James Reston: Prophet of American Civil Religion

by Leo Sandon, Jr.

Dr. Sandon is associate professor of religion and director of American studies at Florida State University, Tallahassee.

This article appeared in the Christian Century January 5-12, 1977, p. 15. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The writings of one of the nations most prominent journalists, James Reston, demonstrate that he has been a consistent and influential spokesman for civil religion. His is a prophetic voice whose Calvinist heritage has shaped his attitudes toward the behavior of people in power.

Since the initial publication of Robert N. Bellah’s widely reprinted 1967 essay on “Civil Religion in America,” theologians, historians and sociologists have given much attention to the phenomenon Bellah described. In that influential article Bellah argued “that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well institutionalized civil religion in America.” Following Bellah’s lead, most commentators on the topic have focused on the foundation documents of the republic, presidential inaugural addresses, the ritual and ceremonial involved in the observance of regular national holidays, and occasional events such as the funeral of a president.

Priests and Prophets

Representative spokesmen for the civil religion have tended to be selected from the ranks of politicians, particularly American presidents. But since the founding of the Republic, that sphere of civil life which Edmund Burke called “the fourth estate” has been considered an essential part of the American democratic process. It seems likely, then, that American journalism has also provided its spokesmen for the civil religion. One thinks, for instance, of Charles Wellborn’s impressive study on Walter Lippmann as the spokesman for the “public philosophy” (Twentieth Century Pilgrimage: Walter Lippman and the Public Philosophy [Louisiana State University Press, 1969]). It is my contention that the thought and writings of James Reston, one of the nation’s most prominent journalists, demonstrate that he has been a consistent and influential spokesman for the American civil religion.

Martin E. Marty has suggested that there are two forms of civil religion -- the “priestly” and, the “prophetic.” Marty maintains that most politicians tend to assume the priestly role. Reston sees the role of the fourth estate as a prophetic one in creative tension with the politicians.

I find civil religion motifs in Reston’s focus on “the American Dream,” in his belief that the precepts of the Republic’s founding documents were political affirmations of certain religious concepts, in his belief in America’s unique moral role in world affairs -- and in his concern for injecting morality into public-policy discussions. My analysis of his thought is based on his three major books, selections from his columns and public addresses, and my own Interview with Mr. Reston.

A Calvinist Heritage

James Reston is now a vice-president of the New York Times; based in Washington, he writes an editorial page column three times a week. His preeminent reputation as a reporter was achieved during his service as correspondent and chief of the Times Washington bureau from 1953 to 1964. Over the years Reston has received many journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in both 1945 and 1957. In 1971 Reston visited China -- seven months prior to President Nixon’s visit. His historic five-hour interview with Chou En-lai, coupled with his letters and columns from China, perhaps constitute the peak of his journalistic career.

Reston was born in Clydebard, Scotland, in 1909, the son of strict Scottish Presbyterian parents. Reston wanted to be a preacher and was encouraged in this ambition by his mother. His father, a machinist, took the family to the United States in 1911; they returned to Scotland a few months later. In 1920 the Restons moved back to the United States to stay, this time in Dayton, Ohio, where they lived in the industrialized section of the community. His mother’s frugality and her Calvinistic ambition for her son represent the paradigm of the immigrant experience in America: “Make something of yourself,” she urged. “It’s no sin to be poor, but it’s a sin to remain in poverty” (Time, February 15, 1960, p. 76).

Many references have been made to Reston’s role as “preacher.”’ In The Kingdom and the Power (World, 1969) Gay Talese observes that Reston’s persuasive tone of moralism and idealism brings his readers the inner elevation of a good Sunday sermon.

His strict Scotch Presbyterian mother had wanted him to become a preacher, and as a Times man he had become one, his column being the podium from which he could spread his Calvinist view of life throughout the land, thrilling thousands with his sound logic and clarity, influencing students, educators, and politicians, sometimes infuriating such presidents as Eisenhower, who once asked, “Who the hell does Reston think he is, telling me how to run the country?” Reston expected great things from the mighty, not only muscle and heart but also some piety and nobility of spirit; and yet when they failed him, as they most often did, he did not damn them but rather foresaw signs of redemption and hope [p. 9].

