Richard Milhous Nixon was born 100 years ago this year—on January 9, 1913—in Yorba Linda, California, to Quaker parents, making him a birthright Friend. The family moved to Whittier when young Richard was nine years old, and he remained a member of East Whittier Friends Church there until his death in 1994.
That Nixon never withdrew his membership shows he did not want to cut his ties with this outward expression of his religious heritage. Throughout his career, he—and notably his mother—carefully defined his church’s approach to Christianity to reflect personal and political needs and feed the secrecy that came to nourish the Watergate cover-up.
While Nixon occasionally mentioned his Quaker background, the exact nature of his faith remained obscure. Contrary to the impression he and his mother gave, East Whittier’s Quakerism was not the quiet, contemplative variety common in the East—in fact, the record does not show that Nixon ever attended a traditional silent meeting.
East Whittier Church resembled a raucous Baptist or holiness congregation, with periodic revivals, rambunctious singing, and loud preachers; one of his mother’s aunts married a Quaker evangelist, the red haired and mustached Lewis Hadley, who hopped across the platform when he preached and tossed his Bible into the air as the spirit led him.
An active participant in such goings on, the youthful Nixon played the piano to lead the singing in East Whittier’s Sunday school, but he walked the sawdust trail as a teenager in a Los Angeles revival of the itinerant Chicago firebrand Paul Rader. Not a word leaked out about this seminal event for nearly 40 years, until 1962 when Nixon mentioned it in an article for Billy Graham’s magazine Decision.
By this time, Nixon had been elected vice president twice, but defeated in races for president in 1960 and governor of California in 1962. There were now five biographies, all describing his religious faith, but the principal sources always the subject himself and his mother Hannah Milhous Nixon.
Hannah painted her son in rosy tones as might be expected of a doting parent. But she depicted their shared Quakerism in distorted terms, making it sound as though East Whittier Church’s services were as quiet, staid, and reserved as her ancestors had known back East—not a word about hymn singing or her boisterous uncle.
“To us,” she confided to one Nixon chronicler, “worship requires no churches, no ministers, no sacraments, not even services.”
Her son thus had an opening to stress how Quakers were broad-minded, tolerant, and reticent about religion, a stance that allowed him to side-step embarrassing questions about peculiar and well-known Quaker testimonies involving pacifism, women’s rights, and race relations. Explaining why he distanced himself from public expressions of religion, he told his friend evangelist Billy Graham that piety for Quakers was private and inward: “We sit in silence.”
And critiquing a draft of a biography in 1959 by journalist Earl Mazo, Nixon suggested he underline his Milhous ancestors’ activity with the pre-Civil War underground railroad as a way to symbolize his own current “opposition to human injustices.” To newsman Bela Kornitzer he linked his concern with international affairs and the plight of people in less developed countries to his Quaker background.
His favored two-word phrase connecting him to Quakers was “Quaker heritage,” usually referring to his mother, as though Quakerism somehow resided in his genes. Eastern Quakers had a sterling historical reputation, for consistent stances against slavery, support for women’s rights, and testimony against war. This legacy is the one he used as a kind of whitewash when the political going got tough.
Despite four years of service with the Navy during World War II, the commander-in-chief of the army and navy told an interviewer for the New York Times in 1971, “I rate myself a deeply committed pacifist, perhaps because of my Quaker heritage from my mother.”
Where, then, was the “real” Nixon’s religious identity? I would argue that its noisy evangelical roots and character were well hidden, a cover-up carefully engineered by mother and son.
The examples above came well before the Watergate affair, by which Nixon is today best known and remembered. But Watergate, no matter how broadly defined, involved only the latest cover-up. The original one from which the others flowed dealt with the contours of Nixon’s deepest convictions—his religious faith.
No wonder he told his favored English biographer Jonathan Aitken that other authors had “underestimated” his Quaker heritage’s effect on his personality. Rather than merely undervaluing his religion, they had, he considered, underestimated its “Quaker” veneer, the very definition of a cover-up—his oldest, perhaps his most effective, certainly setting the pattern for his handling of Watergate, not to mention historians.