The Breakfast Table

Prayer in the White House


I agree with you about Mr. Clinton and his pastoral advisers. I have no objection to his putting himself in the hands of ministers. But he shouldn’t tell us about it, as if he were Huck Finn wanting a gold star for attending Sunday school. Whether I forgive him or not is unimportant. I don’t like the idea of a president who needs constant spiritual intervention to keep him from sinning, presumably on a legally accurate definition of sinning. He should go to a monastery, or whatever is the Southern Baptist equivalent.

I can tell you about my experience with prayer in the White House. In 1970, when I was on the Council of Economic Advisers, Billy Graham came to see Mr. Nixon. After their session, Rev. Graham came into the Roosevelt Room to meet with the White House Staff. The Council of Economic Advisers had just issued a forecast that the GNP in 1971 would be $1,065 billion. That forecast had been the object of much derision, because, in my opinion still, people did not understand that we were forecasting what we believed was the optimum feasible path of the economy. Anyway, the subject was very much on my mind. When I was introduced to Rev. Graham I said, brashly, “Put in a prayer for 1065”. Of course, he didn’t know what I was talking about. At least, I think he didn’t know.

Out of that meeting emerged the idea of a weekly prayer breakfast for the White House Staff. Soon thereafter about a dozen of us met in a private part of the White House Mess. There was a little conversation and someone suggested that we should hold the hands of the persons seated next to us, on each side, close our eyes and pray, When I opened my eyes I found that I had been holding the hand of Murray Chotiner, on one side of me. He had been one of Mr. Nixon’s political advisers in California. He was, like me a Jew, and as far as I knew a fine man. But he didn’t feel like a spiritual companion for me, and, anyway, Jews don’t hold hands in prayer. Altogether it seemed an inappropriate place and group of people for prayer, devoted as I was to the place and those people in our secular lives. I never went to the prayer breakfast again, and I don’t think there were many more of them.

It all left me uncomfortable about mixing Caesar’s world and God’s.

Anyway, we didn’t achieve the $1,065 billion GNP.