Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday BookReview: "God and Ronald Reagan" by Paul Kengor

by Dr. David Pence

Reagan with Gorbachev

The official biographer of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) was Edmund Morris. He was allowed unprecedented access to the Reagans, in and out of the White House from 1985 until Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan was published in 1999. Morris is a remarkable writer who had written a Pulitzer-winning biography of Theodore Roosevelt. That won him entry to the lives and library of the Reagans. His biography of Reagan, however, turned bizarre as he inserted a fictional writer character into the heart of his story. Morris admitted that he never really understood Reagan, nor did he think Reagan had any curiosity about himself or an interior life. So, Morris tried to make the book in the form of a drama to show Reagan the perennial actor playing his role with great consequence, if not deep insight. In his prologue Morris writes of the “nothingness from which we have sprung and…the nothingness that looms ahead.” Edmund Morris said of Reagan: "Nobody really understood him.” That was very true about Morris, as well as many others who have written about Reagan. He is like certain musical scores that only make sense played in a certain key by a particular instrument.

Dr. Paul Kengor, a professor of political science, did not live with the Reagans but his spiritual life is written in a Providential key that illuminates both the biography of the man and the history of the era. Kengor has made a truly unique contribution explaining who Reagan was, and what happened at the end of the 20th century between two great religious nations—one of which was trapped in an 80-year-old atheistic prison camp. Kengor has seen what was right in front of all of us but could only be explained by a narrator who took seriously the immortal souls of Reagan and Gorbachev as actors, the spiritual destinies of America and Russia as nations, and the role of a Living God in history.

The book is easy to read, well organized and riveting. It is full of revealing quotations by Reagan and deeply perceptive in its selection of literary and personal influences on him. This review will look at four themes: 1) the faith of Reagan’s mother and his first church in Dixon, Illinois; 2) his Christian understanding of America and liberty; 3) his Providential sense of personal mission; and 4) his religious depiction of the battle with the Soviet Union.

Reagan’s father was an Irish Catholic who drank a lot and went to church hardly at all. His mother, Nelle Reagan, was holy, kind, and articulate. She centered her life on the Disciples of Christ Church in Dixon, Illinois [a county seat about a hundred miles west of Chicago]. Reagan often recalled a pivotal book of his mother’s he had read: That Printer of Udell’s. It told of Dick Walker, a man who devises a plan “to apply Christ’s teachings to our own city.” The hero cleans up his local town with the help of the local church, and then is elected to go to Washington to do the same for his nation. It ends with the hero, kneeling in prayer, his admiring wife at his side, as he prepares to follow God’s will in carrying out whatever role God might have for him in the road ahead. After Reagan read that book, he convinced his brother Neil to leave his dad’s Catholic Church and together they were baptized by immersion. That same year, Dutch Reagan had pulled his drunken father out of the snow in their front yard. He recalled: “His arms were stretched out “as if he was crucified—as indeed he was…by the dark demon in the bottle.” Reagan accepted Christ into his life and set about to fulfill the purpose for which he was created.                                        

Mr. Kengor understood what Morris could not fathom. He ended his first chapter: "Nelle Reagan had a heart for God and she imparted that to her son Ronald. It was her aspiration that he should one day take that faith to the world." Her son quoted Benjamin Franklin in his 1967 inaugural address as governor of California: "He who introduces into public office the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world."

Reagan’s notion of America was thoroughly biblical. The "city on a hill" was evoked in Matthew’s Gospel long before John Winthrop’s sermon. What Reagan believed about men, he also believed about cities, states, and nations. The nation was to reflect in its justice and freedom the light of Christ. "It was Reagan who added the word ‘shining’ to the image of the city on a hill, in a gesture that might have recalled his mother’s weekly message to her Sunday school students: ‘Come out to Sunday School next Lord’s Day. Let us all be shining lights.’ To the adult Reagan who would refer to the Soviet Union as the ‘heart of darkness,’ it was an irresistible image." 

Reagan’s idea of the nation’s destiny was not just an exhortation to moral example. From commencement speeches in the '50s to prayer breakfasts as California governor in the '60s to his address to Christian radio broadcasters in June 1990, he delivered his message. "You may think this a little mystical, and I have said it many times before, but I believe there was a Divine plan to place this great continent here between the two oceans to be found by peoples from every corner of the Earth. I believe we were preordained to carry the torch of freedom for the world."

During his governorship of California (1967-1975), Reagan seldom talked about a return to “conservative principles.” Quite often, however, in both letters and interviews he stated: "I am deeply concerned with the wave of hedonism -- the humanist philosophy so prevalent today -- and believe this nation must have a spiritual rebirth…and we must have a spiritual rebirth very soon." For Reagan, freedom was not a celebration of the autonomous individual apart from Divine purpose. In 1983 he said, “The basis of America’s ideals and principles is a commitment to freedom and personal liberty that, itself, is grounded in the much deeper realization that freedom prospers only when the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted.” Quoting William Penn, he said in the same speech: “If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.” And quoting Jefferson, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”

Months before his first summit with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Geneva (1985), he insisted: "We are all God’s children. The clerk and the king and the Communist were made in his image. We all have souls." This is not individualism as an ideology. It is the soul tethered to God for whom Reagan demanded freedom. Or as he put it, “I am convinced more than ever that man finds liberation only when he binds himself to God and commits himself to his fellow man.”

