The Quality of His Mercy

By Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and the author of “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation”  (THE WASHINGTON POST, 02/01/07):

In history’s light, the defining hour of Gerald Ford’s presidency came at 11 o’clock on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 8, 1974, when he announced his pardon of Richard Nixon. The country has already heard much about Ford’s role in healing the nation after Watergate and will undoubtedly hear more such reflections this morning when his life is commemorated at the Washington National Cathedral. It is fitting that these words will echo through the great nave, for Ford was, in a quiet, unnoticed way, an important figure in America’s public religion.

During his most critical moments in the White House — his assumption of power and the pardoning of Nixon — Ford drew deeply on theological imagery. Everyone knows that Ford said “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over” on Aug. 9, 1974. Much less quoted, but perhaps more revealing given the pardon, is a sentence he spoke a moment later: “[T]here is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.”

There were many reasons for the pardon that came a month later, but Ford also framed the decision in religious terms, terms that go far beyond routine political rhetoric. “I have promised to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best that I can for America,” Ford said that September Sunday. As God gives me to see the right: The phrase echoes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, itself a piece of American scripture.

Then Ford explicitly spoke of the “higher power” he had mentioned when he was sworn in. “The Constitution is the supreme law of our land, and it governs our actions as citizens. Only the laws of God, which govern our consciences, are superior to it.” In a New Testament allusion (“Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him”), Ford said: “I deeply believe in equal justice for all Americans, whatever their station or former station. The law, whether human or divine, is no respecter of persons; but the law is a respecter of reality.” The reality, Ford thought, was that a trial of the former president would most likely be unfair, drawn out and destructive. And finally: “I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as president but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.”

This is an extraordinary thing to say: Ford was linking his own fate beyond time to his actions within time. The idea that God punishes or rewards us, individually or collectively, for what we do on Earth, either in our own lives or in the life of the nation, is rooted in the American story. Abigail Adams believed a dysentery epidemic in Boston might be divine punishment for slavery; even Thomas Jefferson, whose religious ideas were, to say the least, unorthodox (he once took a razor to the Gospels, excising miraculous details he found implausible), believed there was a connection between the nation’s conduct and the supernatural. Reflecting on slavery, he once said: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Such an understanding, naturally, has hardly been unanimous, and many Americans are reasonably uncomfortable with the idea that our leaders think they are either communing with the divine or carrying out God’s mission. “Religion and government are certainly very different things, instituted for different ends,” said the Founding-era politician John Dickinson, “the design of one being to promote our temporal happiness; the design of the other to procure the favor of God, and thereby the salvation of our souls. While these are kept distinct and apart, the peace and welfare of society is preserved, and the ends of both are answered. By mixing them together, feuds, animosities and persecutions have been raised, which have deluged the world in blood, and disgraced human nature.”

Time and again in the American experience, however, the culture has been more in line with Lincoln’s — and Ford’s — views on the question of religious expression and thought in the public sphere than it has been to that of strict separationists. Guarding against excessive religious influence in our public affairs is an unending task, and the virtues of justice and mercy are universal (or should be).

“I am charged with being a preacher,” Theodore Roosevelt once said. “Well, I suppose I am. I have such a bully pulpit.” In his quiet way, Gerald Ford used that pulpit more than most, and his essential message — of forgiveness and grace — is one worth remembering today, and in years to come.