This interview with presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark was conducted by Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman
Beliefnet: Your mom was Methodist.
General Wesley Clark: She was.
Beliefnet: So how did you end up as a Baptist?
Clark: My mother told me once that she and my father agreed that I would not be brought up Jewish in Chicago. She had me going to a Methodist church. When we went back to Arkansas, she told me when I was four and a half years old, "You'll have to choose the one you want to go."
I remember the Methodist church in Chicago had these beautiful stained glass windows. So I saw a church in Arkansas that had those beautiful stained glass windows and it was right across the street from this barber shop that had a miniature barber's chair complete with the razor strap and everything.
So I picked that church. It was the Emmanuel Baptist church. And so that was my church. I picked that church when I was not quite 5.
Beliefnet: Did you go to that on your own or did your Mom go with you?
Clark: Mostly I went on my own. My mother went a couple of times to the Emmanuel Baptist church. When we moved over to the North Valentine street and after a couple of years she got tired of driving me to Emmanuel Baptist which is on the other side of town. So we went to a local Baptist church which was called Pulaski Heights Baptist church.
Beliefnet: What was that like as a little boy to be going to Baptist church there on your own? Do you have any memories of that?
Clark: Sure, I was always nagging my parents to come. I think my mother and stepfather came once or twice. That was it. Other kids had their parents there.
Beliefnet: What was your argument to them?
Clark: That I wanted them to come!
Beliefnet: You were 4 1/2 when your father died?
Clark: Not quite 4.
Beliefnet: Not to get psychobabbly here but any sense of how the death of your father was affecting your spiritual life?
Clark: I'm sure it made me more spiritual. I feel confident that it did.
Beliefnet: Do you have any memory of church life and whether it was of any comfort?
Clark: It was of tremendous comfort. I always said my prayers at night. My mother taught actually me to say prayers at night but most of it came from the church.
Once I started first grade I started going to Emmanuel Baptist church regularly. I went to Sunday school. We had Bible readings and things like that. We had weekly Bible readings in the Baptist church. You'd read a certain passage on Monday. A certain passage on Tuesday.
Beliefnet: So you would go not just on Sunday?
Clark: That's right. During several periods of my life I went to Baptist training union. I was a member of Royal Ambassadors [Southern Baptist mission education program for boys] for a year or so, which is the Baptist's youth group. When I was in high school I went back to church on Sunday night because we had Sunday night services as well. So you'd go to Sunday morning and Sunday night.
Beliefnet: Flashing forward a little bit, tell me how you became interested in Catholicism and how you ended up converting.
Clark: I wouldn't have known anything about Catholicism if I hadn't been dating Gert. In those days, Catholics were much less ecumenical than they are today. Gert was always of the mind that she wouldn't go to another church except the Catholic Church. So when I would date her in New York City and later when we went to Oxford before we got married we always went to the Catholic church.
What had happened to me was, I had tried to go [to] the Protestant churches in England and I had sought out a Baptist church and a Methodist church. And that was during the Vietnam War and in both cases the sermons were anti- the American military and full of wildly overstated claims about how bad the American military was. My West Point classmates — my roommate was serving over there — he was killed during that period.
I wasn't about to go to church like that who didn't respect my friends who believed they were praying to the same God and serving their country.
We always believed in the 12th chapter of the book of Mark. That's what we were taught at West Point where Jesus speaks to the Pharisees and they try to trick him and say "You say we're supposed to be loyal to God but you're being a traitor to Caesar." And he said, "Bring me the coin" and said, "Who's face [is] in this coin?" And the Pharisees say, "Well, Caesar of course." And Jesus says "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's."
That's the way we lived. That's what I believed. And when I saw and felt this animus out of these Protestant churches in England during the Vietnam War, it just turned me off.
The Catholic priest at the time was a guy named Michael Hollings. (He fought in WWII). He was a captain, a battalion adjutant. He was from one of the original Catholic families who had disobeyed Henry VIII's order to renounce the Roman Catholic faith. And he was just an incredibly educated, literate, bright, insightful, experienced man — a real leader.
Of course we'd go to Mass on Sundays but since I wasn't a member I couldn't take Communion. We went to some youth groups and various student groups and I determined I would convert to Catholicism based on his witness, but never had time to do it. In the next year I was back in the States getting ready to go to Vietnam and I didn't have time to do it.
It wasn't until I got to Vietnam that I got to a Catholic priest in division headquarters and asked him if he could help me convert. He put me through a very simplified course.
