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Quaker, French-speaker, educator, anti-racist; Southern-born & raised, and talking enthusaist.


Was Richard Nixon Quaker?

Recently, I saw a video on QuakerSpeak (an online ministry of Friends Journal) which was supposed to answer the question "Was Richard Nixon Quaker?'

At first, I was intrigued.  Intrigued not because I had the same question in my mind, but curious as to how a online ministry of Friends would handle the question.  The answer was obvious to me, even though I don't like it: "yes, Nixon was a Quaker."

Now, when people point this out to me, I tend to say "well, he was an Evangelical Quaker."  I've become used to the puzzled look I get in reaction.  Few, if any, want a lengthy explanation beyond, "yes most Friends world-wide are evangelical and socially conservative; just not the ones you know here on the East Coast."   I realize, though, that qualifying what kind of Quaker creates a barrier between me and them.  I need to stop that.  If the person asking me wants to probe further, I can explain that we are diverse.  If they want more information I can go further.

There is no blanket statement that can be true for all Friends everywhere.  At one point, I thought it was safe to say that Friends believe that the divine source of their understanding speaks to them and leads them directly.  That source brings them into community and they go out in service to heal the world either materially or spiritually.  That's about it.  But then I realized that not all friends even believe in a divine source.  So Friends come together in our diverse communities to meet for worship (whatever that means) and to do service. Oh wait. Dangit. Not every Friend does service. We don't even all get together. There are isolated Friends who have no Friends community, though they may wish they were closer to one.

There are Friends at my very meeting who attend committee meetings regularly or serve the meeting in some other function, but rarely are seen at worship.

Heck, I disappeared for two years up at the Episcopal steeple house (until they asked me to serve on the vestry -- then I ran -- another blog).

There are Friends at all of the meetings where I have been a member who are on the rosters, but aren't active at all and haven't been in a long time. But if one asks "where is Friend so-and-so?" the response will be something like "ooooh, she's _________________."  There's a guess/explanation/reason  but when it comes down to it they aren't active or involved. They have separated themselves from the community by their absence.  Valid reason or not, they aren't there.

There are people who call themselves Quaker but who adamantly refuse to become members, who just haven't gotten around to it, or are agnostic about membership. 

So, we can't say much about what Friends believe about divinity or community.

We cannot make blanket statements about our testimonies and social views either.

Some Friends have the testimony on community, but not all involve the community in their family/personal decisions. They make them and tell the meeting what they're going to do after.  I confess to usually making big life decisions on my own, maybe talking to a few Friends about it, but usually after the decision has been made (except for marriage). Not all Friends even share with their ministers/ clearness committees/ ministry and counsel committees or pastors about their private lives. And as I stated above, they don't even all come to meeting for worship!

Not all friends eschew ritual.  Some Quakers baptize (evangelicals) and observe the Lord's Supper. Some Quakers practice Native American and Wiccan ritual (Liberals). Some believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, while others believe it's a bunch of bunk. Some hire ministers while others have thrown out ministers and elders altogether.  Some have altar calls and use technology in their worship. They send people on evangelistic missions to other countries.  Some feed the homeless, and support schools. Some Quakers work for social justice for all whereas others exclude LGBT rights from that work.  Some are pro-choice, some are pro-abortion (it's a necessary form of population control is the argument I've heard from some Friends), some are pro-life, some are anti-abortion.

Quakers helped found the Republican Party.  Though many are Democrats now, a large number are still Republican. There are Republicans in my meeting.  I was once one when living in Richmond, IN.

Not all Friends are pacifists.  Some may wish to see it a creed, but as Gary Cooper said in Friendly Persuasion, "A man who can't follow his conscience, ain't worth a hill of beans."  (Although Early Friends would deny that one's conscience is a valid source of guidance).  There are many Friends who are not pacifists and Friends differ on how to define that.  Plenty of Friends cemeteries have veterans in them.

Many Friends have healthy appetites (go to FGC to see how Friends eat), drive cars and trucks, buy clothes made abroad, use fossil fuels to heat and cool their homes, schools and meeting houses/churches.  They may or may not recycle; they may or may not use glass containers instead of plastic.

Simplicity is relative.  There are Friends who believe simplicity is being frugal and buying all used clothes, or cheap clothes. Some choose a "look" that might turn heads; not because it's old fashioned but because the wider culture would consider it tacky, tasteless, or down-right ragged.  Other Friends follow fashion trends whether punk, alternative, pop, business casual... whatever.  Then there are Plain Friends.  Some believe being plain is buying the best one can afford and running into the ground (I know a Friend who claimed that's why he bought a BMW; because it would last longer than a cheaper car, and retain its value).  While perhaps true, he was also being disingenuous.  (I know him intimately).

Equality:  Friends now accept and publicly admit that while we were great leaders in the Underground Railroad, we also were slave holders. Not all, but many. Too many.  We relegated black Quakers to the "black / back bench" even if they were recorded ministers (assuming I remember correctly what I read).  While we had women ministers and elders, and educated girls and boys equally, patriarchy still continues to rear its horned head well into the present day.  Then there are LGBT and people of color today.  How many Quaker meetings and churches are truly multi-racial?  How many predominantly white congregations have people of color as staff or professional ministers?  How many Quaker meetings have chosen to locate or keep their meeting houses in neighborhoods which aren't white?   How many LGBT and people of color do we encourage to serve our meetings (assuming we encourage anyone to serve our meetings)?  And we know that most Quakers in the world don't accept LGBT people as ministers, elders or people deserving of marriage.

I think the one area, and this is pointed out in the video, that Quakers can unite on, is Integrity.  This means, I think, that one's heart, mind and soul are in unity with one's speech and actions.  Faith and practice are whole.  We live the life that God wants us to live, as we perceive it, and try our best not to be rampant hypocrites. And when we are, we admit it and seek to remedy it as best we can, if we can.

