Niebuhr died in 1971, but he certainly understood the court evangelical phenomenon. In 1969, the 77-year-old theologian and cultural critic was appalled at the way religious leaders flocked to the court of Richard Nixon. Billy Graham led the way.
Here is Niebuhr’s Christianity and Crisis piece “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court“:
The founding fathers ordained in the first article of the Bill of Rights that “Congress shall pass no laws respecting the establishment of religion or the suppression thereof.” This constitutional disestablishment of all churches embodied the wisdom of Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson — the one from his experience with the Massachusetts theocracy and the other from his experience with the less dangerous Anglican establishment in Virginia — which knew that a combination of religious sanctity and political power represents a heady mixture for status quo conservatism.
What Jefferson defined, rather extravagantly, as “the absolute wall of separation between church and state” has been a creative but also dangerous characteristic of our national culture. It solved two problems: (1) it prevented the conservative bent of established religion from defending any status quo uncritically, and (2) it made our high degree of religious pluralism compatible with our national unity. By implication it encouraged the prophetic radical aspect of religious life, which insisted on criticizing any defective and unjust social order. It brought to bear a higher judgment, as did the prophet Amos, who spoke of the “judges” and “rulers of Israel” who “trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end (Amos 8:4).
As with most prophets, Amos was particularly critical of the comfortable classes. He warned: “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, and stretch themselves on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp “(Amos 6:4—5). It is significant that Amaziah, a court priest of Amos’s time also saw the contrast between critical and conforming types of religion. However, he preferred the conventional conforming faith for the king’s court and, as the king’s chaplain, he feared and abhorred Amos’s critical radicalism.
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jeroboam, King of Israel saying: “Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel: the land is not able to hear all his words. For thus Amos saith: Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of their own land.’” Also Amaziah said unto Amos ‘ 0 thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there. But prophesy not again any more at Bethel: for it is the king’s chapel and it is the king’s court” (Amos 7:10—13).
We do not know the architectural proportions of Bethel. But we do know that it is, metaphorically, the description of the East Room of the White House, which President Nixon has turned into a kind of sanctuary. By a curious combination of innocence and guile, he has circumvented the Bill of Rights’ first article. Thus, he has established a conforming religion by semiofficially inviting representatives of all the disestablished religions, of whose moral criticism we were naturally so proud. Some bizarre aspects have developed from this new form of conformity in these weekly services. Most of this tamed religion seems even more extravagantly appreciative of official policy than any historic establishment feared by our Founding Fathers. A Jewish rabbi, forgetting Amos, declared: I hope it is not presumptuous for me. in the presence of the president of the United States, to pray that future historians, looking back on our generation may say that in a period of great trial and tribulations, the finger of God pointed to Richard Milhous Nixon, giving him the vision and wisdom to save the world and civilization, and opening the way for our country to realize the good that the century offered mankind.
It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties, thereby confirming the fears of the Founding Fathers. The warnings of Amos are forgotten, and the chief current foreign policy problem of our day is bypassed. The apprehension of millions is evaded so that our ABM policy may escalate, rather than conciliate, the nuclear balance of terror.
When we consider the difference between the Old World’s establishment of religion and our quiet unofficial establishment in the East Room, our great evangelist Billy Graham comes to mind. A domesticated and tailored leftover from the wild and woolly frontier evangelistic campaigns, Mr. Graham is a key figure in relating the established character of this ecumenical religion to the sectarian radicalism of our evangelical religion. The president and Mr. Graham have been intimate friends for two decades and have many convictions in common, not least of all the importance of religion.
Mr. Nixon told the press that he had established these services in order to further the cause of “religion,” with particular regard to the youth of the nation. He did not specify that there would have to be a particular quality in that religion if it were to help them. For they are disenchanted with a culture that neglects human problems while priding itself on its two achievements of technical efficiency and affluence. The younger generation is too realistic and idealistic to be taken in by barbarism, even on the technological level.
Naturally, Mr. Graham was the first preacher in this modern version of the king’s chapel and the king’s court. He quoted with approval the president’s inaugural sentiment that “all our problems are spiritual and must, therefore, have a spiritual solution.” But here rises the essential question about our newly tamed establishment. Is religion per se really a source of solution for any deeply spiritual problem? Indeed, our cold war with the Russians, with whom we wrestle on the edge of the abyss of a nuclear catastrophe, must be solved spiritually, but by what specific political methods? Will our antiballistic defense system escalate or conciliate the cold war and the nuclear dilemma?
The Nixon-Graham doctrine of the relation of religion to public morality and policy, as revealed in the White House services, has two defects: (1) It regards all religion as virtuous in guaranteeing public justice. It seems indifferent to the radical distinction between conventional religion — which throws the aura of sanctity on contemporary public policy, whether morally inferior or outrageously unjust — and radical religious protest — which subjects all historical reality (including economic, social and radical injustice) to the “word of the Lord,’ i.e., absolute standards of justice. It was this type of complacent conformity that the Founding Fathers feared and sought to eliminate in the First Amendment.
(2) The Nixon-Graham doctrine assumes that a religious change of heart, such as occurs in an individual conversion, would cure men of all sin. Billy Graham has a favorite text: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” Graham applies this Pauline hope about conversion to the race problem and assures us that “If you live in Christ you become color blind.” The defect in this confidence in individual conversion is that it obscures the dual and social character of human selves and the individual and social character of their virtues and vices.
If we consult Amos as our classical type of radical nonconformist religion, we find that he like his contemporary Isaiah, was critical of all religion that was not creative in seeking a just social policy. Their words provide a sharp contrast with the East Room’s current quasi-conformity. Thus Amos declared: I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:21, 23—4).
Amos’ last phrase was a favorite text of the late Martin Luther King. He used it in his “I Have a Dream” speech to thousands at the March on Washington. It is unfortunate that he was murdered before he could be invited to that famous ecumenical congregation in the White House. But on second thought, the question arises: would he have been invited? Perhaps the FBI, which spied on him, had the same opinion of him as Amaziah had of Amos. Established religion, with or without legal sanction, is always chary of criticism, especially if it is relevant to public policy. Thus J. Edgar Hoover and Amaziah are seen as quaintly different versions of the same vocation — high priests in the cult of complacency and self-sufficiency.
Perhaps those who accept invitations to preach in the White House should reflect on this, for they stand in danger of joining the same company.
I learned about Niebuhr’s piece from Richard Fox’s excellent biography of Niebuhr. Kevin Kruse also has a nice piece on Nixon’s church service here.