Donald Rumsfeld's Golden Rule

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

Donald Rumsfeld is normally tight-lipped about religion. When President George W. Bush asked him to begin a cabinet meeting with a prayer, it came as a surprise, as he "had never been one to wear my faith on my sleeve," he admits in his memoir Known and Unknown.

Still, Rumsfeld says he prayed fervently. It was, after all, September 14, 2001.

"Ever faithful God," Rumsfeld began, "We seek Your special blessing today for those who stand as sword and shield, protecting the many from the tyranny of the few. Our enduring prayer is that You shall always guide our labors and that our battles shall always be just."

"Just" was an intriguing word, coming from a Secretary of Defense and my former boss, so I ask him when we spoke from his Washington, D.C. office late last month, if he believes the Iraq war is a just one. "I do," he says without the slightest pause. "In an era where the lethality of weapons has grown and when you're dealing with a regime whose President is known as the 'Butcher of Baghdad' -- he had killed thousands of his own people, used chemical weapons against his neighbors, and had thumbed his nose at something like 17 United Nations resolutions -- a President doesn't have a large margin for error."

Ignoring another monstrous threat would have been "immoral," he says, and imprudent so soon after September 11. Intelligence that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his chemical and biological weapon arsenal, whether or not it later turned out to be somewhat inaccurate, was not to be discounted. In the end, Rumsfeld insists, "the world is clearly a better place without Saddam Hussein."

His certainty brushes up against a tripwire in the debate over just war theory. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says that the tradition begins with a "presumption against the use of force." Several prominent theologians disagree. George Weigel, for instance, contends that a "rightly constituted public authority is under a strict moral obligation to defend the security of those for whom it has assumed responsibility." Further, Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine argued that a just war can be "one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly."

Contrary to some sensationalist reports, the Pentagon didn't obsess over all this. "I don't remember opening meetings in the Department of Defense with prayer or with Biblical quotes. I think there was somebody in the Department who did that from time to time in a briefing paper," Rumsfeld says, "but I don't recall doing it myself." Even so, Donald Rumsfeld is hardly a Satanist, as some of the vitriol leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 would suggest (for fun, try Googling "Rumsfeld" and "Satan"). He grew up praying in a Congregational church in Winnetka, a North Shore suburb of Chicago just a few blocks west of Lake Michigan.

For the Rumsfelds, faith was a family affair. "I can still remember the minister, Samuel Harkness, who was a fine preacher and someone who inspired the congregation," Rumsfeld says. A young Donald and his sister, Joan, participated in many Christmas pageants and other church activities. Today, you'll find the Rumsfeld name scattered throughout the Winnetka church. George D. Rumsfeld, Donald's father, appears twice on a list of World War II veterans that greets worshipers at the main entrance -- the second time as an honest mistake.

Donald Rumsfeld's faith is also product of where he grew up, in the now well-to-do suburb of Winnetka. It's no surprise to Martin Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and a historian of American religion, that Rumsfeld grew up in a mainline Protestant church. "Every suburb has one," Marty says. At our country's founding, Congregationalists "were the establishment" -- the Mainline. Congregationalists are like Presbyterians except "very suspicious of Bishops" and "very legalistic." The kind you'd find in Northern suburbs like Rumsfeld's would be "embarassed by revival" and "weren't for Billy Graham" when the evangelist held his many big tent crusades to add to America's swelling born-again population.

Marty thinks of Rumsfeld as a "solid, observant" Christian and, gesturing out the window of his office in the John Hancock Center, remembers seeing him attend Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue. To describe a Presbyterian, Marty says, is to describe Donald Rumsfeld. They "don't flaunt" or "make a big deal" out of their faith. What about going from Congregationalist to Presbyterian, to even being married in a Methodist church, as Rumsfeld was? A mainliner like Rumsfeld "wouldn't be bothered by it," Marty says. In that, Rumsfeld's faith might be compared to that of Dwight Eisenhower, who once remarked that "our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."

Donald and Joyce Rumsfeld now attend an Episcopal church in D.C.'s Georgetown. They're ecumenical, too, if only because of geography. When the Rumsfelds retreat to their New Mexico ranch, they worship at a Roman Catholic church -- the only church in town. On Sundays the Rumsfelds don't make it to church, they listen to Elvis gospel tunes.

Rumsfeld's latest book, Rumsfeld's Rules, collects wisdom Rumsfeld has gathered for leaders to more effectively run organizations, so I ask him if he's sent a copy to the new Pope. "It never crossed my mind," Rumsfeld laughs. "I don't know that he needs my advice!"

Rumsfeld points out that Rumsfeld's Rules is not a handbook of "all Rumsfeld's ideas" and "they're not all rules." What's the most important rule? "You might begin with the Golden Rule," he says. "Do to others whatever you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12). "Leaders in any organization understand the importance of benefiting and learning from mistakes," Rumsfeld says, "and learning from the wisdom of people who lived before them."

All the while it's "important to be respectful of people's faith and to be guided by your own."

Faith is not just important in public leadership, but also "equally important as a father," he tells me. Two of Rumsfeld's three children have struggled with drug addiction and prayer was especially useful. Things got so bad that he was moved to tears during a meeting with President Bush. With arm wrapped around him, Bush assured Rumsfeld he would be praying, too.

His son Nick's drug addiction was not the least of Rumsfeld's problems then. He had a war to manage. It was a war that many allege has caused significant displacement of Christians in the Middle East. Rumsfeld blames Islamists in Iraq and elsewhere for that. They aren't tolerant, he says, and that "lack of tolerance creates a danger for Christians, as well as Jews and people of other faiths."

Rumsfeld's rule here is that the Islamic world needs "an understanding of the benefits that come from the separation of church and state. The idea of democracy that mobs in the street rule isn't democracy. It ought to be a more representative and more tolerant system."

He applies his interest in religious toleration on the homefront as well. The Department of Health and Human Services' contraception mandate is, for Rumsfeld, just another example of where "government gets bigger and more intrusive."

Rumsfeld's quasi-Presbyterian ethos might help explain his understanding of the role of government. "Order is a big word for Presbyterians," Martin Marty says. A Presbyterian like Rumsfeld "wants his minister to preach out of the Bible and apply it to today's world -- no politics, though. They don't tolerate fools lightly." Just watch any old Rumsfeld Pentagon press conference for confirmation of this pet theory.

When Donald Rumsfeld enrolled in classes at Princeton, he was probably unaware that his hometown pastor had already preached there some thirteen years earlier. Harkness told Princetonians that "The best things are done by those who are willing to work and to suffer, by those who dream great dreams and will work to make them come true."

Perhaps that quote will make it into Rumsfeld's Rules, Revised Edition.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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