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The Christian Faith of Ronald Reagan

( [email protected] ) May 18, 2004 09:16 AM EDT

Paul Kengor has written a good book on a subject no author adequately covered until he took it up: the deep and abiding religious faith of Ronald Reagan. President Reagan's faith, Kengor shows, permeated every part of his life and therefore played a major role in shaping his views on every subject from abortion and school prayer to foreign affairs and the American vision in history.

This may surprise many. After all, Reagan rarely attended church and made no dramatic professions of his Christianity - or at least none that made TV and entered the memory of the nation. But, as Kengor notes, "Rather than bringing himself to church, President Reagan brought the church to his presidency."

It was Reagan's faith that led him to see the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." And it was his Christian identity, Kengor tells Insight, that gave him the quiet confidence and self-certainty that made him a great leader and earned him the sobriquet "the great communicator."

Kengor, who is an associate professor of political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, shows how early on - and how deeply - regular prayer became a part of Reagan's life. It remained a part of his life as president too, when he began private prayers before Cabinet meetings. And then there were the prayers with families of Marines who died in battle. A close associate of Reagan told Kengor that a favorite hymn of the president's, particularly during his second term, was the familiar one beginning, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. ..."

Another major characteristic of Reagan's faith, Kengor says, is his humility. Kengor's next book, as yet untitled, will be about the faith of George W. Bush; it is due out sometime later this year. He finds the religious character of both men similar. "It is humility that Bush has as well," Kengor says. "His faith is a very humble faith."

Insight: What prompted you to do a book on Ronald Reagan's religious faith?

Paul Kengor: I was doing a book on Reagan and the end of the Cold War, so I read the speeches and the letters. I interviewed everybody I could. I asked everybody what Reagan was saying behind closed doors, what he was saying at Cabinet meetings, at NSC [National Security Council] meetings.

The letters and the speeches were really illuminating. Everywhere I looked, I came across religious references. I'm talking about not just the sign-off at the end of the speech where he says "God bless you and God bless America." I'm talking about sometimes some pretty deep theological statements.

Q: What do you mean by deep?

A: One of the letters I was reading - I feature it in the book - was from Reagan's exchange of letters with a liberal Methodist minister. This was in the latter 1970s. The minister didn't like what Reagan said, so he took him on. I think he had heard a Reagan radio commentary and he wrote to Reagan to complain of Reagan's "limited Sunday-school theology."

Reagan was always kind in his letters. He was always civil. He started arguing back and forth with the guy, and it became apparent to me that Reagan was using C.S. Lewis' "liar, Lord or lunatic" argument from Mere Christianity. You know that argument: Lewis says that from Christ's own words about himself you have to assume he is Lord, a liar or a lunatic. And, frankly, if you've read Lewis, then you are not just a shallow man who goes to church occasionally. There is something much deeper there.

So I knew pretty soon that I had a book on Reagan's religious faith. Then I wanted to know from where all this religious stuff in Reagan's life came. What were the roots? What was the foundation?

Q: You make a very convincing case about the importance of Reagan's mother, Nelle, in the formation of the Christian faith of the future president.

A: Nelle's is a great story. I keep telling people there's a Mother's Day message in this book. This isn't just a story about a man and his faith. It's really about a woman who made a president. I think she was the single most important person in his life. It all goes back to Nelle. I would go so far as to say that if she had died in the winter of 1918-1919 of the terrible influenza that killed so many - which she almost did - there's an excellent chance he would never have become president.

Nelle really lived her faith. I think that is one of the reasons her son gravitated to it. You hear about children whose parents raise them to be religious, to be Christians, but then they encounter hypocrisy and it has an amazingly poisonous effect.

That didn't happen with Reagan. His mom lived her faith. She started her own prison ministry. She visited the prisons before there was anyone like Chuck Colson doing a prison ministry.

It was not like somebody came to the First Christian Church in Dixon, Ill., where Nelle was a member, and gave a PowerPoint presentation on how and why you should minister to prisoners! She thought it was what Jesus would want her to do, and that's why she did it. For the same reason, Nelle picked up hitchhikers. She thought God would protect her.