And that leads me to the video.  In the video, our Friend Larry (who I have met and like) doesn't really seem to be answering the question "Was Richard Nixon Quaker?"   Because the answer is yes.. There isn't any debate on it.   He seems to be answering the question "Do we more liberally-minded Friends like that Richard Nixon was a Quaker?"  Or maybe "Was Richard Nixon active in a Quaker community?"  The answer to both of these question for me is "Nope."

But then some Quakers do like that he was a Friend.  Yes, in fact, there are those who see past his personal ... uh.... hmmm.... "issues" to the accomplishments he made to the nation and to the world.  After all he:

  • started initiatives to fight cancer
  • imposed wage and price controls
  • reformed healthcare and welfare
  • established the EPA, OSHA and signed into law the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act
  • Opened relations with China
  • And while he escalated the war with Vietnam, he also ended it
Sure he said the greatest threat to the war effort was pacifists, but guess what? There were probably Quakers who agreed with him in some yearly meetings.

What makes a person a Quaker is defined by the faith and practice of that persons's yearly meeting. It is the responsibility of the monthly meeting to tend to the spiritual and material welfare of its members.  It's the purview of the monthly meeting, and sometimes the quarterly and yearly meetings, do admonish, encourage and discipline its meetings and members.  Southwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church did not choose to disown or discipline Richard Nixon.  Friends Church (now a megachurch) could have done many things but chose not to, as far as I know. I do not know all of what they may have done in private.  What I can tell you about that church today is that when I worshiped there once for Christmas, I was moved deeply and especially touched by their ministries and social action; their concern for human trafficking, for example, and their massively funded ministry to build schools in India, and their various projects to serve their community as well. Yes, these are Friends.  Not pro gay, not silent and simple, probably mostly Republican, and they baptize. Quakers every one.

So, Friends. Richard Nixon was a Quaker. I don't like it.  Yet when we have a public forum to ask such a question let us be clear: we are speaking from a particular point of view. I strongly believe that we should be very careful about defining who is a Quaker.  We should make it abundantly clear to the public that yearly meetings decide their faith and practice.  And in this video, we should make it clear that we are judging an Evangelical Friend by our own liberal notions of what it means to be Quaker.

If I was a curious person just wanting an answer to the Nixon Quaker question, and if  view this video already biased against religion, then this video would have confirmed my bias that here is yet another religion arguing over who's in and out.  I could imagine myself perceiving this video to be only addressing whether Nixon was active or whether he conformed to some standard, something that some with a bias against religion (and some Quakers even) dislike -- conformity, rules.  This video gave opinions about what makes one a Quaker without clarifying our polity, faith and practice.  This doesn't mean I don't believe we should have parameters, but again, each yearly meeting (and sometimes each monthly meeting) defines those parameters.

One last comment while I'm starting to fade because it's late:  I know Quakers who  lie on their taxes, cheat on their partners, have sex indiscriminately, sell and use drugs, drink excessively, swear and curse up a storm, lie to others, lie to themselves, manipulate people in their families and their meetings, don't keep their word, put people's lives in danger with their behavior, prostitute and hire prostitutes,  focus on changing the world but do not like ministry that talks about personal character defects and transformation (let alone salvation/redemption/obedience/submission), are abusive to their families, are passive aggressive...  you get the point.

Yep.  Obviously, I keep anonymity, but such Friends are out there; perhaps not the majority, probably the minority (well, at least for some of that). but said Quakers exist. These Friends who do not hold to many of the testimonies of Friends (evangelical, liberal or Conservative) are in our meetings and churches. Some are open about it and are repentant. Others are hiding it.   Others are open about some of it, but aren't really doing anything about it, and their meetings aren't holding them accountable.  These Friends are not living the lives they should (by commonly held standards in our culture) and they certainly aren't living a life that their yearly meetings would like for them to live. But they are Quakers. They are all loved children of God.  Sins, faults and all.  These people are our friends.  We love them. We don't exclude them, even if they embarrass us. We embrace them. And forgive them.

Just like Richard Nixon's church and him.    Richard Nixon certainly had many of these faults, and granted he was a public figure, but he wasn't really a public Friend.  Before we judge his Quakerism perhaps we should be focusing first on ourselves and our own character defects. As a meeting we can focus on encouraging one another to do as Peace Pilgrim suggested to seek inner peace before and then spread/share that peace. We can follow the path of 12-step programs, which is to focus first on our own hurts, habits and hang-ups and our own character defects, build a relationship with our higher power, right as many wrongs as we can from our past, continue to promptly admit when we are wrong and make amends for it, and THEN share with others the way we overcame our own inner demons. Then those people can join our Society (or another) and heal and then go and heal others (Jesus' charge to his disciples). Consider that we are hypocrites every one if we claim peace, love, and harmony, healing and justice, when we don't know it experientially -- not within ourselves, not within our meetings, and certainly not across branches of Friends.  Yes, Israeilis and Palestinians, make peace. Lay down your arms.  But THAT Friend and THOSE Quakers.... 
IF we have not love, our testimonies, our entire faith and practice, are NOTHING. We are at best professors of the faith and not doers.  People will hear us, but we will wonder why they don't like or question what they hear.  Without love, we are certainly not children of the Light and of the Day.

I'd love to see QuakerSpeak do something on the role of Quaker communities in guiding the personal lives of Friends.  How do we help those Friends who we feel are hurting themselves or others or who are otherwise living out of the faith and practice of our yearly meetings?  Or do we? Have we given up that role? 

1 comment:

  1. I didn't watch that video, but I sure enjoyed your response.