Reagan’s Faith and Transcendent America in the World
Washington Post journalist Karen Tumulty wonderfully discovered a previously unpublished Ronald Reagan letter commending the Christian faith to his agnostic, apprehensive, and dying father-in-law.
Reagan has sometimes been dismissed as someone who was only superficially religious but who deployed religious rhetoric for political advantage. He was supposedly an exponent of only civil religion. But the long, private letter reveals his faith was rich, deep, and profound.
Mark Silk of Religion News Service connects Reagan’s faith to his Disciples of Christ background. Proclaiming the early church’s primitive Christianity that had no creed but the Bible, the Disciples were restorationists who emerged in the Second Great Awakening.
Some early restorationists were Unitarian, who believed the Trinity was a later corruption. But the Disciples, as part of the Campbell-Stone movement, settled into Protestant orthodoxy. John Patrick Diggins in his 2007 book Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, which George Will extolled, says the Disciples ignored this development. Diggins claimed they were essentially Emersonian individualists who disbelieved in human sin in favor of sunny individualism and virtual self-deification. Diggins portrayed Reagan as a devotee of Tom Paine, not Edmund Burke.
Diggins captured some truth, but Reagan’s letter to his father-in-law confirms he was not a transcendentalist but a conventional evangelical Protestant. Mark Silk accurately recalls that the Disciples of Reagan’s youth were Social Gospel conservatives who believed both in personal salvation and societal righteousness.
Silk cites how a Disciples novel, That Printer of Udell’s, influenced a young Reagan. In the book the son of an alcoholic becomes an optimistic Christian and a social reformer who goes to Washington, DC. Reagan biographer Edmund Morris also stresses the importance of this book, gifted to Reagan by his mother at age 11, leading to his baptism. An older Reagan recalled the book “left an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil.”
Such belief was central to Reagan’s Cold War global statecraft. Silk ties Reagan’s Disciples background to his mystical vision of America as a “City on a Hill”—prosperous, just, free, and God-blessed. But this city was not a citadel against the world but a beacon to the world. And this city, to the extent it aligned with divine purposes, would prevail against malevolent adversaries.
In contrast to other cold warriors who envisioned an interminable twilight struggle, Reagan as a Christian believed that the Soviet Union could be defeated. Others were Manichean, but he confidently believed in divine sovereignty. Of course an atheist murderous police state had a limited shelf life.
Whatever sets itself against Providence cannot endure. It was a simple geopolitical insight that sophisticates derisively dismissed but was profoundly true, as only a person of faith could fully realize. Diggins in his book hails Reagan is one of three great “liberator” presidents with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. But Reagan’s vision of liberation was providential, not Emersonian.
Reagan’s vision of a Cold War victory was not apocalyptic. When the Soviets shot down the Korean airliner in 1983, there was a memorial service at the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall in DC. A huge banner there declared “Victory Over Communism,” and speakers like Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms turned it into a Religious Right pep rally. Falwell concluded the service by recalling Samson’s suicidal destruction of the Temple of Dagan.
But Reagan was serene, not apocalyptic. Gorbachev said that meeting Reagan was like looking into bright cloudless blue skies. Where other cold warriors grimly saw Armageddon, Reagan the providentialist saw liberty, harmony, and peace illumined by the City on a Hill.
This City on a Hill is out of favor with many Christian elites today. For them it idolatrously conflates America with God’s Kingdom. They grimly seek an impermeable wall between the church and society, unwilling to permit a spiritual vision about America or any other political order that gives temporal hope to the world.
Thankfully, Reagan was birthed into a more holistic Christian tradition that saw God as sovereign and had a Social Gospel that included personal and societal redemption. The whole world benefitted from the simple but profound Disciples faith of early-twentieth-century America. It generated a president who, even as he negotiated the final peaceful conclusion of the Cold War, could still write a four-page evangelistic appeal to a worried, dying man.
In the lexicon of American civil religion and global influence, George Washington was the Father, Abraham Lincoln the Redeemer, Woodrow Wilson the universalizing Spirit, and Franklin Roosevelt the Petrine rock of global order. Perhaps Reagan is the Pauline evangelist of democracy whose spoken word overturned an empire.
Many thanks to Karen Tumulty for an exciting historical discovery that speaks to Reagan as a man of personal faith and as a global providentialist. For Reagan, and for the best of American Christianity, God cares about individual souls and the fate of nations. Prudent and successful navigation of America’s role in today’s world requires this insight.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and co-editor of Providence.