A Terrible, Teachable Moment

Runners continue to run towards the finish line as an explosion erupts at the finish line of the Boston Marathon

Wherever the investigation into what happened yesterday in Boston leads, my first reactions were likely in sync with those of most Americans hearing the news. My niece was in running in the Boston Marathon this year and I immediately wanted to reach out and find out if she and her family were safe. They were. She had finished long before, in the top tier of runners.

Then I watched and listened as those moments of terror were reviewed again and again. I prayed. I posted. I tweeted.

Now, a day later, I am still praying for those who have lost life or limb. I also pray for those investigating this sordid act of anarchism. And along with the rest us, I want to know two things—who and why.

I also have this recurring thought about how human nature’s default condition is lethargy and indifference, until brutally awakened. Then, it’s only a matter of time before “normal” (whatever that is) returns, accompanied by the onset of drowsiness.

I hope it’s not too soon to say this. I do not mean to take any attention away from those who need our prayers and encouragement, but Thomas Jefferson and others long ago reminded us that, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” The Apostle Peter wrote to first century Christians about being vigilant because of the perpetual and destructive activity of the devil himself. In the Greek language, the word vigilance carries the idea of “watchfulness” or “keeping awake.”

I think something C.S. Lewis said at Oxford University in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the onset of the Second World War, speaks directly on point and to our times. He shared a talk called, Learning in Wartime:

cs-lewis

I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The [terrorism] creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If [people] had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have “chosen” a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. [People] are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature. . . .

[Terrorism] makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise [person] can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul . . . we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the    Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.

Lewis later shared similar thoughts, at the government’s request, to a national audience on the BBC.

In a time of war, you don’t make your side safe by marginalizing the conflict, minimizing the threat, or demoralizing those who are charged with crucial responsibilities.

In the century before the birth of Jesus Christ, a Syrian man named Publilius Syrus, who became popular in the days of Julius Caesar as a mime and actor, was known for his maxims and many survive to this day. Among the best is this:

“He is most free from danger, who, even when safe, is on his guard.”

In July of 1927, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx was the scene of a boxing match between two contenders for the heavyweight title: Jack Dempsey and Jack Sharkey.

Dempsey, of course, had already been a legendary champ, only beaten the year before by savvy boxer and bookworm, Gene Tunney – the smartest guy ever to hold the title. This fight was to see who would face Tunney next. And by all accounts Sharkey took the battle to Dempsey for several rounds, cutting him up and beating him to the punch.

JDJS

So Dempsey went to work on the body and some of the punches strayed low. Okay, several of the punches were south of the border. And at one point Sharkey turned to the referee to complain. At that moment, while Sharkey was looking at the official, Dempsey hit him with what he later referred to as the best punch he’d ever thrown. It was over just like that.

My point? When in a fight, protect yourself at all times.

 

 

 

Forty-Five Years After His Tragic Death, A Look Back at Dr. King, the Preacher

ap_mlk_memphis_mountain_kb_130403_wmain

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 45 years ago today in Memphis, Tennessee, was a great man on so many levels. But he was first and foremost a pastor/preacher, erudite and eloquent – persuasive and passionate. A while back, I revisited some of his last sermons and speeches, wondering how they’d play in today’s cultural and political climate.

Of course, such a translation of any discourse from one era to another is potentially problematic, running the risk of ignoring the context of the remarks and the idiosyncrasies of the moment. Dr. King could be a controversialist when it came to saying provocative things from the podium or pulpit.

A year to the day before his tragic death, Dr. King occupied the pulpit of Riverside Church in Manhattan. The church, built against the backdrop of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s, was founded by Harry Emerson Fosdick and John D. Rockefeller Jr., a liberal preacher with a generous benefactor. Mr. Rockefeller initially donated more than $10.5 million and his contribution grew to more than $32 million by 1959. It was a case of petrodollars funding Protestant liberalism.

As Dr. King spoke to a crowd of nearly 4,000 on April 4, 1967, he said that as a religious leader he wanted to “move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high ground of a firm dissent.”

His subject was not Civil Rights – it was the Vietnam War.

Though careful to talk about America as his “beloved nation,” and not at all hesitant to address the crowd as “my fellow Americans,” he said that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” was “my own government.”

At that time, polls indicated that nearly 75% of Americans supported the war.

Dr. King faced his own media firestorm in the immediate aftermath of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Washington Post described it as “unsupported fantasy,” and the New York Times called it “Dr. King’s Error.” U.S. News and World Report went even further suggesting that King was “lining up with Hanoi” and President Johnson angrily speculated that King had “thrown in with the Commies.”

