February 15, 2014

Ronald Reagan’s Legacy & the Religious Right

Regent University in Virginia Beach every year hosts a Ronald Reagan Symposium around Reagan’s February 6 birthday to examine his legacy. This year’s featured speakers like Calvin Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes, Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, Joe Loconte of Kings College, and Margaret Thatcher biographer Claire Berlinski, among others. There was a film presentation of Reagan’s famous 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing,” which was Reagan’s national political debut. It persuaded my father at the last minute to cast his first presidential ballot for Barry Goldwater, to the vast disappointment of my mother, an avid Lyndon Johnson fan.

This year’s symposium didn’t address Reagan’s religious faith or his role in the mobilizing of the then nascent Religious Right. Regent founder Pat Robertson, who attended a lunch for the symposium’s speakers, was one of several key Evangelicals who had previously supported born again Christian Jimmy Carter in 1976 but shifted to Reagan in 1980. Strong support by Evangelicals, many of whom were formerly Democrats or politically unengaged, was key to Reagan’s two dramatic landslide victories.

Reagan himself straddled the Mainline Protestant and Evangelical worlds. He was raised in a Mainline denomination, the Disciples of Christ, in which his pious mother was a stalwart laborer. Theological modernism had not yet captured the denomination in the years of Reagan’s youth, so Reagan’s upbringing, which included a public profession of faith in Christ, teaching Sunday school and preaching, was essentially Evangelical. But the Mainline ethos of civic engagement and commitment to American democracy also deeply influenced young Reagan.

Several years ago columnist George Will, a Reagan friend, touted a book by John Patrick Diggins, “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History,” which portrayed Reagan as a Ralph Waldo Emerson style Transcendentalist, which explained Reagan’s chronic optimism and faith in new beginnings. Diggins claimed that Reagan’s Disciples of Christ were essentially Unitarian, deemphasizing human sin and divine judgment in favor of sunny human accomplishment. So Reagan was able to endlessly celebrate the American people while condemning government as the source of social evil.

This critique by Diggins is somewhat off. Some of the pioneer Disciples of Christ founders, emerging from the early 19th Century Stone-Campbell revivals, were Restorationists who, while advocating a “primitive” Christianity that shunned creeds in favor of the Bible only, questioned the Trinity for a time. But orthodox Trinitarianism eventually reasserted itself. Reagan’s early influences were Christ-centered, supplemented by Midwestern self-help optimism, and Reagan’s own willful desire to surmount his childhood’s poverty and his father’s alcoholism.

Reagan didn’t challenge the American people’s sins, as his predecessor Carter had unsuccessfully attempted, because he discerned that cheerful confidence was more politically winsome, as his role model FDR had ably demonstrated during Depression and war.

Remaining devout most of his life, Reagan wasn’t consistently a saint. For periodic stretches he was not a regular church goer. As president he commended tithing without himself doing so to his own church. Between marriages he reportedly was less than chaste, later telling columnist Robert Novak that he sought and nearly succeeded in bedding every available starlet in Hollywood. He commonly described second wife Nancy Reagan as having “saved his soul.” Nancy herself ignited controversy by consulting an astrologer while First Lady. She later mollified some Evangelical critics by emotionally telling an Evangelical youth rally of a letter from her husband commending The Lord that helped persuade her beloved agnostic step father to make peace with God on his death bed.

Nancy’s frantic nervousness over her husband’s safety contrasted with his serene confidence in Providence. After the failed assassination attempt he confided to a senior Catholic prelate his belief that God had preserved him for a special purpose. Part of that purpose was the peaceful defeat of the Soviet empire, liberating captive peoples from atheist dictatorship and freeing the world from the threat of nuclear war. The Reagan Administration quietly worked with the Vatican in strengthening Polish resistance to Soviet control, which eventually helped unravel Communism in Eastern Europe,

At home, although more commonly identified with social issues, Evangelicals strongly backed and were central to sustaining sufficient political support for Reagan’s high stakes military buildup and aggressive challenge to Soviet power globally. His famous “Evil Empire” speech was to the National Association of Evangelicals. At the Regent lunch after the Reagan Symposium, I introduced myself to Pat Robertson and told him that religious conservatives of the Reagan era are not sufficiently remembered for their key role in the final decisive years of the Cold War. He agreed and appreciatively remembered the missile defense “Star Wars” advocacy group for which I interned in those years as a college student, whose leader, retired army general and CIA deputy director Daniel Graham, had been a personal friend whom Robertson hosted on his “700 Club” program. I recall that Jerry Falwell also was very supportive of our missile defense group, likewise hosting its leader on his program and even sharing his Moral Majority mailing list.

In contrast with religious conservatives, then still influential liberal religious groups like the United Methodist bishops and National Council of Churches vociferously denounced the Reagan military build-up, including missile defense, which they bewailed as a “militarization of the heavens.”

At his Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev, Reagan dramatically refused to renounce missile defense in return for nuclear disarmament. Then enormously controversial, that refusal sounded the eventual death knell of Soviet power, ending the Cold War, and facilitating later unprecedented reductions in nuclear weaponry. More idealist than the warmonger alleged by critics, Reagan dreamed of a nuclear free world, but he sought it through strength, hoping that missile defense would make nuclear missiles militarily irrelevant.

Providence works strangely, as Reagan would be the first to admit. He was a divorced Hollywood star who, as governor, liberalized California’s abortion and divorce laws. Yet he became America’s most pro-life president and a champion of the traditional family. As the oldest ever American president he commanded record support from young people, of whom I was fervently one. His political support strongly depended on Evangelicals even though he himself remained a Mainline Protestant, in later years belonging to the liberal-inclined Presbyterian Church (USA), whose officials routinely denounced Reagan.

At a 1980 rally of conservative Evangelicals, including Robertson and Falwell, he shrewdly told them: “I know you can’t endorse me … but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.”  And although the Religious Right was born primarily to address social issues, it arguably was far more influential and certainly more successful in backing Reagan’s decisive policies for achieving a peaceful end to the Cold War.

The Diggins book George Will touted claimed that Reagan’s sunny religion “enables us to forget religion” by banishing “a God of judgment and punishment.” This claim goes too far. But the post Cold War nation that is Reagan’s legacy is hardly the theocracy against which critics of his Religious Right supporters loudly warned. Instead it hosts both surging religiosity and secularism, each contending against the other. It’s not ideal but it’s vastly preferable to the Cold War’s decades of tense lethality.

Originally published at Philosophical Fragments 


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