The Little Church In The 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. He would in a few hours 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.

These days, most Americans have moved on from wondering about Barack Obama’s church attendance habits now nearly a year into his presidency. Some of this inattention is due, no doubt, to the swirl of events, but a measure of it is likely because Mr. Obama is demonstrating a kind of ambivalence to church attendance that has become par for the presidential course over the years (though with some exception, e.g., Jimmy Carter).

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.

Rev. 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.

Pastor Rawlings and his wife Sylvia made their way to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, November 15, 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 Rev. and Mrs. 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 Harold and Sylvia 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 recent 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. The one bright spot of the game for Nixon was the play of Ricky Harris, who returned a punt 83-yards for a touchdown – only to have it called back because of a penalty. Harris then intercepted a pass at a crucial moment – only to have Jurgensen then quickly proceed to throw his own interception (Harris these days sits every Sunday on the front row of the church I pastor.)

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.”

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