Mayaguez incident, when Cambodian gunboats seized an American merchant ship and its 39 crew members in the Gulf of Siam, in the spring of 1975. At Vladivostock, negotiating with Leonid Brezhnev, and at Helsinki, where he signed a human- rights agreement, Ford said "special personal prayers." The Fords say they recite the two verses from Proverbs before they go to bed every night, even now.

Ford and Carter were bitter rivals in the 1976 election; they did not even speak to each other in an awkward moment during their debate when the microphones went dead. But they have, in retirement, grown close. One consults the other often, on matters big and small. The burden that brought them close to God, Carter believes, brought them close to each other.

"Jerry and I have had some private conversations about the difficulties of the White House and how the problems were sometimes overbearing, but how we survived with good humor and enjoyment," Carter says. "I was more at ease with the office than you might surmise. Prayer is not a desperate action or something for a quandary or crisis. It is a commitment, a sharing of thoughts with a superior being."

Although religion was part of the public debate in the 1960 election, when Kennedy became the first Catholic to become president, no man ever entered office as openly religious as Carter. "He prays about everything," says his friend and first budget director, Bert Lance. "He is a very sincere fellow who believes in intercessory prayer. He prays for others as well as for


Today Americans speak easily of being born again and of having personal relationships with God, but when Carter first broached these notions in 1975, he was regarded, especially in the Eastern press, with some skepticism. That reaction of shock seems almost quaint today, but it still is a matter of surprise to Carter.

"We talk about these things in the normal course of conversation" around

Plains, Georgia, says Carter. "To us it is not strange to use words like 'born again' or 'salvation' or 'sinfulness' or 'forgiveness.' But these phrases were picked up by the national news media, and they made, to my amazement, headlines. I tried to make my churchgoing activity modest in tone. We carefully separated church from state."

Privately, behind the wrought-iron fences on Pennsylvania Avenue, Carter was deeply devout, praying regularly and then with extra intensity during periods of political and personal crisis. He and Lance, the besieged budget director, prayed "big time" -- the term is Lance's -- during Lance's ordeal on Capitol Hill growing out of financial-irregularity charges. During the Camp David negotiations, when Sadat threatened to leave, the president said what he describes as "a long, silent prayer" that he could redeem the peace process. He talked Sadat into staying.

He also prayed with great fervor during the Iran hostage crisis. "I don't want you to misunderstand what I say," Carter says. "I don't mean I always acted with wisdom. I just asked for wisdom."

Carter also says he was careful about prayer, not regarding it as a substitute for action or judgment. "I don't ever feel God was insensitive to my prayers, but there were times when I was cautious about what I asked for," he says. "Playing basketball as a kid or running cross-country, I never asked God to let me win. In the 1976 election, I asked only that God's will be done. I can't say that God has ever let me down."

Whether presidents always feel as if God is on their side is another question entirely. Lincoln sometimes found himself, as Carl Sandburg put it, ''musing on the role of Providence in the dust of events." In his message to Congress at the end of 1862, a despairing Lincoln noted that "it has not pleased the Almighty to bless us with a return of peace," but he vowed to ''press on guided by the best light He gives us."

The dust of events sometimes does seem overwhelming in the White House. "I pray for the strength to withstand the darker parts of the experience," Clinton said in an interview with ABC News nine months ago. The burden can be so great that sometimes only prayer can ease it -- prayer and, perhaps, a soaring gospel song like "Goin' up Yonder," the one the president wants played at his funeral, the one that says:

I can take the pain, the

heartache it brings.

The comfort comes in

knowin' I'll soon be


As God gives me grace,

I'll run this race,

Until I see my Saviour,

face to face.

David Shribman won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting for 10 feature stories about Washington and the national political scene, including this one.

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