Q: You also make the point that the Rev. Ben Cleaver, pastor at Dixon's First Christian Church, played a significant role in Reagan's religious life.

A: Reagan loved and respected his father, Jack Reagan. But if there was a father figure to Reagan in the religious sense, it was Ben Cleaver. What Reagan's father didn't provide spiritually, from a fatherly point of view, Cleaver did.

Reagan dated Ben's daughter, Margaret, whom they called Mugs. Throughout much of his early life, Reagan thought he was going to marry Mugs, so he was constantly at the Cleavers' house. He was there so much you can argue that he became kind of a pastor's kid.

The Rev. Cleaver took the young Ronald Reagan under his wing. He saw Reagan as religiously precocious; Reagan was baptized at 11 in a church where they rarely baptized anybody under the age of 12. Cleaver and the rest of the people at First Church saw this young kid not as a future Hollywood actor but as a future minister, something Reagan documentaries and biographies do not mention.

Q: Nor is it well known that Reagan began teaching a Sunday-school class when he was 15.

A: When I went through the Dixon church records, I found that he didn't miss a single Sunday in the two years or so that he taught that class. He even drove back home on Sundays the first four weeks after he'd gone off to Eureka College in September 1928 to finish his teaching obligations to that class. In those days it must have been at least a two-hour drive.

Q: Was it Reagan's religious faith that helped him to see the evils of communism and made him realize that he had to speak openly against such evil?

A: Reagan saw the Soviet Union as evil, all right, and not only because it was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people but also because it was atheistic. [Vladimir] Lenin said that religious faith and communism were incompatible.

But Reagan's religious faith affected his presidency in many intangible ways. You ask about his speaking out. The key to success throughout his life was his communication skills. And he acquired and developed those skills in church. The first audience of the "great communicator" was the congregation at the First Christian Church in Dixon. He honed his skills emceeing church-related events, leading prayer services and teaching that Sunday-school class.

It began there. Think about it: Without those communication skills, he doesn't make it in radio in the 1930s, which he did. He doesn't make movies in the 1940s, which he did. He doesn't do GE Theater and TV from the 1950s to the early 1960s, which he did. Those communication skills were central to his successes all the way to the presidency. Also based in his faith were his confidence, his eternal optimism and his quiet security.

Q: When did Reagan's outspoken anticommunism make its first appearance?

A: I think his experience in the Screen Actors Guild had a lot to do with it. Perhaps it began when he was speaking to the men's group at the Hollywood Beverly Christian Church in the late 1940s. At the time, he was a popular after-dinner speaker in Hollywood and he would give a speech in which he would excoriate fascism and say, "We need to be vigilant and make sure fascism never returns!"

It was really no-brainer stuff, but those left-wing Hollywood actor groups loved it. Applause after every line! Then the one time he gives this speech at his church men's group, the pastor comes up afterward, the Rev. Cleveland Kleihauer - no one's ever reported his name before; I went and dug it out. The Rev. Kleihauer comes up and says to him, "I appreciate what you're doing here, but there's another 'ism' out there that is just as dangerous. It's called communism. I think you should start warning people about that too."

And Reagan said, "I hadn't given it much thought. That sounds like a good idea." The next time, as his audience was applauding like crazy, he ended his speech by saying: "Now there's another 'ism' out there called communism, and if I ever find out that it is the same kind of threat fascism is, I'll denounce it just as strongly."

There was dead silence. Total nonreaction. You could hear a pin drop, and he awkwardly exited the stage. He'd disappointed his crowd. He'd stumbled upon leftist naïveté and actual sympathy to communism. He thanked the Rev. Kleihauer years later for that wake-up call. So you had this Cold War crusade beginning in a church where a man of God alerts Reagan to the evils and dangers of communism. He kept that anticommunist line in his speeches, he never flinched, and he meant every word of it.

Q: You describe Reagan's deep religious faith, yet throughout his presidency he rarely attended church, compared to Jimmy Carter, say, or Bill Clinton, who made great use of photo opportunities afforded by going to church, Bible in hand.

