Ford’s quiet faith was just wonderful

gerald ford funeral processionThe 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.

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  • Michael

    But when does a journalist go from fact-gatherer to making value judgments that amount to the lesson of the day?

    When their pieces appear on the op-ed page????

  • tmatt

    Hey Michael, you are around today.

    Comment on the New York Times reader’s rep remarks (over on the other post’s thread, of course).

  • tmatt

    I had a question that I have not seen in the MSM coverage.

    Was Ford raised in the Christian Reformed tradition and then converted to the Episcopal Church? Does anyone know?

  • Deborah

    I’m a little surprised you guys haven’t mentioned the little blip in the homily at the National Cathedral where Ford’s priest took an (unfortunate) opportunity to mention the Anglican split and Ford’s alleged position on it.

  • Mollie

    I didn’t hear about that, Deborah. What happened?

  • Fr. Greg


    I wondered the same thing, but, perhaps not surprisingly, there is little online. However, upon googling “Dorothy Gardner Ford,” I did “Faith of our Mothers: The Stories of Presidential Mothers from Mary Washington to Barbara Bush”, written by Harold I Gullan, and published by Eerdmann’s. This book indicates that his mother, during Ford’s childhood, was a “devout Episcopalian” (293).

    Another article indicates that the Ford family joined Grace Episcopal Church, in Grand Rapids, in the 40′s and that his stepfather and mother were both buried from there. This is also the Church in which he and Betty were married and at which another service for him is being held, today, I believe, prior to burial.

  • Deborah


    See – the paragraph starting with “Early this past summer …” I guess he was trying to tie it in with Ford’s reputation as a reconciler, but it was a real clunker, IMHO.

  • dpulliam

    You are of course right Michael that opinions can be expressed on the op-ed page, but I still have qualms over a person overseeing a major news organization making value judgments in the manner that Meacham did.

  • Tope

    I don’t get it. What’s so terrible about this article? It’s an opinion piece, in the Opinions section of the Post, so I don’t see how Meacham expressing his opinion is such a breach of journalistic principles. And I’m definitely not clear on why his opinion is so awful – forgiveness and grace are virtues that are worth emphasizing (yet often neglected). I thought his point wasn’t so much to praise the ‘quietness’ of Ford’s faith, but to highlight an important aspect of his life and character that went unnoticed precisely because it was quiet.

    I really don’t get it. Meacham seems to be a favorite punching bag around these parts, unfairly so in my opinion. As I see it, he’s one of the few reporters at large magazines/people who takes religion and Christian faith seriously. It’s a shame GetReligion insists on slamming one of the few big reporters who makes any real effort to, well, get religion.

  • Frank D.

    From what I’ve read recently (and over the years) about President Ford’s views concerning inclusion of gays and lesbians in both the Republican party and his own beloved Episcopal church, it seems likely that Fr. Certain’s reference was accurate. Most likely it was included with the approval of the Ford family. It would seem a “clunker” only to someone who had hoped Mr. Ford’s views would be less enlightened.

  • Deborah

    I say “clunker” because it seemed like a detour from his otherwise nice “Beatitudes” homily, which was focused on Ford’s apprenticeship to Christ. It was like Father Certain inserted a quickie political ad and then returned to regularly scheduled programming. It just didn’t flow well, IMHO, sort of like a journalist inserting his own opinion into a non-opinion piece.

  • Harris

    In answer to TMatt:

    Gerald Ford was not raised in the CRC. He was a member of the scout troop at Trinity Methodist (the Dutch did not go for scouting). My best guess would be that he grew up Methodist, based on the Scouting affiliation, attendance at South HS (then moderate middle/ working class). After the war Grace Episcopal, where he was married and worshipped, was sort of the up and coming Episcopal church as opposed to the old money St. Marks downtown.

  • Maureen

    If you can have Bible quotes every day on the editorial page (which used to be de rigueur) and political cartoons which canonize the famous deceased or question whether his eternal fate was unkind, you can certainly have religious editorials. I don’t mind journalists having freedom of religious speech. The editorial page is a very good place for that. As long as there’s a clear division between fact and opinion, we’re good.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    I’m less impressed by the Time piece, which mentions his Bible study with Laird, Quie, and Rhodes but fails to provide any context — most of which was available from the press of the time. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and, most extensively, Playboy (in a long piece by investigative reporter Robert Sherrill) all noted that the prayer group was just one cell in the Fellowship, a behind-the-scenes evangelical group that ministered (and still does) to the powerful. (Cell is their word, not mine.) Paul Wilkes, in a very sympathetic piece in The New York Times Magazine, noted that the pardon was influenced by the prayers of the cell. Other press noted that Ford had drifted away from the cell, but the cell had reached out to him upon his elevation to VP. The Fellowship’s other major project at the time was Chuck Colson, for whom it also urged forgiveness. The Fellowship had (and has) some unusual theological ideas, including a rather slavish — and yet selective — adherence to Romans 13, the “powers that be” verse. They did not believe in mass evangelism, or that the faith of ordinary people particulary mattered to God’s plan. Rather, they pursued “key men” who could institute a vaguely Calvinist scheme of governance. Love it or hate it, that’s a big part of the story.

    There’s more — a lot more — and it’s part of the public record. Time should have reported that.

  • Scott

    Ford’s mother and stepfather were “stauch” Episcopalians and Ford was married at their church, Grace Episcopal, in Grand Rapids, Michigan–according to John C. McCollister’s “God and the Oval Office” (W Publishing Group, 2005).

  • Scott Allen

    Dpulliam closes his post with the following questions:
    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?

    Here, the Elephant In The Room is not a Republican elephant but a question that is touched on but never penetrated: exactly what did President Ford believe? Since he was “quiet” he left us with questions…but people of various stripes are eager to impose their viewpoint instead of really searching for answers.

    The funeral, in all likelihood, is an expression of Betty’s faith and that of the rest of the family.
    The homily included some of the minister’s thoughts.
    I’ve followed and Worldmag and related Blogs. Liberals mention Ford’s faith and then his position on gay marriage.
    Conservatives are glad he was a “christian” based on a speech given in 1977.

    Again, we see people moving around, and touching but never penetrating the Elephant in the room to see exactly what was inside.

    What is my point? Coverage of Mr. Ford’s religion should be kept to a minimum, unless someone provides some actual FACTS (letters, personal actions, etc.) from this man of “quiet faith.”

  • DanPositively

    What did Ford believe in? He believed in the single bullet theory, of course. He was the one of the last members of the Warren Commission who decided on the “lone gunman” that killed JFK 11/22/63. The last survivor of that conspiracy is Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector, another “moderate” republican when it suits him.