Even legendary baseball player/hero Jackie Robinson came out against the speech and the NAACP adopted a resolution warning that King’s effort to connect the anti-war movement with civil rights was a “serious tactical mistake.”

Later that year, the annual Gallup Poll of the Ten Most Popular Americans would not include the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—for the first time in more than a decade.

One long and very difficult year after his Riverside remarks, Dr. King was in Memphis. And the night before his death he was scheduled to speak at Mason Temple. There were storm and tornado warnings and he was weary from travel, so he asked Rev. Ralph Abernathy to go in his place. When Abernathy got to the church, he saw thousands who had braved violent weather to hear King, so he called back to the Lorraine Motel and encouraged his friend to come over. King did and he gave what was to be his last sermon.

During his 20-minute extemporaneous address that evening he asked: “Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?” He then added a word of encouragement to the great number of preachers in the crowd: “I want to commend the preachers…and I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry.” As he warmed to the crowd and his message he said: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words.”

He called for the development of what he referred to as “a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” and segued to a rhetorical comfort zone, the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. He used the famous story as the basis for his admonition: “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with greater determination…we have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

Then he waxed personal and described a previous assassination attempt by “a demented black woman” ten years before and how the blade came so close to his aorta that one sneeze would have ended his life. This was a familiar King story, one that he told many times with the refrain “If I had sneezed…” being repeated again and again for effect. At this point, other preachers on the platform that night became unsettled because this story was usually one placed earlier in a speech. The concern was that Dr. King might “miss his landing” and not end on a high note.

There is an old formula in the African-American tradition of preaching: “Start low, go slow. Rise higher, catch fire. Retire.” The concern was that King was not quite catching fire. Then, however, came those final moments as he talked about being to the mountain top and seeing the“promised land” and the now famous and passionate ending:

So, I’m happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

As a preacher King was Sunday-centric, always with an eye on the next sermon. So the next afternoon, Thursday, April 4, 1968, he placed a call from room 306 of the Lorraine Motel back to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and gave his secretary the title for his upcoming Palm Sunday sermon: “Why America May Go to Hell.”

He never had the chance to preach that one. A few hours later his voice was silenced in a brief and deadly explosion of violence.

Dr. King is remembered 45 years later for his words and deeds. He is honored –appropriately so—as a hero. It is, though, an interesting question: “What would Dr. King say today – and how would he be received?”

Hitler’s Favorite Islamist

As members of the Allied Expeditionary Force entered the landing crafts that would transport them to their rendezvous with history in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, they received individual copies of the Order of the Day drafted by their Supreme Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower. He had given the go ahead for the massive invasion, code named Overlord, in spite of weather that was less than inviting. He wanted the men to understand what they were fighting for – and against.

He told them:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

In those days leaders weren’t as concerned about the politically correct parsing of phrases and words as some seem to be today. It was clear to them that they were not fighting mere “flesh and blood” but abhorrent ideological wickedness (“Nazi tyranny”). And they passed that clarity onto those who were engaged in the perilous fight.

So, why is it so hard for some today to call things as they are?

We are not fighting a war on terror. We are fighting against a pernicious way of thinking. Terrorism is a methodology – a way to fight a battle. The technique itself is not the enemy. Our foes are people and regimes that, in the name of foul opinion, perpetrate destruction. Just like back in the 1940s.

Can you imagine what it would have sounded like if Ike, FDR, or Churchill had been bound by the sensitivities of our day? We would have been “battling the blitzkriegers,” or maybe “bringing to justice those who dared to attack too early on a Sunday morning,”—hardly clarion calls.

Wars make more sense, and they tend to be conducted with greater vigilance and effectiveness, when we understand things in terms of good vs. evil. But these days, it’s hard to even bring up the idea that Islamism is to blame, much less to frame the current conflict as a war against it. However, history leaves clues that remind us that there is really not much new under the sun.

David G. Dalin and John F. Rothman wrote a book a few years ago, one that should be read by all Americans seeking to understand current geopolitical reality. It was titled, Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam. They made a compelling and well-documented case that we are actually fighting the quasi-spiritual offspring of Nazism and Fascism.

628x471

Haj Amin al-Husseini (1895-1974) is by no means a household name today, but his story is a key historical plot-point helping to create the mess we now find ourselves in. From his appearance on the stage of turbulent Middle Eastern politics in 1921, until his death fifty-three years later, he was a consistent and vociferous voice preaching a blend of anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and pan-Islamic rhetoric to anyone who would lend an ear. And there were plenty of listeners. There still are. He was the grand mufti (maximum leader) of all Muslims in Palestine – the big kahuna.