Beliefnet: During Vietnam, any moments when you felt closest to God or surest of His presence — and the flipside, when you had greatest doubt?
Clark: Well I didn't have any doubts in Vietnam. I wore a Saint Michael's medal [warrior archangel who led the good angels in the battle against Satan]. My wife had gone to St. Michael's academy. She sent me a St. Michael's medal, and I wore it with my dogtag. I prayed every day.
Beliefnet: Do you recall the prayers?
Clark: I said the rosary and I said the Our Father, as they call it in the Catholic Church. One of the things I learned in the conversion process was to say the rosary and I had a set of rosary beads. So I said Hail Mary, full of grace.
Beliefnet: Any moments where you felt divine support more than others?
Clark: Actually when I was wounded and recovering in Japan. I went to church there and I remember on the air base where their hospital was, I remember coming out of that church and feeling like I had been — at that point I just felt very, very close to God and that I'd done the right thing with my life. And I knew I wasn't going back to Vietnam. I just knew I wasn't going back.
Beliefnet: Any low points spiritually?
Clark: No I can't say that there was.
Beliefnet: Going back a bit chronologically, it was around the Oxford period that you were told your father was Jewish?
Clark: That's right.
Beliefnet: And what was your reaction when you first heard?
Clark: Well, of course I was interested to find out about it. I was actually thrilled to be able to complete the family history. Of course, while I was a young man I'd read the book Exodus and seen the movie and studied Israeli military actions: The war of Independence, the 1956 war. They were incredibly bold and daring military forces. And the 1967 war.
I was proud.
Beliefnet: Was there any anger at your mother for not telling you all those years?
Beliefnet: What was her explanation?
Clark: When I went home I confronted her and I asked her, I said "Mom you never told me. Why?" She probably thought I was mad because I probably said it in an accusatory way, but I wasn't being accusatory. "I don't understand why you didn't tell me."
She started to cry. She said, "Wesley, you just had enough problems. You didn't need one more. You'd lost your father. You came down to Little Rock. You were in fights a lot. You had a Chicago accent. You just didn't need one more problem."
Beliefnet: Why was she so sure it would be a problem?
Clark: Because she'd seen the prejudice in Chicago. Once she told me this, she would then reminisce a lot about it. There were restaurants they couldn't go to. There were clubs they couldn't belong to. There were resorts they couldn't go to vacation to. There were friends they didn't really have. This was a prejudiced society.
And I think my mother probably felt the stigma when she went back to Arkansas as well. At the time, even when I was growing up in Arkansas, if you were Jewish you were not a member of the Little Rock Country Club. You had your own country club. It just so happened I lifeguarded for a few weeks at that country club.
I always got along very, very well with Jewish people. I don't know why. I remember there was a man named Jay Hyman, classmate of mine, and I don't know it was funny thing, it was the way they thought, the way they talked, I just felt a certain familiarity.
So when I found my father was Jewish, a lot of pieces just seem to slip into place the right way.
Beliefnet: Now you are still Catholic but you're going to a Protestant church?
Clark: Right we go to Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock.
Beliefnet: Why are you not going to a Catholic Church?
Clark: We stopped going to Catholic Mass some years ago in the Army. We'd go to these Catholic churches, and when you're Catholic, of course, going to church is a duty. But we'd walk out of the church and say 'God,' and we'd complain about the homily.
One night I walked out of the church when the priest said that we should never have fought the Revolutionary War and every war was bad. It was 4th of July. It was an outrageously political statement. I just never felt right when people in the church would take these overtly political positions especially when I felt like I was a good Christian, I was serving my country, and I just didn't feel like I deserved to be lambasted by the priest on the 4th of July.
We finally realized, ya know, we spent years with me complaining that the Catholics wouldn't sing the hymns. In the Protestant church I was in the church choir but for whatever reason, we didn't do that.
We just decided we liked to try Protestant services. We had some other friends who went occasionally to the Protestant services and said, 'You'll really like this preacher.' He was very good. This was Army non-denominational services. So in the Army we just continued to go to Protestant non-denominational services.
Beliefnet: So how would you describe yourself now?
Clark: I'm spiritual. I'm religious. I'm a strong Christian and I'm a Catholic but I go to Presbyterian Church. Occasionally I go to the Catholic church too. I take communion. I haven't transferred my membership or anything. My wife [and] I consider ourselves — she considers herself a Catholic.
Beliefnet: And you do as well?