The passing of Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States, brings us the usual slate of obituaries about the man who led the country after the scandalized President Richard Nixon resigned. Some of the articles break new ground and are affecting current debates -- think The Washington Post's Bob Woodward -- while others are there just as historical reminders and are great for those of us too young (or still unborn during the 1970s) to remember Ford's presidency or public life. In terms of religion news connected to the Ford story, little new dribbled out as far as I can tell. But what was published -- the fact that Ford had a quiet faith -- is interesting because of what it says about those who are writing the articles. These pieces weren't written 20 years ago. They weren't written by reporters with nothing to do. They were written with current events and a current cast of characters in mind.
You get some interesting results.
Take, for instance, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham's Washington Post column on the quiet faith of Ford. Meacham draws out the religious aspects in his speech explaining his pardon of Nixon and then tells us all to emulate Ford:
Then Ford explicitly spoke of the "higher power" he had mentioned when he was sworn in. "The Constitution is the supreme law of our land, and it governs our actions as citizens. Only the laws of God, which govern our consciences, are superior to it." In a New Testament allusion ("Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him"), Ford said: "I deeply believe in equal justice for all Americans, whatever their station or former station. The law, whether human or divine, is no respecter of persons; but the law is a respecter of reality." The reality, Ford thought, was that a trial of the former president would most likely be unfair, drawn out and destructive. And finally: "I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as president but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy."
This is an extraordinary thing to say: Ford was linking his own fate beyond time to his actions within time. The idea that God punishes or rewards us, individually or collectively, for what we do on Earth, either in our own lives or in the life of the nation, is rooted in the American story.
. . . In his quiet way, Gerald Ford used that pulpit more than most, and his essential message -- of forgiveness and grace -- is one worth remembering today, and in years to come.
Thanks for the Sunday-school lesson, Pastor Meacham. I hope the Newsweek editorial staff was listening. God will punish those who do bad things on earth and greatly reward those who do well. And that's the American way, according to the Rev. Meacham.
Did it ever cross the minds of the people at The Washington Post Company, which owns Newsweek, that value judgments made by senior editors are not exactly in the best tradition of unbiased reporting?
Meacham has done tremendous work uncovering the history of religion in public life. His American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation is a great read about our nation's history of religion in politics.
But when does a journalist go from fact-gatherer to making value judgments that amount to the lesson of the day?
For an example of quality journalism relating to the religious life of President Ford, check out this Time piece by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. Much of the information in the piece is historical, but by interviewing one of Ford's closest friends, gospel-film executive Billy Zeoli, the reporters are able to expand our knowledge and not simply regurgitate information and attach an opinion at the end.
Much of the piece focuses on Ford's decision not to publicize his faith and his acts to eliminate the blatant attempts by Nixon to use religion to advance his political career, but I found this paragraph most interesting:
When Ford became Vice President in the fall of 1973, Zeoli began sending him a weekly devotional memo that would be waiting on Ford's desk on Monday mornings. It always had the same title -- "God's Got a Better Idea" -- and began with scripture (always from the King James version, Ford's preferred translation) and ended with a prayer. Zeoli sent 146 devotionals in all, every week through Ford's presidency. "Not only were they profound in their meaning and judicious in their selection," Ford said, "I believe they were also divinely inspired." Beyond the memos, Zeoli and Ford would meet privately every four or five weeks for prayer and Bible study. Their conversations took place either in the Oval Office or the family quarters upstairs.
Ford considered the devotionals "divinely inspired"? Now that's a topic for conversation. Divinely inspired as in they-should-be-attached-to-the-Bible inspired? By the way, what was Ford's view on biblical inspiration?
Photo courtesy of my finance Noelle Myers, a federal employee in Washington who had the day off thanks to Ford's funeral and was so kind to take photos of the motorcade Monday morning.