Betty Ford and the road out of hell

It’s amazing how much religion works its way into funeral services, especially into rites performed in churches that have ties that bind them to the language and the symbols of the early church. It’s really hard to edit the Godtalk out of these events.

Scribes in the mainstream press have been known, however, to give it their best shot.

This is especially true when covering the funerals of political figures or of the people close to them. It was amazing, a few months ago, to compare the content of the news stories about the funeral of R. Sargent Shriver with the actual texts of the eulogies and the sermon from that event. The event was rooted in faith and family and the coverage was, well, centered on his political life and legacy.

Never forget, dear readers, that politics is real. Religion is, well, about personal feelings and stuff like that.

I thought of that again when reading the stunningly faith-free Los Angeles Times report about the California funeral of former First Lady Betty Ford. If you wish, try to count the number of sentences focusing on the political leaders who attended (and who sat where and who spoke to whom) in contrast with sentences about the actual content of the service and what it had to do with Ford’s life and deeds.

The story — for obvious reasons — included quite a bit of material about the first lady’s trailblazing work in the field of treatment for those with addictions, best symbolized by the creation of the world-famous Betty Ford Clinic. Once again, however, this is a subject that is assumed to have little or no spiritual content at all. At the very end of the piece, there is this brief hint of any transcendent element in this issue.

A Ford Center worker, Gwendolyn Walton of Banning, was another of the evening visitors. Walton said she has been in recovery for five years and felt the pull to come because Ford had played a significant role in her life.

“I thank God for the services that she’s done, and I learned a lot about reaching back and helping someone else like she did,” said Walton, 48. “I probably wouldn’t be here today if she hadn’t done what she’s done, not just for women but for everyone in recovery.”

Well, that’s nice. But what about the service itself? What did the people who knew Ford best have to say about this part of her life and her passion for helping others facing the same — yes — hell.

Over at USA Today, the main story about the funeral was just about as faith-free as those in other publications. But then there was the online feed that offered chunks of the actual texts and remarks from the event. All of a sudden, people are talking about addictions and recovery in a completely different and very non-political language.

Thus, let me offer a few paragraphs from the remarks of Betty Ford Center board member Geoffrey Mason, care of Gwen Flanders of USA Today. This is rather long, which is kind of my point:

“I remember what you told us the first week we were here. … I remember you said it didn’t have to be that way anymore. … And you said something that I’ve never forgotten. You said that you had discovered that you were allergic to alcohol. That rang the bell for me. That, Betty, made it understandable. I could grasp allergic. We began to understand that if you could do it, with all the pressures on you every day … maybe, just maybe, if we worked at it like you told us to, maybe we could also get some relief from the darkness that we had become almost comfortable with. From the abyss that we had fallen into. From, yes, hell.

“As the years have changed, and as the world has changed more than any of us would ever have believed, the wisdom and support that we take every day from the rooms has guided us in the right way. And you were the one who introduced us to this, Betty. You were the one who helped us understand we can walk with God, we can walk together, each and every day, and our lives will be better. What a gift to us, to several generations of those like us who need help and who just need to learn how to generate a little pride and self-respect. What a gift. What a profound legacy.’ ”

She always said, “Don’t thank me , thank yourself.”

“OK, then, thank you. Thank you, God, for bringing us this extraordinary lady, this brave and inspirational pioneer, into our lives, all of our lives, even those who haven’t experienced the gift of treatment and recovery. All of us are supremely better for having known you, for having been inspired by you and for having shared love with you. May God now grant you the peace and reward that you helped so many of us learn about and experience. Yes, God’s grace upon you, dear Betty.

I would argue that this funeral, more than a political event, was actually a symbolic road mark in the story of the old mainline Protestantism in America. Whatever you thought of Ford and some of her cultural pronouncements, it’s clear her faith was more than a passing fancy. She battled with demons and had to come to terms with that those demons were saying about her life and the meaning of her life.

One of the places where she fought those battles was in church and in the context of a marriage that was universally admired by partisans on left and right. Isn’t the religious side of the addictions issue worthy of a spot of coverage? I honestly think that American readers would be more interested in reading about that subject than, oh, the fine political details of this kind of worship service.

Just saying.

Editor’s note: While on the subject of religion and Betty Ford, check out this blog item about a bizarre New York Times swipe at Christianity Today.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    Outrageous and ignorant!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Uhhhhhh

    The post or the LA Times story?

  • Jerry

    There’s a point about being honest that struck me as I was reading this review. J. Michael Straczynski, an atheist and a science fiction writer, was asked why he put religious characters in his works, characters that are believers. He said that he did it because it was the honest thing to do because people will be religious a thousand years from now and that, since there would be such people, he had to have such characters in his works. So when reporters ignore religion in a religious story, they are being dishonest to the work.

    If someone is interested, the two minute clip where Straczynski talks about religion is http://neversurrenderdreams.com/uncategorized/video-religion-in-science-fiction

    I wish reporters would watch this segment because many need that perspective.

  • northcoast

    I would have expected the LA TIMES reporters to spend a couple of sentences on details like the name of the church, the clergy participating in the service, and the form of service. If they wanted they could even note the scriptural readings and music selections.

    Regarding Mr. Perlstein’s NY TIMES commentary, is he associating CHRISTIANITY TODAY with the religious right?

  • Joe

    The NYT swipe is odd, except that it is a column by a gay guy, and the homosexual community eschews all orthodox Christian teaching when it associates with ideas of traditional sexuality.

    Also, Ford’s “buck tradition” comments do seem to dovetail with her admirable addiction struggles to reflect what is both good and not so good in the mainlines. Appreciate the observation.


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