Mr. al-Husseini’s political journey was driven by a radical interpretation and application of Islam. He was an effective and charismatic leader of a vast movement—the forerunner of the various manifestations of Islamic fanaticism extant. This virulent form of his religion took hold during the period between the two world wars and grew to become the plague it now is on all houses of freedom.

And it turns out that al-Husseini was a big fan of a man by the name of Adolf Hitler. And the number one Nazi liked him, too.

In November of 1941, there was a meeting in Berlin, one that is often relegated to a footnote in the history of that great global conflict. Haj Amin al-Husseini made his way, from the mansion he’d been provided by the Nazis, toward the Reich Chancellery.  There he met Hitler in the dictator’s private office. Dalin and Rothman describe this ominous meeting in great detail.  It’s a fascinating story. The mufti sought to ingratiate himself with Hitler and the strategy was reciprocal. They pledged allegiance to each other.

And why not? They had common goals and enemies. The German leader bestowed honorary Aryan citizenship on his guest and it was clear that his visitor was keenly interested in being set up as the Nazi leader in Palestine and its surrounding region. Al-Husseini eventually recruited 100,000 European Muslims to partner with the Waffen-SS, and the authors of Icon of Evil hinted at the idea that the cleric-politician was influential in the decision to implement the notorious Final Solution. He was even pretty good friends with Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichman.

Nazis and radical Islamists – together. Nothing good could come of that. In fact, a good case can be made that many of the horrific things we have seen in the past 20 years were incubated in that Berlin laboratory.

One of the most captivating portions of Icon of Evil was devoted to the question: What if Hitler had been victorious and the war had turned out differently? Drawing on similar previous musings by writers such as William L. Shirer, John Keegan, and David Fromkin, the duo shared a chilling narrative about how radically different life would be today had Hitler won. This is important not just because of the horrifying idea of a Hitler-dominant Europe – but also due to what the Middle East would look like in such a case.

Al Husseini wanted to extend the Holocaust beyond the borders of European living space to the Middle East. His goal was something near and dear to the heart of the depraved men running the Third Reich – a Palestine that would be virtually Judenrein (a reprehensible Nazi term literally meaning: “clean of Jews”).

Then there’s the story of how this wicked preacher was able to avoid the Nuremberg trial dragnet, in spite of clearly being guilty of egregious war crimes. He would not be brought to justice, but rather would live out his days back in the Middle East. His post-war work included becoming something of a mentor to men who would become famous in his cause.

What do Gamel Abdel Nassar, Anwar Al Sadat, Yassir Arafat, and Saddam Hussein have in common? They were all connected with, and deeply influenced by, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Hamas and Hezbollah are very much part of his legacy, as well. He worked closely with the theoretician of radical Islam, Sayyid Qutb, as well as Saddam’s infamous uncle, General Khairallah Talfah. The guy was connected. And the usual suspects he ran with paved the way for everything from the attacks on September 11, 2001, to the maniacal rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In fact, some of Haj Amin al-Husseini’s spirit is in the intellectual and emotional DNA of every current radical Islamist.

Now, here’s what really bugs me – why could we fight a war seventy years ago, all the while referring to our enemies as Nazi thugs, and yet today be so concerned about sensibilities that we’re reduced to, at best, rhetorical beating-around-the-bush?

The war we are in is not against a weapon, no matter how dreadful that weapon is. We are fighting a virulent ideology. To be brutally honest about it—to call our enemies today terrorists, or even Islamo-Fascists, is not strong enough.

They are Islamo-Nazis and they’re really bad people—like the German-Nazis were.

 

Which Revolution?

main-jfk-inauguration

In my opinion, the best part of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961, had nothing to do with asking anyone anything. The moment to remember was when he said:

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.

It is interesting, even sadly ironic, that what is going on in our nation right now does resemble an old revolutionary spirit, but not necessarily that of Lexington, Concord, or Philadelphia. In fact, a case can be made – if one looks closely – that the spirit of 2013 is more like the spirit of 1789 than 1776.

The American and French Revolutions are linked in our minds because of chronology; but they were vastly different affairs. One led to a new birth of freedom; the other to terror and tyranny. That one also became the portal and model for horrors to come.

