by David R. Stokes
December 20, 2009
As the first streaks of dawn quietly announced the arrival of morning
on Sunday, November 16, 1969, a 35-year old preacher from Ohio named
Harold Rawlings had already been awake for a while after a fitful
night of what-could-barely-be-called sleep in a room at Washington,
D.C.'s storied Mayflower Hotel. He would in a few hours face a crowd
punctuated by the most powerful men and women in America, assembled
in the most unusual of venues for any clergyman the East Room of
the White House.
These days, most Americans have moved on from wondering about Barack
Obama's church attendance habits now nearly a year into his
presidency. Some of this inattention is due, no doubt, to the swirl
of events, but a measure of it is likely because Mr. Obama is
demonstrating a kind of ambivalence to church attendance that has
become par for the presidential course over the years (though with
some exception, e.g., Jimmy Carter).
Most presidents have likely never read Theodore Roosevelt's "Nine
Reasons A Man Should Go To Church." Among the things TR said was this
gem: "Yes, I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the
Creator in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in a man's own
house as well as in church. But I also know, as a matter of cold
fact, that the average man does not thus worship."
Richard Nixon decided in the first days of his presidency to
reconcile the ethic of church attendance with the realities of
security and logistics during his time in the White House, by having
regular Sunday services in the East Room. Of course, he was
criticized for it. Some saw it as political grandstanding and others
(many in the clergy) feared Nixon might be setting a trend for "stay
at home" worship. Billy Graham noted, though, that in the early days
of Christianity churches met almost exclusively in houses. So, on
Nixon's first Sunday in the White House, Graham shared a sermon,
beginning a long run of non-sectarian religious services at 11
o'clock most Sunday mornings.
Rev. Rawlings had received an invitation, via the recommendation of
his congressman, Donald "Buzz" Lukens, to bring the message during
one of those services. But the preacher had to pay his own expenses
to the nation's capital, something gladly accomplished by his church,
Landmark Baptist in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the lanky clergyman
shared pastoral duties with his father, the senior minister of the church.
The preacher also had no idea when he accepted the White House
invitation that he would be performing his prelatic duties against
the backdrop of a city in turmoil.
Pastor Rawlings and his wife Sylvia made their way to Washington,
D.C., on Saturday, November 15, while 250,000 protestors were in
virtual control of the city's streets and parks. The Washington Post
headline the next day said, "Largest Rally in Washington History
Demands End to Vietnam War." There was a lingering hint of tear gas
in the air and the remnants of torn and burned flags littering the
ground. Other flags were prominent and not burned, but they bore only
one star and just two stripes - the banner of the Viet Cong (National
Liberation Front or "NLF"). The night before, 76 nearby buildings had
been damaged, and nearly that many more would experience the same
fate that day.
The swarm on Washington had been organized by an outfit called the
New Mobilization Committee. This group was the successor to the
National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, which had
been part of the infamous Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention
in 1968. Basically, it was a leftist mosaic made up of people from
Students For A Democratic Society ("SDS"), the Youth International
Party ("Yippies"), and assorted fellow travelers.
And though the "festivities" had ended late Saturday night, thousands
remained in the streets overnight continuing to shout things like,
"Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is Going to Win!" This made sleep that much
more difficult for Rev. and Mrs. Rawlings.
The couple enjoyed breakfast in the Mayflower's restaurant, their
waitress discreetly pointing out the famous "psychic", Jeanne Dixon,
who was sitting across the room near the booth where J. Edgar Hoover
regularly ate lunch. This brush with celebrity would be nothing
compared to the experience awaiting Harold and Sylvia when they
arrived at the White House.
They climbed a stairway to the second floor and were immediately met
by the First Lady, Mrs. Pat Nixon, who invited them into the
beautiful Yellow Oval Room, where they sat in Louis XVI style chairs.
Tricia Nixon soon joined them, followed a few minutes later by
President Nixon, who took Pastor Rawlings on a personal tour of the
adjacent rooms, sharing details about their history. Nixon was in a
great mood, no doubt bolstered some by the latest Gallup Poll showing
that around 70% of Americans gave him high marks, this in the wake of
his already famous "Silent Majority" speech a few days earlier.
