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:
“On 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!
Second, 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.
Did 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.
When 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.