Again, Reston has been called “America’s conscience’ by Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post.

It sounds pompous, but if you look at it, it is unpompous. He has morality mixed with humor and Just plain humanity. He points out things that should be pointed out. His Scotch Presbyterian background is very basic to his views and it is a little of what we all need at this point [“James Reston: America’s Conscience,” by Madelaine Blais, Womens Wear Daily, August 17, 1973, p. 7].

Such Comments leave Reston uneasy, and he is inclined to disavow these designations. He does not deny that there is in his “approach to things a strong ethical and maybe Calvinist view of life” which influences what he says. But to emphasize his Presbyterian confessional background would be to fall into hypocrisy.

I wish I had my parents’ faith -- true personal faith. I don’t have it. I have echoes of it and shadows of it, and it greatly influences my thought. But in terms of the kind of true Presbyterian faith -- belief in the literalness of the Bible and all of that -- that I don’t have; not in the sense my parents had it.

Reston is similarly embarrassed with Ms. Graham’s suggestion that “he succeeds Walter Lippmann as the journalist of most eminence” (Blais, op. cit.). Reston had a close friendship with Lippmann; he has written that Lippmann’s “reflective and disciplined life has given his writing a scope and grace unmatched in American journalism today and probably not surpassed by any living political writer in the English language” (Sketches in the Sand [Knopf, 1967], pp. 213-214). Reston admits that his work is in continuity with the Lippmann tradition but denies that he has inherited Lippmann’s mantle.

Lippmann was streets beyond any of us writing today . . . a true philosopher. He really was a scholar of the roots of our civilization and had a deeply thought out philosophy about it . . . he relied to a very large extent on his own cerebrations about these things. I don’t. I’m a reporter of other men’s ideas to a very large extent.

The American Dream

Reston’s first book, Prelude to Victory (Knopf, 1942), was an effort to persuade the nation to enter fully and unreservedly into World War II. He asked his readers to put everything in their personal and professional lives to the simple test: will it help win the war?

Moreover -- and this is the theme of the book -- we cannot win this war until it ceases to be a struggle for personal aims and material things and becomes a national crusade for America and the American Dream. That is the Prelude to Victory, and nothing less will do. In our conception of that dream, in the strength of our conviction of the new world it can create, and in our willingness to make all sacrifices willingly and without reservation for the democratic ideal lie not only our hope of total victory but our only hope of personal satisfaction and happiness during this era. . . . I believe, therefore, that if, in our personal lives and our daily business decisions, we put everything to the simple test: Will It Help Win The War?, we shall not only achieve victory over our enemies but we shall regain that simple, Christian, resolute way of life which always was and, despite the past two decades, still is the strength of our people [p. x].

Reston’s deep belief in America is reflected in his immersion, in its history and his familiarity with the biographies of its statesmen. He is particularly interested in Woodrow Wilson and also quotes liberally from Thomas Jefferson. David Halberstam has remarked: “Scotty believes in democracy. He believes his marriage helped him and that wives should help husbands and husbands help wives and they should hold hands while jointly going into the sunset. He believes the values he preaches, even though they may be values that are under enormous assault right now” (“Scotty Reston of the Times: The One, the Only -- and the Last,” by Horace Sutton, Saturday Review, January 29, 1972, p. 14). Gay Talese adds:” He stands for a belief in virtue and religion, a respect for the system and the divine deity” (ibid.).

The theme he articulated in 1942 has been a consistent center of Reston’s writing to the present. Writing on November 2, 1973, about the Watergate crisis, Reston quoted Gerald Ford’s reference to President Eisenhower’s rule for public men. Suggesting that if Nixon were to follow Eisenhower’s advice, he would resign, Reston wrote:

Washington is still deeply divided on the resignation-impeachment question, but on one thing it is united, namely that the time for self-deception is past and that the time has come, in Ike’s first rule, to “get all the facts and all the good counsel you can, and then do what’s best for America.”

