Not a single President in the 20th century failed to profess some stripe of Christianity, from Baptist (Clinton, Carter, Truman) to Catholic (Kennedy) to Unitarian (Taft) to Episcopalian (Bush 41). Only two were members of the Disciples of Christ, now better known as the Christian Church, at any point in their lives and they were ideological polar opposites: Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan actually allied himself with the Presbyterian Church for the last 40 years of his adult life. He attended Bel Air Presbyterian Church, asked its Senior Pastor Rev. Donn Moomaw, to lead in prayer at his first inauguration in 1981 and officially joined the church after leaving the Presidency.
Oddly enough, during his Presidency, Ronald Reagan was not viewed as a strongly religious leader. This may be due to a combination of prevailing cultural factors from an era that, though a mere 30 years ago, has virtually disappeared. Reagan was the first President to have been divorced. He had gained national renown as a Hollywood movie and TV actor. AND he rarely attended church during his 8 years in the White House.
With the distance of time and the abundance of information now available to us, we now know there are explanations that belie the appearance of much of what was assumed even by some of Reagan’s allies in the mid-80’s. Ronald Reagan was, indeed, divorced in 1948, an experience that so devastated him that 42 years later, in 1990, when he published his Presidential memoir An American Life, he devoted a mere 3-sentence paragraph to his 8-year marriage to Jane Wyman. (Wyman would admit in later years that once Reagan became politically involved in the mid-40’s, she began to feel less and less common ground with him.)
The Hollywood of the 1940’s and 50’s embodied a radically different social environment than is found in Beverly Hills today. There was no Playboy mansion, there were no leading men and women mouthing pagan cliches and Buddhist nomenclature and Olivia de Havilland, a political liberal, teamed with Ronald Reagan to fight the Communism that was threatening to seep into the film studios of the West Coast.
And Ronald Reagan enjoyed church attendance very much, but ultimately felt it fitting that others should also go to church because they appreciated the presence of the Lord, not that of the President and his Secret Service entourage. The easiest remedy to this difficulty was to absent himself from church services. Was it the proper solution? Perhaps not…but knowing his lifelong pattern up to that point, it is difficult to doubt Reagan’s sincerity.
Ronald Reagan was, in fact, a deeply spiritual man, by the testimony of everyone who knew him. His daughter, Patti, one of his two liberal progeny (Ron, Jr., being the other, leaving Michael and Maureen as the two conservatives) recounts in her book Angels Don’t Die: My Father’s Gift of Faith the experience of often seeing her father silently staring into space, even when his aides and counselors were bustling busily all around him. She never had a doubt that he was breathing a word of prayer, asking for wisdom from God for the crisis of the moment.
It is one thing to pray when feeling the weight of the world on one’s shoulders. It is another to pray that forgiveness be granted. Yet, this is exactly what Ronald Reagan did. His wife, Nancy, relates that as soon as her husband regained consciousness after the attempt on his life by John Hinckley, Jr., he told his wife that he had prayed for the policeman and Secret Service agent who were gunned down while protecting him. (Both survived, as did Reagan’s press secretary, Jim Brady.) He went on to say that he had prayed for John Hinckley, too, since he couldn’t fathom what would drive Hinckley to such lengths. No bitterness or anger; only the forgiveness exemplified by Christ from the Cross.
Ronald Reagan did not confine his spiritually oriented utterances to private settings. In 1983, he gave one of the most famous speeches of his career to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. This speech is now worthily enough renowned as the “Evil Empire” speech, but it is worth noting a couple of contextual paragraphs just prior to the “evil empire” mention that endow that signature phrase with even greater clarity:
“I think the items that we’ve discussed here today must be a key part of the nation’s political agenda. For the first time the Congress is openly and seriously debating and dealing with the prayer and abortion issues;and that’s enormous progress right there. I repeat: America is in the midst of a spiritual awakening and a moral renewal. And with your biblical keynote, I say today, ‘Yes, let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.’
Now, obviously, much of this new political and social consensus I’ve talked about is based on a positive view of American history, one that takes pride in our country’s accomplishments and record. But we must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect man. We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin.
There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might. Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal. The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past. For example, the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights, once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans. We must never go back. There is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country.
I know that you’ve been horrified, as have I, by the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice. Use the mighty voice of your pulpits and the powerful standing of your churches to denounce and isolate these hate groups in our midst. The commandment given us is clear and simple: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Reagan fought Communism, not just because it was a worldview that held human beings back from freedom and from reaching their potential, although he believed that Communism certainly affected both of those ills. He battled Communism because it was evil and godless. Years after this, in a final visit with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, in New York, just before leaving office, he would plead for the release of some Pentecostal dissidents in the Soviet Union. (Gorbachev granted the request and the Pentecostal family was allowed to emigrate.)
Reagan’s Christmas radio address in 1983 has not received the historical recognition of the previous speech, but again, its uncompromising Christian overtones are noteworthy. Here is a pertinent portion:
“Christmas is a time for children, and rightly so. We celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace who came as a babe in a manger. Some celebrate Christmas as the birthday of a great teacher and philosopher. But to other millions of us, Jesus is much more. He is divine, living assurance that God so loved the world He gave us His only begotten Son so that by believing in Him and learning to love each other we could one day be together in paradise.
It’s been said that all the kings who ever reigned, that all the parliaments that ever sat have not done as much to advance the cause of peace on Earth and good will to men as the man from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth.”
One of my most prized possessions, out of the many books I own and treasure, is a thin volume that Ronald Reagan coauthored with his Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop and the Christian literary giant, Malcolm Muggeridge, entitled Abortion and the Conscience of our Nation. I often page through it and remind myself that what we say does matter, but also that the issues which we choose either to verbally highlight or fail to address speak volumes about our view of God. Ronald Reagan understood this profound truth and penned the following words:
We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life— the unborn—without diminishing the value of all human life…The real question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life? The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all its parts have been torn from its mother’s body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being. The real question for him and for all of us is whether that tiny human life has a God-given right to be protected by the law— the same right we have…
I have often said we need to join in prayer to bring protection to the unborn. Prayer and action are needed to uphold the sanctity of human life. I believe it will not be possible to accomplish our work, the work of saving lives, “without being a soul of prayer.” The famous British Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, prayed with his small group of influential friends, the “Clapham Sect,” for decades to see an end to slavery in the British empire. Wilberforce led that struggle in Parliament, unflaggingly, because he believed in the sanctity of human life. He saw the fulfillment of his impossible dream when Parliament outlawed slavery just before his death…Let his faith and perseverance be our guide. We will never recognize the true value of our own lives until we affirm the value in the life of others, a value of which Malcolm Muggeridge says:. . . however low it flickers or fiercely burns, it is still a Divine flame which no man dare presume to put out, be his motives ever so humane and enlightened.”
Ronald Reagan would have been 99 today. As we remember the birthday of this kind, good and honest leader, let us purpose to follow in his footsteps as men and women of courage and boldness. And let us be unashamed to seek and follow the True Source of the wisdom that guides us onward into the “bright dawn ahead” that Ronald Reagan envisioned for us when he bid us farewell.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President. You are loved and missed by millions still.