A: Reagan rarely went to church as president because he thought it was a giant burden to the entire congregation, which it was, an enormous burden. The SWAT team would have to be on the roof with sniper rifles. All of the side entrances to the church would be closed, and when you walked in, the Secret Service guys would frisk you.

If Reagan had a phony faith adopted only for political purposes, he could have just gone to church and taken the press corps with him. They then could have shown a beaming Reagan walking to church with a Bible tucked under his arm.

Q: In your book you write, "Reagan's faith was overt and not merely for show."

A: He didn't want to wear his faith on his sleeve in a political way. Reagan thought that was egregious, and he was first turned off by it in the 1976 campaign when he thought Jimmy Carter was doing it. Reagan simply did not want ever to appear to be using faith for political purposes.

When he was outspoken about his faith it was usually for a purpose, but never for getting votes. The most outspoken I've ever seen Reagan on a faith issue was when he went to Moscow in 1988 for the Moscow summit. There he was ending every single statement with "God bless you" and "God bless the Soviet people."

His point was that he wanted the Soviet people to hear the G word, to hear the word "God" coming from the lips of a politician. Reagan thought that he was in what he called a spiritually starved nation, a nation that was very religious before the Bolsheviks declared a 70-year war on religion. So Reagan made sure in his visit that the Russian people heard his religious sentiments as often as he possibly could.

Q: One of the most outstanding examples of Reagan's concerns about the Soviet people in your book comes when you say that Reagan carried a list of the names of Soviet dissidents in his pocket that he could pull out whenever he wanted.

A: Yes, that was great. George Schultz [Reagan's secretary of State, now a Hoover Institution fellow] says Reagan would have that list in his pocket and whenever he met with somebody from the Soviet Union, an ambassador, say, or with [Mikhail] Gorbachev, he would pull out the list and say, "Here are some names. Do what you can."

I do not know if it went like this, I just don't know, but you can almost picture a cell door opening in the Soviet Union somewhere and the dissident in there saying, "What's going on?"

The guard says, "You're free."

"Why am I free?"

"Well, you've got a friend in a high place."

Q: A subject you bring up frequently in your book is the great emphasis Reagan placed on freedom.

A: That's probably the word he said more than any other. He used the word freedom constantly. I think for some his frequent calls for freedom became a cliché because he did it so often. They didn't get it, but Reagan certainly did. He thought deeply about the relationship between God and human freedom and the nonrelationship between atheistic communism and that freedom.

Q: A familiar Reagan statement that was popular with many people was, "God isn't dead; we just can't speak to him in the classroom anymore."

A: Yes, that's right. That's why he thought school prayer was important. I get asked a lot of questions now: "How would Reagan react to the war on terror? How would he react to gay marriage?" I recently was asked how he would react to the attempt to remove "one nation, under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. To that question I said he'd probably be appalled by it because he supported the initial rationale with which President [Dwight] Eisenhower and the Congress put it there in the first place, which was to draw a clear moral distinction between the Soviet system and the American system. You also can say that's what the famous evil empire speech was all about: drawing a clear distinction between the Soviet Union and the United States. People wanting to strike "under God" from the Pledge say, "After all, the Cold War is over. The U.S.S.R. is dead." To which Reagan responded, "Yes, but God isn't dead."

Reagan thought that school prayer was important because it was crucial to begin each day reminding students that their inalienable rights came to them from their Creator and not from government bureaucrats.

Q: To your mind, how does Reagan's faith compare with the religious faith of other presidents?

A: It's as strong a faith as any president I've studied. [George] Washington had a strong faith. So did John Adams and Woodrow Wilson. In a lot of cases, the presidents with very strong faith were liberal Democrats. It is interesting that liberals don't mind that at all. When it's their guy with a strong faith - whether it's Jimmy Carter or Woodrow Wilson or Harry Truman - that's just great. FDR inscribing Bibles and sending them to the troops. God bless him! But when a Republican president cites Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher, as George W. Bush did on a famous occasion, then, well, the liberals cry out that [Tomás de] Torquemada is on the loose and warn gravely of the coming Inquisition.

Stephen Goode is a senior writer for Insight.

Courtesy of Insight (www.insightmag.com)