One of my hobbies is visiting presidential homes, and last week I crossed three sites off my list.
Herbert Hoover’s tiny birthplace is in West Branch, Iowa. He’s recalled typically as a starched collar, cold fish, but his story is quite moving and very human. His hard working, devoutly Quaker parents both died at young ages, leaving Hoover and his siblings orphaned. Hoover as a boy was shipped off by himself to an uncle on the West Coast, later attending Stanford and making a fortune as a mining engineer. He and his equally brave wife survived the Boxer Rebellion in China.
During WWI and its aftermath Hoover saved millions of lives by organizing relief work for starving Europeans, including Russians under the Bolsheviks. His Quaker faith and difficult boyhood propelled him into a vocation as one of America’s and the world’s greatest humanitarians. Hoover was not a good president but he was a great man.
Across the Mississippi, in equally humble circumstances, Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois and grew up in nearby Dixon. Tampico is a village no bigger now than in Reagan’s day. The small apartment above a storefront, now a museum, is where he was born, with an outhouse out back. Later his family lived down the street in a modest house across from a monument for Civil War vets, who were still about in Reagan’s boyhood. The very plain Disciples of Christ church where Reagan’s devout mother took him still looks the same. The only impressive building in town is the Catholic chutch, which Reagan’s father attended sporadically.
In larger Dixon Reagan was baptized, worshipped, and taught Sunday school in a more stately Disciples of Christ church, where he learned to orate, persuade and become a leader. The church was a refuge for young Reagan and his mother. Reagan’s father was a drunk who could not hold a job for long. They hovered on the edge of survival, while Reagan’s mother worked as a seamstress. Yet still the Reagans took into their home former convicts, hoping to restore them to productive life.
Reagan like Hoover came from poverty and adversity. Yet he learned, toiled, developed an inner vision, and rose from obscurity to international greatness. He was not naive about the world. He had seen its unseemly side. Yet thanks to the church and his mother, he saw the world, humanity and his country as God intended through service and redemption.
So it was perplexing to read an excerpt from a new book on American civil religion that claims “Reagan’s God was not specifically the God of the Bible, but the supreme being of American civil religion.” The Evangelical author says: “For Reagan, America was nothing without God, but God almost seemed powerless without America.” And: “Christianity teaches that God took on flesh in the Incarnation of Christ to make atonement for sin and redeem humanity, but Reagan’s God looked to America to save the world.”
Citing Reagan’s eulogy for fallen U.S. servicemen, this author says: “For Reagan, nothing was more precious in the sight of America’s God than the death of his saints, namely, those who wore an American uniform.” And: “Eternal salvation, for Reagan, was a certainty for all who died championing America’s causes.”
No, not quite. Reagan declined, as we all should, and as the Bible itself does, to specify of the dead who’s individually saved and who’s not. Instead he commended all to God’s care with respectful appreciation for their sacrifice.
It’s also simplistic to distill Reagan’s faith down to mere civil religion, which itself descends from Christianity and is not necessarily at odds with it although much more limited in its purpose. Reagan rightly saw America as God blessed and an instrument of Providence. He celebrated America, but he did not worship America. This distinction is often lost on a new generation of Evangelical thinkers who, reacting to perceived excesses of past enthusiastically American Evangelical leaders, are prone to caricature and forget what the church fathers and church tradition richly affirm: God in His wideness works through nations and peoples, not just individuals and the church.
Reagan loved America but was not clueless about its faults. Most of his political career before the presidency was a sort of ongoing jeremiad against America’s failures to live up to its potential. He offered up both stern warnings and hopes for the future if America embraced the role to which Providence had assigned it.
Visiting Reagan’s and Hoover’s hometowns, their simple birthplaces, and their deeply formative churches, where they came of age and to faith amid hardship, was inspirational and sobering. They were just persons, not unlike the rest of us, who prevailed over their sufferings to serve God and humanity in imperfect but grace-led ways.