Ford, Carter, and Other Precedence on Public Faith

Interesting article about the faith of the late former President Gerald Ford who seems to have taken an approach that many Asians implicitly understand, that is: There is no need to make people feel uncomfortable if you don’t have to. Here’s an excerpt:

For years Ford faithfully attended a weekly late-morning prayer session with several friends in the House: John Rhodes of Arizona, Mel Laird of Wisconsin and Al Quie of Minnesota. The sessions, which began in 1967 and continued off and on through 1975, were “very quiet,” totally off the record, Ford said. Talk about going to Bible study, he worried, and people will get the idea that you think you’re somehow better than they are.

Former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist who taught Sunday school, did mission work, filled in for preachers when they were on vacation and told the crowd at a backyard reception in March 1976 that he had been born again. His sister Ruth Carter Stapleton was herself an evangelist who used to minister to reporters on the back of Carter’s campaign plane and wrote letters to the faithful enlisting them in her brother’s cause. Carter’s campaign autobiography Why Not the Best talked about his midlife conversion and was a surprise best seller. Asked once to distill his campaign message into one word, Carter said, “Faith.”

Carter’s religious appeal inspired Zeoli to propose a counterattack. “I said, ‘Jerry, look, Carter’s a fine guy, a fine Christian. But nobody knows you’re a Christian. Let’s put a book together about your faith, and about how God has used you.'”

But Ford flatly refused. “You told me a long time ago we’re not going to take advantage of our faith to get elected,” he reminded Zeoli. Ford declined to allow Zeoli to lend his name to Preachers’ committees for Ford. “He thought he’d be using his chaplain to get votes,” Zeoli recalled. Ford later revealed that he found Carter’s discussion of his faith unsettling. “I have always felt a closeness to God and have looked to a higher being for guidance and support,” Ford explained, “but I didn’t think it was appropriate to advertise my religious beliefs.”

Ford’s pardon of Nixon might have cost him the election, but I really admire the fact that he did so, and did so prayerfully.

While as an Asian among Asians, I can tend to be extroverted and even boisterous, in a mixed crowd, I find that I can scarcely fit a word in edgewise. In matters of faith, because I know the ramifications of how differences can create rifts in relationships, sometimes I choose not to wear my faith on my sleeve and I think Asians by and large are willing to have that kind of harmony in order to build accessibility. I can understand why people would criticize this type of mentality citing Paul’s “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” verse, which I agree with you. But I come from a proud and stiff-necked people, and while I am not ashamed of the gospel, I realize that more than ever, as Marshall McLuhan says, “the medium is the message.”

This is also why I think the pathology that I’ve seen in Asian American churches is problematic, because we say publicly that Jesus is the way, but privately it’s a very difficult sell once you look under the hood. Do the public problems of our churches exhibit a problem with our private faith? Or does our private faith suffer from the problems of lacking churches? Is our generation still too “young” to demonstrate the character to support our churches? Or our churches too static to propel us forward?

Former President Ford seems to have had a faith that echoes the expression of St. Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel and if necessary, use words.” Often in today’s evangelical climate, it appears we use words, too many of them, but only preach the gospel when necessary. But even our words fall short when I see the broken lives quickly becoming disenchanted with the church. Is what we say publicly matching with what is going on privately? How public can we afford our private faith to be — or vice versa? I’m not talking about the state of the union, but about the state of my heart…and my church.

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