Richard Nixon: Pietist?

Surely one of the most absurd-sounding titles in the brief history of this blog, but no, I’m not just trying to grab attention. (Well, that too, but…) This question came up in researching the article I mentioned in my Carl Lundquist post yesterday morning (which, coincidentally, also mentioned our 37th president). As part of my examination of Lundquist’s claim that Pietism went hand-in-hand with Christian activism, I considered the way that the ahistorical “pietism” was used by evangelical and other Protestant theologians and historians at the time (1960s, early 1970s).

Lew SmedesAnd that led me to a brief piece appearing in the October 1973 issue of The Reformed Journal, written by Lewis Smedes. Now, I had recently read two paeans to this now-defunct journal, and while I didn’t know Smedes’ work well, I did admire his books on forgiveness. So it was with no small amount of surprise and bewilderment that I read Smedes ask whether the Watergate scandal “expose[d] a weakness in that most famous American religion, evangelical pietism.”

It’s tempting to stop here and play with the idea that “evangelical pietism” is America’s “most famous” religion. But Smedes continues with the Watergate/pietism connection:

Some critics have said that pietistic religion helped create the climate for Watergate by insisting that religion be confined to personal salvation. On this view, the Administration supported a pietistic private religion, and pietism paid for that support by keeping out of public affairs. So there was created a moral vacuum in public life.

This Smedes rejected as “a gross over-simplification,” since “[p]ietists are sure that committed religious men do not burglarize opponents’ offices or lie in political campaigns.” But he did warn that pietists get into trouble by holding their tongues about “the morality of public policy” as opposed to that of public persons:

The President’s political program was out of bounds for religious criticism as the pietists saw it. And since pietism is the President’s favorite religion, the absence of criticism from pietistic quarters may have tempted the Administration to further self-righteousness about its own program. Mr. Nixon’s own self-righteousness may have filtered down to lower echelons in the form of uncritical loyalty to him and the assumption that his re-election took priority over all merely personal moral considerations. Had the President been less secure in his own self-appraisal, and had the civil religion fostered by pietism not supported him, Watergate may not have been tolerated…

Smedes concluded, “My point is that it borders on hysteria to relate Watergate to pietism’s separation of personal religion from public morality. But it is a copout for pietism to equate its concern for private morality in public life with a concern for public morality. And Watergate is not wholly in the arena of private morality.”

Richard Nixon and the Watergate Transcript
Pres. Richard Nixon announcing the release of Watergate transcripts in April 1974 – National Archives

Much as I’d love to simply giggle at the notion that Richard Nixon and I perch on the same branch of the Christian family tree, we’re clearly into the pietism (ahistorical category) vs. Pietism (historic movement) dispute about which I blogged at some length last September, responding to Reformed philosopher Jamie Smith. Indeed, it seems that Smedes shared with Smith what the latter called an “insider Reformed jargon” in which “pietism” was “a shorthand term for naming a tendency to treat Christianity as private, personal, and a-political.”

I continue to bemoan such terminology (let alone the identification of Richard Nixon with my own tradition), but I wonder if others find anything of merit in Smedes’ critique, even if it were limited to Pietists instead of pietists:

Do Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf, the Blumhardts, and their heirs draw distinctions between the private morality of public persons (open to censure) and the public morality of policy (from which they steer clear)?

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