As our nation morphs its way along, en route to becoming what some liberal diehards very much want it to be, a significant number of people would seemingly prefer “Liberty – Equality – Fraternity” over “Life – Liberty – and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It is in the parsing of those vitally important words that we find the keys to understanding where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. One revolution was about individual rights and dreams. The other was about “the people” as a group and the highest virtue being “the greater good.”

Can you guess which is which?

When Thomas Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, he was borrowing from 17th century English philosopher, John Locke, whose triad was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” Jefferson’s use of this language was clearly designed to describe the rights of individual people to live free, be free, and freely pursue their dreams in a free marketplace. Those thoughts were very much in presence in that Philadelphia birthing room.

The French Revolution, on the other hand – though similar to what happened here in the sense of changing things and breaking free from an old order – had little to do with individual rights. It was all about collectivism. And in many ways, the French Revolution is the ancestor of all totalitarian systems to follow. Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot Lenin, and all other political gangsters were heirs of Robespierre and later, Napoleon. Those tyrannical manifestations were not misguided aberrations – distortions of something that started out good (as in, “Lenin was cool, but that Stalin guy, he was messed up!”) – the seeds of the horror were present at the beginning.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th century Enlightenment philosopher, had written about volonté générale or “general will” and the Jacobins, followed by others, ran with it insisting that voice of “the people” could best, actually only, be expressed by so-called “enlightened” leaders.

Our revolution indeed drew a measure of strength from the Enlightenment, but it was of the earlier Locke variety. And America’s use of Enlightenment concepts was tempered by something else; something that set it apart from what happened in France—a spiritual foundation.

french_revolution

Vive la revolution — Vive la difference.

The French not only declared war on the monarchy, they also attacked Christianity, replacing it with a religion of the state, introducing the worship of secularism. Sound familiar?

In America, it was very different. Now, I am not one of those who spends a lot of time trying to prove the Christian bona fides of our founding fathers, but I do believe that the influence of The Great Awakening, which ended about 20 years before the shot heard around the world was fired, was still very much a part of our national fabric at the time.

And another such movement, often referred to as The Second Great Awakening began while the French were unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to be free. To ignore those religious and cultural movements in America is to miss an important piece of the puzzle.

The very concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity sound nice and make for great propaganda. But in the end, without virtue born of something deeper and greater, it all ends up looking the same. This is why all totalitarian regimes like to call their realms The Peoples’ this or that – like The Peoples Republic of China, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or The Peoples Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

We need to beware of those who share our vocabulary, but use a different dictionary. Are we still about the individual, personal, hard-fought-for rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, or does the cry: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity seem to increasingly be the spirit of this age?

The reason it has all worked and endured so well in this land is because we are a nation “under God.” There I said it. There is no real liberty without that. All attempts at actual freedom end up moving toward tyranny without some sense of higher purpose and power. I believe firmly in the separation of church and state. But minus positive religious influence, a nation cannot long remain free.

Thomas Paine’s story should be a cautionary tale. He, of course, wrote Common Sense in early 1776, and it was by all accounts vital to shaping public opinion in support of our patriotic ancestors. He was a revolutionary. Mr. Paine helped us early on, but as he moved on and shared more of his thinking via his acerbic pen, he expressed ideas that, while probably resonating with some today, would in no way mesh with the spirit of 1776.

While Common Sense supported the ideas of freedom, small government, and even low taxes – all very much part of that old revolutionary spirit – by the time the French were acting out, his writings became increasingly more radical. When parts one and two of his work, The Rights of Man, appeared in 1791 and 1792, he became a pariah in England and fled to France like where he was treated like a hero, being made an honorary citizen of the republic. But by this time, his writings advocated a progressive income tax, public works for the unemployed, and guaranteed minimum incomes.

And don’t even get me started on his next bestseller, The Age Of Reason; a rant against revealed religion. Paine died virtually alone and penniless in 1809. Only six people attended his funeral.

This of course, brings us back full circle to the thesis of this article – that concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, expressed individually (the intent of our founders), can only keep from drifting toward collectivism when there is a spiritual impulse – or at least a spiritual pulse.

C. S. Lewis said it very well in The Screwtape Letters 70 years ago:

Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side), we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state. Even in England we were pretty successful. I heard the other day that in that country a man could not, without a permit, cut down his own tree with his own axe, make it into planks with his own saw, and use the planks to build a tool shed in his own garden.

Preaching and Prayer in the White House East Room

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.

In a few hours, he would 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.

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.

Reverend 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.

1115_big

Pastor Rawlings and his wife Sylvia made their way to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, November 15, 1969, 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 Harold and Sylvia 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 the preacher and his wife 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 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. 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 Senate, 55-45.

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.”