The Other Born-Again President?

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U.S. President Gerald Ford and Billy Zeoli bow their heads at a National Religious Broadcasters Annual Congressional Breakfast in 1975. Zeoli served as an informal chaplain in the Ford White House.

We can never know the real story about a President's faith. We only know what he does — or refuses to do — in God's name.

Voters were unwilling to forgive Gerald Ford for his great act of forgiveness, the unconditional pardon of Richard Nixon. But there was another side to the pardon, the presidency and the 1976 campaign that received much less attention, in part because Ford wanted it that way. The contest between Ford and Jimmy Carter was a battle between two born-again Christians — but only one was willing to run as one.

Ford's faith was ignited in Grand Rapids, Mich., a center of Dutch Calvinist congregations so strict that even in the late 1950s there were arguments over whether it was appropriate to read the newspaper on the Sabbath. Ford's upbringing was more relaxed. Some Sunday afternoons, he recalled, "I'd just go out and play baseball. Of course, some of my Dutch friends weren't allowed to do that." As a young Michigan Congressman, he met a gospel-film executive named Billy Zeoli who came by Ford's office and gave him a Bible. Over the next few years the two men became close — so close that Ford came to call Zeoli "an alter ego, a second self."

Among their bonds was a love of sports: Ford had been an All-American football player, and Zeoli created a ministry for professional athletes. It was at a pregame "football chapel," Zeoli says, that Ford renewed his personal commitment to Christ. Zeoli was holding a service at a Washington-area Marriott hotel for the Dallas Cowboys, in town to play the Redskins. Ford, who was then the Republican minority leader in Congress, came to hear his friend preach on "God's Game Plan." Ford was especially moved by the sermon and hung around to talk with Zeoli privately afterward about Christ and forgiveness and what it meant. The inquiry felt real and raw; was that the moment Ford committed himself to Christ? "It's hard to say when a man does that," Zeoli says plainly. "That's a God thing. But I think that day is the day he looked back to as an extremely important day of knowing Christ." Ford later affirmed in a published tribute to his chaplain that he and Zeoli "both put our trust in Christ, our Saviour, and have relied on Him for direction and guidance throughout our lives."

When Ford became Vice President in the fall of 1973, Zeoli began sending him a weekly devotional memo that would be waiting on Ford's desk on Monday mornings. It always had the same title — "God's Got a Better Idea" — and began with scripture (always from the King James version, Ford's preferred translation) and ended with a prayer. Zeoli sent 146 devotionals in all, every week through Ford's presidency. "Not only were they profound in their meaning and judicious in their selection," Ford said, "I believe they were also divinely inspired." Beyond the memos, Zeoli and Ford would meet privately every four or five weeks for prayer and Bible study. Their conversations took place either in the Oval Office or the family quarters upstairs.

One of his first acts as President was some spiritual housecleaning. Among the more ingeniously cynical inventions of the Nixon Administration was the much publicized White House Church Service, which in addition to providing genuine fellowship for those so inclined, was a prime tool for image building, fund raising, arm twisting and dealmaking for the President's men. Two days after Ford was sworn in, his wife Betty Ford would write in her diary, a little pointedly, "There aren't going to be any more private services in the East Room for a select few." During his first Sunday as President Ford and Betty went to the same church that they had attended for more than 20 years: Immanuel-on-the-Hill in Alexandria.

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