Reagan’s understanding of Divine Providence was longstanding, sophisticated, and consistent. He thought that God ruled the destinies of nations through the active compliance of men who came to understand their roles by prayer. He agreed with Whittaker Chambers, his favorite writer on God and Communism, that “I did not suppose that anyone could know God’s Will. I only sought prayerfully to know and do God’s purpose with me.” Two months after his inauguration, Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt. Mother Teresa wrote to him, “There is a purpose to this. This has happened to you at this time because your country and the world need you.” A month later on Good Friday 1981, Reagan told the Catholic cardinal of New York, “I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him…Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve Him every way I can.” More specifically, "perhaps having come so close to death made me feel I should do whatever I could in the years God Has given me to reduce the threat of nuclear war." That would spur his unique initiatives in both clarifying the atheistic nature of the Evil Empire, while reaching out in negotiations to men with immortal souls using unapologetic religious language in appealing for solidarity with the Russian people. Liberals found him too harsh with atheism, and foreign policy conservatives found him too open to dramatic gestures of peaceful cooperation. These seeming contradictions can only be explained by his adherence to faith in God, his disdain for atheist state systems, and his genuine love for fellow humans properly loyal to their different national identities. Reagan can be excused for thinking there was a higher power arranging his eight short years in the White House. In 1978 an Italian pope died after only 33 days in office, and a young Polish bishop would be elected who would lead the Catholic Church all through Reagan’s time in office. In 1979 Pope John Paul would visit Poland and hear a million souls cry, "We want God!" in Victory Square in Warsaw. Five months later the Soviets would invade Afghanistan and inflame an Islamic jihad against the atheist super-state. Pope John Paul became the spiritual voice of Europe as the western allies sank into an atheistic pacifism unable to define or confront the Soviet enemy. The muhajadeen became a religious force from the south willing to fight and die -- in order to live under God, and not man. In Reagan's first five years in office, three Soviet leaders died in office (Brezhnev in Nov 1982, Andropov in Feb '84, and Chernenko in March 1985). None of those men could have done what their successor did with Reagan. Mikhail Gorbachev would hold office during the rest of the Reagan presidency. He would meet with Reagan in four dramatic summits which would redraw the map of Eurasia.

For Reagan, above all, the purpose of liberty was for men to freely worship and love God. Reagan saluted four religious dissidents from the Soviet Union as spiritual heroes: "I promise that the witness of faith that you have brought here today will not be confined within these four walls… I will carry it in my heart when I travel to the Soviet Union at the end of this month. And I will say that the most fitting way to mark the millennium of the Christianity in Kiev Rus would be the granting the right of all the peoples and all the creeds of the Soviet Union to worship God in their own way."

Reagan understood that phrase 'Kiev Rus.' It was the Christian founding and baptism of the Slavs in the Orthodox Church that formed the Slavic nations now under the Soviet atheistic system. His understanding was so much more profound, so much more rooted in the communal identity of the Orthodox nations than the spiritually blind policymakers of today.

Reagan always saw the battle against the Soviet Union as a spiritual battle, and that is why he was so interested in the "soul of Gorbachev" and the souls of the Slavic Christian nations who lived under the Soviet canopy. He understood and quoted often the insight of Whittaker Chambers: "Communism is not new. It is in fact man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil: ye shall be like gods. Other ages past have always been different versions of the same vision. The vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The communist vision is the vision of man without God. It is the vision of man’s displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world." This is a striking insight about the nature of knowledge, and explains how misguided were the "progressives" who doubted the intelligence of Reagan and questioned his fundamental grasp of reality. For Reagan the will of God shaped all of reality, including American foreign policy. The atheistic and Hobbesian “foreign policy realists” of today are no descendants of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s idea of America was not America the fortress, not America First. It was America under God -- a spiritual entity with a divine purpose. In 1984 he said what we should say today: “Our mission extends far beyond our borders. God’s family knows no borders. In your life you face daily trials, but millions of believers in other lands face far worse. They are mocked and persecuted for the crime of loving God. To every religious dissident trapped in that cold cruel existence, we send our love and support. Our message?  You are not alone. You are not forgotten; do not lose your faith and hope, because some day you too will be free.”

Reagan said things no one else could say because he saw reality through a God-soaked lens. At Notre Dame in 1981 he uttered these utterly unpredictable but prophetic words: "The West won’t contain Communism. It will transcend communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written."

Ronald Reagan understood the spiritual reality that underlies the affairs of nations, and thus he was prepared when God called him to play his role. Paul Kengor understands the same spiritual reality and thus he has written a book that is both a spiritual biography and penetrating history. Let us learn from both of them. This book is the perfect launching pad.


UPDATE: Professor Kengor teaches at Grove City College (an hour north of Pittsburgh); his blog can be found here.

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