A Religious Journey With Twists and Turns
Wednesday, December 15, 1999
Late one night in the most tumultuous summer of his youth, Bill Bradley drove with a preacher up a mountain ridge into the darkened Colorado sky. He was 21 years old and had a lot on his mind.
Between a waxing half-moon and a carpet of lights from Estes Park below, Bradley spoke for hours with the Rev. Richard S. Armstrong. He talked of the coming test of his nerve and skill in Tokyo, the intrusions of fame, the kinetic rush of new challenges. What Bradley longed for, he told Armstrong that night, was to maintain his focus on Jesus Christ and to spread the Gospel truth by word and deed.
Many ambitions burned in Bradley, then as now. The following morning, Aug. 18, he would board a flight to Los Angeles en route to the 1964 Olympics. Senior year beckoned after that at Princeton, and Bradley looked ahead to postgraduate goals he had written out in longhand: a Rhodes scholarship, a political career. He was well into his research for a thesis on Harry Truman's 1940 Senate campaign, approaching it as a kind of primer.
No goal, as Bradley recounted them in conversations and correspondence at the time, meant more to him than the one he declared on the mountaintop. Armstrong, a Princeton seminarian and a leader of that year's gathering of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, kept a diary of his encounter with Bradley.
"I'd give anything to know I had helped just one person commit his life to Christ," Bradley said, according to Armstrong's typescript notes. Laughing, Bradley said he knew that hero-worshiping kids would "agree with anything I say, just because I'm a basketball player. But I'm talking about the person who doesn't know Christ, who's never committed his life to anything or anyone. That's the kind of person I'd like to reach, the way I was reached when I was a junior in high school."
Before descending, the two men bowed their heads and asked God to make them instruments of his will. "We talked for a long, long time about faith, life, his life," Armstrong recalled recently. "It was a marvelous time."
For Bradley, the summer of 1964 marked something close to the peak of a six-year evangelical sojourn. At first coolly intellectual in his faith, Bradley went on to embrace many of the competing strains of missionary Christianity, by turns apocalyptic, exemplary and hortatory.
As his basketball skills transformed him into a national celebrity, Bradley made a considered choice to lend his athletic glory to the church. He wrote testimony for the American Tract Society and Norman Vincent Peale, spoke to scores of church and youth groups, and answered hundreds of letters from teenagers seeking moral guidance. He witnessed for Christ in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London.
Though he developed a name among fundamentalists, Bradley's calling as witness received no broad renown beyond the sports page reports that he taught Sunday school. In later adulthood, Bradley walked away from the mission of his teens and early twenties. He has seldom spoken of it since and declines resolutely to do so in his presidential campaign.
How much his faith has changed is hard to discern. Certainly he no longer takes the view, exhorted to 2 million readers of Guideposts magazine in 1965, that "being Christian is an 'all or nothing' proposition." In "Time Present, Time Past," his 1996 memoir, he wrote that he now seeks "my own individual faith." He described it allegorically in the book's shortest chapter--nine pages--as "a river that still runs."
The river's course has shifted. Bradley brought the habit and language of moral judgment to his politics, beginning with a series of profoundly disenchanted speeches in the 1970s. Those early forays in public commentary, deliberately out of sync with their establishment settings, aligned Bradley more closely with society's radical critics than with its leading institutions.
In 18 years in the Senate, Bradley gave precedence to his moral sensibility over conventional definitions of legislative success. Today that sensibility infuses campaign themes of racial healing, serving the neglected and uniting "good people who work in a bad system" to raise the nation nearer its potential.