Today marks the centennial of former President Gerald R. Ford’s birth and the 25th anniversary of the Chapel at Beaver Creek, where he played a key founding role.
Ford lost the bicentennial presidential election to evangelical Jimmy Carter because he ran ahead of history’s curve. His conciliatory temperament didn’t jibe with voters’ preference toward argumentative Christianity. They expected Ford to make waves against secular humanism. Instead, his campaigning style resembled smooth stones sliding on the surface of rough political waters.
Consequently, Ford lacked a rousing endorsement from conservatives aligned with evangelical Christians. This voting bloc pressed two issues: to restore prayer and Bible reading in public schools, and to demonized anyone who questioned their anti-abortion agenda.
President Ford received lukewarm conservative support, observes biographer Douglas Brinkley. Many evangelical Christians, who aligned with the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s emerging Moral Majority, found Ford’s strong, vital faith in God confusing. He held libertarian beliefs that “the government should stay out of the board room, the class room and the bedroom. He was mystified by aggressive social conservatives who openly denounced government yet were perfectly willing to use government in order to pursue their fundamentalist Christian agenda” (Gerald R. Ford, pp. 139, 148).
The irony of Ford’s life is that the quality which cost him the presidential election spurred him to help build the exquisite Chapel at Beaver Creek 25 years ago. His political and religious instinct was to build bridges over barriers, not dig trenches. He raised white flags to subdue religious arguments in the public square. The chapel is a visual manifestation of peaceful cooperation. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity” (Psalm 133:1).
The chapel, which looks like a centuries-old English fieldstone church, is nestled near the main Centennial ski lift, where it radiates a spirit of cooperative ministry. Visitors, religious and not, enter this sacred sanctuary and are elevated by the majestic play of light and shadow.
As president of the Beaver Creek Religious Foundation in the 1990s, I observed boisterous skiers enter the sanctuary but immediately quiet down. They encountered a creative power that charges the atmosphere of this quaint chapel.
The core value of The Chapel at Beaver Creek is that religious people form an interfaith center of dialogue, not debate, to do shared ministries. It’s a quality Gerald R. Ford personified.
He served as 5th District congressman for my hometown, Grand Rapids, Mich. Polish Catholics settled on the west side of the Grand River, and Dutch Calvinists immigrants on the east bank. President Ford was of neither stock. But with his blue eyes and sandy hair, he looked Polish and Dutch enough to get overwhelmingly elected overwhelmingly to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ford’s family defined themselves as Episcopalians, attending the small Grace Episcopalian Church in Grand Rapids. Young Ford’s faith wasn’t blustery, didn’t stir doctrinal fights and wasn’t used as a Gospel cudgel to club the unrepentant into submission.
Biographer Hendrik Booraem describes Christian style that melded with young Gerald Ford’s temperament. “There was grace before meals, daily Bible reading, family devotions led by his father, and prayer at night. There was no meditation, no discussion, no posturing — just simple, non-dogmatic action. The feeling and the conviction were there, as they were in orderly Episcopalian worship services the Fords attended, with their hymns and responses” (Young Jerry Ford: Athlete and Citizen, pp. 14-15, 2013).
In 2001, President Ford shared how he practiced Christian faith, “I hope you will reject those on both extremes who mistake the honest clash of ideas for a holy war. The bigger the issue, the greater the need for political courage.”
Such irenic convictions didn’t get him elected in 1976. What Time Magazine dubbed “The Year of the Evangelical” favored opinionated, testy, argumentative religion.
Speaking at Ann Arbor’s Ford Library in October 1996, President Ford lamented fractious politics. “An election campaign is a conversation we have with ourselves,” he reflected. “Lately it seems as if many Americans are barely on speaking terms with each other. Just as bad, millions of us have tuned out to the conversation altogether.”
Gerald R. Ford helped establish the Chapel at Beaver Creek where Christians, Jews and people of differing persuasions band together in common witness and good. Here people share values rather than hype religious biases. Here people worship rather than fight religious wars.
Ironic isn’t it? An amiable Christian faith lost Ford the 1976 presidential election. However, it won for him a wide community of faith in Beaver Creek.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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