They then made their way to the East Room, with Sylvia taking her
seat next to Mrs. Nixon and Tricia. President Nixon, as was the
custom, opened the service, "After a very awesome display yesterday,"
pausing briefly for effect, knowing that some would think he was
referring to the demonstrations, he continued, "of football, we
thought it would be proper to have someone here from Ohio." Ever the
football fan, he was referring to the Buckeyes' 42-14 win over Purdue.
Pastor Rawlings had been asked to suggest two hymns for the service
and did so several weeks in advance, only to be called back by the
White House and told, "President Nixon doesn't know those could you
choose two others?" He did, and the service that day included the
majestic strains of "All Hail The Power Of Jesus' Name," a song Nixon
knew well. A choir from New York Avenue Presbyterian Church sang.
The President then introduced Rawlings, who chose as his theme that
day, "The World's Most Amazing Book." Many notables were in the crowd
of about 350, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger,
Secretary of State William P. Rogers, Treasury Secretary David M.
Kennedy, Labor Secretary George P. Schultz, and United States
Senators Claiborne Pell, Mark Hatfield, John Sherman Cooper, Gale
McGee, John Williams, and Charles Percy. And the service was
broadcast live across the country via the Mutual Broadcasting System.
"If men and women would spend more time in the serious study of the
word of God," said Rev. Rawlings, "earth's questions would seem far
less significant and heaven's questions far more real." He then
quoted former President Eisenhower, among others. The great man had
died eight months earlier and his life and career had intersected
with Nixon's so significantly.
Rawlings affirmed that, "The Bible is not only good for the soul, but
also for the body." He illustrated this point with a moving story
about a soldier in Vietnam, Army Private Roger Boe, who after being
ambushed found an enemy bullet "lodged in his Bible, just short of
the ammunition clip." The preacher, describing America as "a haven
for freedom and peace," urged prayer, "to make us morally worthy of
protection against outward aggression." He also issued a reminder
about praying for the men of Apollo12, at that moment racing through
space, "our three astronauts that they might be blessed with safety
and good health on their voyage to the moon."
During a recent conversation with Harold Rawlings, who is a long-time
friend, he told me that following the service Chief Justice Burger
told him that his sermon was "the kind of message America needed to hear."
A reception followed, with President and Mrs. Nixon personally
introducing Rev. and Mrs. Rawlings to those filing by. Nixon, though,
was at least a little bit in a hurry. He was going out to Robert F.
Kennedy stadium that afternoon to see the Redskins play the Cowboys.
In fact, this would itself be historic the first time a sitting
President of the United States attended a National Football League
game. He was pulling for the home team, but conceded to a reporter
that the Cowboys would come out on top, "I think they'll win because
of their running attack."
But it turned out that the Redskins lost because Sonny Jurgenson
threw 4 interceptions three of them in the fourth quarter. The one
bright spot of the game for Nixon was the play of Ricky Harris, who
returned a punt 83-yards for a touchdown - only to have it called
back because of a penalty. Harris then intercepted a pass at a
crucial moment - only to have Jurgensen then quickly proceed to throw
his own interception (Harris these days sits every Sunday on the
front row of the church I pastor.)
Possibly, the fate of the Redskins that day was a harbinger of things
to come that week for Mr. Nixon. The very next day, American
newspapers first mentioned something about a massacre in Vietnam at a
place called My Lai. And later that week, the President's nominee for
the Supreme Court, Clement Furman Haynsworth, was rejected by the
This just reinforces something else Teddy Roosevelt said about why
people should go to church: "In this actual world, a churchless
community, a community where men have abandoned and scoffed at or
ignored their religious needs, is a community on the rapid down grade."
David R. Stokes is a minister, writer, and broadcaster. His weekly
talks at Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, Virginia and host of Loud on
Purpose, heard Monday to Friday in Washington, D.C. on WAVA 105.1 fm.