Morality and Public Policy

Reston self-consciously addresses what he identifies as the moral dimension of public issues. Frequently he distinguishes between discussing issues on a political level, a public-relations level or a legalistic level, and engaging problems in a morally adequate way.

Reston disagrees with Reinhold Niebuhr’s sharp distinction between private morality and institutional morality:

I don’t see this distinction . . . I don’t accept it as a personal philosophy that the state may do something totally against the ethics of the state. I think this is wrong and therefore I write from this point of view. . . To accept the idea that they are different and to say institutions do not really have an ethical responsibility is wrong. If you believe this you argue this point. You do the best you can to make the institutional ethics do what an honorable man would do in a conflict.

Reston does not deny that there is an element of truth in Niebuhr’s analysis, but he is convinced that this element has been accepted and applied too easily by many persons today. Thus, many people have been able to assume that our leaders were justified in lying about the Cambodian bombings, that a labor union can pursue a policy which its members would deem immoral on the level of individual behavior, that a committee to re-elect a president is perhaps justified in engaging in acts not acceptable in private behavior. Reston is willing to acknowledge a prophetic intent in the way in which he engages the moral dimension of social issues. In a spring 1973 column he wrote:

 “Why is it bad to shrug off the ideal standards of honesty in politics, business, and love?” Walter Lippmann asked back in 1960. “Because it defeats us and frustrates our lives. If we do not harden ourselves by stretching ourselves to reach upward to these not wholly attainable ideals, we slump down and settle into flabbiness and footlessness and boredom . . .

Reston’s moral philosophy is rooted in a religious statement which essentially is that of the civil religion tradition. Reston suggests his basic understanding of the relation between national morality and religion in these words:

There is a yearning which comes out of my family and Scottish religious background which is the conviction that there is always this duality — this struggle between good and evil. A’s we become less a religious country in a formal sense, the political leader has an obligation to try to appeal to that good side . . . the better side of man’s nature. The government of our country, I still believe, is the real hope of any moral basis for political action in the world . . . that is the role of America and has been throughout our history. When we get a Watergate and a Cambodian bombing, that to me is like my country being unfaithful. It is almost as if my wife were unfaithful. This is letting down the noble tradition of America. So I criticize it. It isn’t a criticism from a strictly religious point of view. It is an ethical’ point of view. It is historically an effort to remind us that the democratic political system was really “political affirmation” of certain religious concepts . . . the basic ethics of all religions for that matter, but it’s not a sectarian thing.

Reston acknowledges his indebtedness to Herbert Butterfield as the theologian who has perhaps had the most important influence on his thinking.

Butterfield says that the great flaw is the feeling that a man or a group of men can command history. They presume to see that the application of power in a certain situation will bring about the desired result. History illustrates what the limitations of man’s power are and his inability to foresee the consequences of actions. He thinks if he can plan everything out very carefully and if things fall into place, his thesis will be justified, but they never fall into place. Therefore it’s the old business: you’ve got to leave something to the Lord.

Skepticism and Pity

As a spokesman for the national covenant, Reston applies a polar principle of interpretation when he speaks to those who hold political power, particularly presidents: his premise or “hermeneutic” is that of skepticism and pity.

Reston assumes that one cannot be in the newspaper business without developing a certain skepticism toward power. Beyond this natural skepticism there are three technical developments that have increased the need for skepticism: the atomic bomb, the intercontinental ballistic missile, and nation-wide television. “If [the president] has that power, which is really the power of life and death over the human family, then obviously that power has to be watched with the greatest vigilance and skepticism -- including the psyche of the man who uses it.” Reston does not argue with presidents from a partisan point of view, but rather with a predisposition to lean against the presidential power which has become so great as to unbalance our system.

