01/09/2013 11:34 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Advice for Rev. Giglio: Remember Machiavelli -- and Nixon

Remember Machiavelli. That's my unsolicited advice for Rev. Louie Giglio after reading that the Obama team has selected him to deliver the benediction -- a good word -- at this month's presidential inauguration.

Machiavelli understood, arguably better than anyone of his age, that religion can be an effective tool for buttressing the prince's stature and advancing his politics. The sharp-minded Italian theorist also counseled the prince to wield religion as a political weapon.

With Machiavelli in mind, I suspect that the Obama team chose Giglio not merely because he is a famous expert in college-age ministry, though that he is. They plucked him also because he will no doubt represent U.S. society well and at least tacitly agree to glorify Barack Obama on his special day. That's just what politicians often do: use religion to legitimate themselves and their politics.

Am I being too cynical?

Possibly, but with good reason: I've recently been studying a 20th-century Machiavellian, Richard Nixon, and his practice of holding church services in the White House.

Bear with me as I tell you about this heretical practice.

One of the most striking things I've learned is that even Billy Graham, court chaplain extraordinaire, eventually conceded that it was a mistake for the Nixon administration to host Sunday morning church services at the White House.

While Graham had initially believed that the services would set an example of Christian piety for the country, by the mid-1970s he agreed that the Nixon White House had wrongly used the services as just another tool for political purposes.

He was certainly right about that.

Richard Nixon treated the services as political weapons and complained bitterly when he felt they were not beneficial to him. "I don't want these goddamn things unless it's going to be worthwhile," he stated in 1972.

Nixon had inaugurated the services on Jan. 26, 1969, and because he saw the political benefits that might accrue to him, he assumed a leading role in planning them. White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman made this point crystal-clear when he wrote in a memo that "the President is very much personally involved in these services and the impressions they create amongst the people and in the press."

Few things about the services escaped Nixon's attention.

Even the customary practice of shaking hands at the end of the service caught his eye. Speaking about this practice to his wife Pat, the president said: "We'll just have you, me, and the minister. Not the minister's wife. Hell, nobody wants to meet his wife anyway. He probably doesn't want to meet her."

Liturgical content captured Nixon's attention, too, and he blew his top when the media offered negative commentary about the decision to sing the Doxology ("Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost") at a White House service where a Jewish rabbi preached. The president had actually phoned Haldeman about this potential problem several times on the night before the service.

The issue of politics came to the fore most visibly in the selection of ministers and worshippers, and Nixon played a heavy-handed role in all of this.

As a nominal Quaker, Nixon felt obliged to invite a leading Quaker to speak at one of the services. But as a Republican executing the war in Vietnam, he was also wary of the historic peace testimony of the Quakers.

His solution was to settle on inviting Dr. Elton Trueblood of Earlham College. "He is one of the few," Nixon dictated for a memo, "that I think might do an adequate job without bringing too much pacifism and politics into his remarks."

The president also shrewdly invited lesser political leaders to select a minister who could ably lead a White House service. Nixon did this with Rep. Clark MacGregor of Minnesota. MacGregor successfully pitched his favorite Lutheran minister, but the "political advantage" of the scenario, as Haldeman noted in a memo, was lost when the White House staff failed to invite MacGregor to the service. Haldeman was not happy.

But Nixon was generally pleased with the sermons he was hearing, and by the end of June 1969 he asked Haldeman for a progress report on his suggestion that the White House sermons be published in book form. "I want it done," Nixon stated.

He got what he wanted. Harper & Row published White House Sermons, with an introduction by Richard Nixon, in 1972.

But the book resulted in negative press, including a lengthy review suggesting that the bland sermons, with hardly a word about Vietnam, offered evidence to back Reinhold Niebuhr's claim that nothing dulls the critical faculties like an invitation to the White House.

The ministers were all yes men -- for God and Nixon on one holy ticket.

Predictably, Nixon also crafted the guest list with power politics in mind. While he claimed to be a president in touch with Middle America, he was not too keen on Middle Americans attending his services. Here's what Haldeman wrote in a 1969 memorandum: "The President feels that 300 is about right for total attendance at church services; but he wants the guest list balance changed in order to have a maximum of 75 White House workers, etc. and the rest VIP people from Congress, Sub-Cabinet, agencies, etc. He felt there were too many of the worker-level types at the Cardinal Cooke service this past Sunday."

A few months later, in March 1970, Nixon also requested that Church Colson, his main political hatchet man, "develop a list of wealthy people with strong religious interest to be invited to the White House church service." Colson was rewarded for his work; his seat allocation responsibilities increased from 45 to 50 per service. Only the president's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, was responsible for as many seats.

Nixon also engineered the guest list as a way to tame his opponents. Haldeman explained this in another memo, writing that the president "wants to hold more Church Services than we've had in the past and he wants these to be the one major opportunity where we bring in Democrats and others who are against us. The point here is that when we do this, and especially when we bring them in with their families, we tend to cut the hostility a bit."

All this suggests that Nixon was a faithful disciple of Machiavelli. He was also a relatively effective Machiavellian, fooling Billy Graham and countless other everyday citizens into thinking that the services were primarily about worshipping God. How cruel.

But Graham, I should note, was not merely an innocent victim; he regularly pitched conservative ministers who would preach sermons that Nixon would not find distasteful. Together, Nixon and Graham formed an unholy alliance that turned God into a conservative Republican -- a heresy among heresies.

If nothing else, the Nixon White House services can help us imagine the ongoing danger of religious invitations from the White House. They're not sweet. They're not kind. They're not generous. They most likely emerge out of a Machiavellian process focused on shoring up votes, and they can indeed dull the critical faculties, turning guests into fawning disciples begging to carry the president's cloak.

But that effect is not necessary: Rev. Giglio does not have to be like Billy Graham. He does not have to be as compliant and complicit as all those speakers and worshippers at the heretical Nixon White House services.

Even though he has been chosen for political purposes to deliver "a good word," and even though he is clearly being used as a tool for politics, Giglio can exercise freedom -- the freedom of God -- from those who seek to wield the sacred merely for the profane.

How best to do this?

For God's sake, Rev. Giglio, send the invitation back -- with a prophetic malediction.

Click through the slideshow to see inaugural invocations of the past:

Inauguration Invocations