Notes from Dr. Armand Nicholi’s militant past.

By Jeff Sharlet

PBS’s latest God offering — “The Question of God,” blogged below — will no doubt be a well-researched program centered around the ideas and interpretations of its two stars — Freud and C.S. Lewis — and the man who has pitted them against one another, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. of Harvard. But both PBS and Beliefnet, which has interviewed Dr. Nicholi, are letting the good doctor avoid hard questions about the faith assumptions underlying his work. What does Dr. Nicholi, as the referee and rule setter of this imaginary debate, actually believe?

As it happens, I came across Dr. Nicholi a few years ago while researching some other topics. The documents I found don’t reveal what Dr. Nicholi’s views are today — one must look to his deliberately vague answer to Beliefnet’s final query for those — but they do suggest a history of deeply conservative Christianity combined with a polished presentation style designed to make such beliefs suitable for public consumption.

On April 3, 1969, the Lewiston Evening Journal reported that Dr. Nicholi had instructed 200 Maine state legislators and businessmen on the “‘heroic spiritual and moral force'” required to whip radical students into line. He compared student rebelliousness to a “sickness,” and lamented the secularism of his medical profession. “[Dr. Nicholi] said psychiatry has no answers… [But only] ‘Christ brings to our lives… purpose, direction, and the answers to who we are and why we are here.'”

This was not the first time Dr. Nicholi had proposed that Christianity could combat student dissent. At a Feb. 18, 1968, the speakers at a meeting for conservative student leaders held at the Washington headquarters of International Christian Leadership (ICL) based their directions on a talk Dr. Nicholi had given for ICL at the Swiss embassy not long before. ICL was a network of powerful men in Congress, the military, and business who had committed themselves to “militant liberty” in pursuit of a “world-wide spiritual offensive,” also referred to by the group’s leader as “World War III.” The goal was a “new world order” — a phrase coined by ICL in 1945 — based on a government of “Jesus plus nothing” with Washington, D.C. as its “world capital.”

It’s unclear whether or not Dr. Nicholi was aware of the group’s core theology. Indeed, in 1969, a few months after Dr. Nicholi’s Maine appearance, ICL — which had arranged for that talk as well — decided that the time had come to “submerge” and make the organization “invisible” — and thus, they hoped, more politically potent. Thereafter, its associates were not to disclose their connection. Rather, they were to work for the “world-wide spiritual offensive” in the secular world and on the secular world’s terms — quietly and politely, with as little explicit reference to religious faith as possible. But they were not to forget the long-term goal.

On May 16 of 1970, The Washington Post reported that Dr. Nicholi had presented a study to the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. “Social and political issues are really not ‘the root causes’ of disturbances,” the Post reported Dr. Nicholi as arguing. Rather, the source of campus revolt was psychological; anti-war students rebelled not against American imperialism, but against their own, insufficiently imperious parents — a generation of fathers of the sort C.S. Lewis had described as “men without chests,” and of mothers more interested in careers than kids. When students engaged in pre-marital sex and political activism, they were really signaling their desire for a return to traditional family values. But despite what Dr. Nicholi described as the psychological roots of the problem, he decried the soft psychological punishments employed by weak parents; in the good old days, he noted, parents used physical force.

But there was a third way, Dr. Nicholi advised. Student rebellion could be quelled without leaving Vietnam or cracking skulls, but rather, by a strategy of divide and conquer. “Moderate” students could be “used” to control rebellious ones.

A year after ICL’s “submersion,” attendees were left to guess at the means of control Dr. Nicholi considered most efficient, but when we tally up these earlier statements, we’re left with only two options: physical force, and Christ. He seemed to think they went together.

Around that time, a letter from Congressman Theodore E. Lewin to some colleagues noted that Dr. Nicholi had been such a hit at the ’69 Maine prayer breakfast that he had become a regular on ICL’s prayer breakfast circuit – which by then no longer advertised itself as such, although the major prayer breakfasts continued to be produced by the organization, renamed the Fellowship Foundation (The Fellowship Foundation organizes the annual National Prayer Breakfast to this day).

Dr. Nicholi’s views have no doubt evolved with the passage of time. Such ideas probably made more sense in those troubled years: when the U.S. was embroiled in a far-away guerilla war waged for unclear reasons; when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest; when the country seemed as if it was about to split apart along cultural divisions; when the president was an angry man, accused of dishonesty, who attempted to burnish his image at ICL prayer breakfasts, where he argued that Christ and military muscle were necessary tools for the creation of secular democracy.

Different days, indeed.

UPDATE: Relapsed Catholic points toward Cal Thomas’ take on the show, “Real Reality TV.” He’s all for it. Funny thing about Thomas: I met him a couple years ago when I was living in an ICL/Fellowship Foundation home in Arlington, the experience that led me to research the group’s history. Thomas came by one night to give a gathering of several dozen young Congressional aides and me a lesson on “infiltrating” the media for Jesus. His advice? Don’t trumpet your faith, climb the ladder quietly until you’re in a position of power.

Jeff Sharlet is co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bibleand editor of The Revealer.