Along with skepticism, Reston brings a sense of “pity” to his commentary on the use of power by those in political authority. He is impressed with the enormous complexity of the issues facing the modern American presidency. If one has access to power and is knowledgeable about the range of problems facing a president, one has to have a certain sense of pity. One begins with realizing human limitation.

I do have pity and understanding. I’ve never understood what the Lord’s Prayer meant by “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” until this generation. If ever a generation was led into temptation, this one has been. I say that with a certain sympathy for them. I don’t think if we had had the same temptations we would have been strong enough, or any more moral, or any better in dealing with them. They have really been led into it.

The Saving Remnant

In his Elihu Root Lectures, published under the title The Artillery of the Press: Its Influence on American Foreign Policy (Harper & Row, 1966), Reston, borrowing a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, spoke of the relationship between reporters and officials. “My theme is that the rising power of the United States in world affairs, and particularly of the American President, requires, not a more compliant press, but a relentless barrage of facts and criticism, as noisy but also as accurate as artillery fire” (p. vii). In this volume Reston identified the hope for national faithfulness with the vitality of what he called “the saving remnant.” Referring to Matthew Arnold’s remark, made almost a century earlier, to the effect that the saving remnants failed in Judah and Athens because they were not large enough, but that in America the remnant was larger, Reston ventured the hope that popular education meant that the remnant was growing. It is to this remnant that Reston consciously addressed his efforts.

My hope is that the best elements in the press, in networks and governments, in the schools, colleges, universities and the church, in business, commerce and finance will prevail over the worst, and create a “remnant,” in Arnold’s terms, that will have a dominant influence in our society. My fear is that the remnant will be divided, exhausted, and corrupted. The danger of this is very real [ibid., p. 107].

In 1979 Reston, writing from Charlottesville, Virginia, noted that a group of citizens, thinking about the approaching 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, had identified the national crisis as basically a moral crisis.

Reston suggested that there was great sympathy for the president throughout the country, but that the people “concentrate on the simple questions of right and wrong, and this is why Mr. Nixon is in such serious trouble.” Reston found the cause of the problem in Nixon’s betrayal of the national civil covenant:

For he was elected triumphantly a year ago at least partly, and maybe even mainly, because he was seen by a vast majority of the people as a defender of law and principle and established institutions and the moral order, and he is condemned now precisely because his Administration is now seen to have been unfaithful to the moral order he was elected to defend. The fire storm of criticism over the last two weeks didn’t start on Capitol Hill and wasn’t provoked by legal decisions. It finally came from the people because the President didn’t tell the truth and didn’t keep his promises [New York Times, November 4, 1979, p. E-17].

Then, in words which call on the central motifs of the civil religious tradition, Reston thanked the Charlottesville citizen committee for suggesting “that a responsible society must have a common center to which the loyalty and trust of the people are bound, and that these fundamentals must be defined and discussed among the people and put right before the bicentennial of the Declaration in 1976.”

I am led to conclude that in the thought and writing of James Reston we find an unmistakable civil religious orientation. Though “echoes” of Reston’s Presbyterian-Calvinist heritage are present, his religious position clearly is not sectarian. Reston’s God, like the one Bellah described, is typical of the God of civil religion, is on the vague and austere side, “much more related to order, law, and right than to salvation and love.”

Further, Reston is a prophet of civil religion. He is concerned to speak about the right mode of behavior to those in political power. In suggesting that there are two forms of civil religion, the priestly and the prophetic, Martin Marty judged that the former was exemplified in Nixon’s White House worship services and alliance with Billy Graham, the latter by Senator Mark Hatfield’s criticism of America’s involvement in Vietnam at a presidential prayer breakfast.

I would disagree with Marty -- I think Senator Hatfield’s remarks were not an expression of prophetic civil religion but rather a criticism of civil religion from the standpoint of a vigorous evangelical Protestant witness. But in Reston we have a true prophet of the civil religion -- i.e., one who criticizes public policy from within the civil religious tradition.