The Meeting In Montreux

On the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, a group of top GOP luminaries quietly gathered in a Washington steakhouse to lick their wounds and ultimately create the outline of a plan for how to deal with the incoming administration.

“The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,” Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told FRONTLINE.

Among them were Senate power brokers Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan.

After three hours of strategizing, they decided they needed to fight Obama on everything. The new president had no idea what the Republicans were planning.

Tonight’s film, Inside Obama’s Presidency, explores the behind-the-scenes story of his first four years. With inside accounts from his battles with his Republican opponents over health care and the economy to his dramatic expansion of targeted killings of enemies, FRONTLINE examines the president’s key decisions and the experiences that will inform his second term.


In her biography, “God’s Salesman,” to be published next month by Oxford University Press, Professor George tells how Dr. Peale consummated a unique marriage of oldtime evangelism and a vague philosophy of divine energy that foreshadowed today’s New Age beliefs.

She also tells, for the first time, about the meeting in Switzerland, quoting this letter from Dr. Peale’s wife, Ruth Stafford Peale, to a friend in Connecticutt on Aug. 19, 1960: “Norman had a conference yesterday at Montreux, Switzerland, with Billy Graham and about 25 church leaders from the United States. They were unanimous in feeling that the Protestants in America must be aroused in some way, or the solid block Catholic voting, plus money, will take this election.”

Today neither the proponent of positive thinking nor the Baptist preacher was available for comment on this episode despite efforts to contact them. Dr. Peale is retired; Mr. Graham is traveling in Russia after preaching one of his many “crusades” in Moscow. But, from the correspondence that followed, it is clear that the Montreux gathering set in motion plans for a one-day conference in Washington to rally concern about the possibility of a Roman Catholic in the White House. Before August was over, Dr. Peale agreed to preside.

On Sept. 7 the meeting took place as planned, and it was a disaster for opponents of a Catholic as President, for Richard M. Nixon in his campaign against Kennedy, and especially for Dr. Peale.

At a news conference after the meeting Dr. Peale said the participants had held a “philosophical” discussion of “the nature and character of the Roman Catholic Church.” He was immediately asked questions like these:

Why were there no Catholics on the program? Why had no Jews been invited? Why were the leading liberal Protestant theologians missing? Was Mr. Nixon’s Quakerism also a subject of Dr. Peale’s concern? What reason did he have to disbelieve Senator Kennedy’s pledge to exercise his office free of Catholic influence?

Floundering in the face of such queries, Dr. Peale found himself attacked the next day for “blind prejudice” by the Protestant theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and John C. Bennett. He was challenged to debate “the religious test” on national television by Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath, president of Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

He was condemned in a published statement by a hundred religious leaders, excoriated in both the religious and secular press and dropped as a syndicated columnist from a dozen newspapers.

Within a few days Dr. Peale took to ground. He distanced himself from the Washington meeting, canceled speaking engagements and even offered his resignation as pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. The whole episode, Dr. Peale has often told friends, was one of the most painful in his life.

During his summer vacation Dr. Peale had decided to issue a clarion call of a sermon, entitled “What a Protestant Should Do Today,” upon his return to the pulpit at Marble Collegiate on Sept. 18. A draft found by Professor George identified democracy and freedom with Protestantism and suggested that Protestant Americans should be aware of their numbers and not hesitate to act as a bloc. But, embarrassed by the Washington fiasco, Dr. Peale spoke on a different topic.

For months after the September meeting in Washington Dr. Peale’s associates carried on a reproachful correspondence with Mr. Graham, who had taken no public part in the events that followed the Montreux meeting. In this later correspondence Mr. Graham pleaded hazy recollections of the meeting. It also appeared that he had been kept uninvolved in the Washington meeting by advisers who did not want him to endanger his crusades in Catholic countries.

Long before their Montreux meeting, both Mr. Graham and Dr. Peale had been giving low-level support to their friend Mr. Nixon. But this is not a story of political manipulation of religious issues, in the fashion of today’s political handlers. Nor is it a case of lurid anti-Catholicism.

Mr. Graham and Dr. Peale are simply respectable religious leaders whose vision of the United States inextricably merged Protestant Christianity, moral revival and anti-Communist leadership in the cold war. They had — and have — anti-Catholic counterparts among liberals who simply assume that secularism, free thought and scientific progress are an indissoluble whole.

A week after the Washington meeting, Kennedy spoke to a gathering of Texas ministers and, before the television cameras, fielded their questions and suspicions.

“I believe in an America,” he said, “where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”

Kennedy’s message was actually better as oratory than as logic. If the separation of church and state could be truly “absolute,” Supreme Court Justices would only have to work half time. But in 1960 his Houston appearance was undoubtedly the knockout punch on the “Catholic question.”

In January, a few days before his inauguration and five months after the Montreux huddle, the President-elect invited Mr. Graham for lunch and a game of golf. At a news conference that evening Kennedy surprised his guest by announcing that the preacher would answer questions about the religious issue during the 1960 campaign.

According to a news article in The New York Times on Jan. 17, 1961, Mr. Graham “said Mr. Kennedy’s victory had proved there was not as much religious prejudice as many had feared, and probably had reduced forever the importance of the religious issue in American elections.”

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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1 Response to The Meeting In Montreux

  1. Reblogged this on Rosamond Press and commented:

    When Obama was elected, Republicans met and agreed to fight our President. When Biden was elected, Americas enemies began to fight him on everything. The Republican party, founded by my kindred IS THE ENEMY!

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