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God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life Hardcover – February 3, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
This engaging if hagiographic study argues the seemingly obvious point that the former President's outlook was shaped by his religious beliefs. Political scientist and Hoover Institution fellow Kengor has pored over Reagan's letters and speeches to glean examples of his faith, from his youth as a Disciples of Christ stalwart and Sunday school teacher to his 1988 trip to Moscow, where he lectured Communists from Gorbachev on down on the importance of religious freedom. More devotional than scholarly, Kengor's treatment emphasizes the ex-president's affinities with evangelical Protestantism; Reagan "invited Christ into his life," acknowledged God's "special plan" for him, believed in end-times prophecy and even had his presidency foretold by the Holy Spirit during a prayer circle. Readers troubled by reports of astrology at the Reagan White House are assured that it determined scheduling, not policy, and that only Nancy was really into it. Kengor accepts the links Reagan himself drew between his religious beliefs and his politics, on social issues like school prayer, sex education, and abortion, and most importantly on his anti-Communism, which harped on Soviet religious persecution and consistently identified atheism as Communism's original sin. But the spiritual rootedness Kengor highlights is not exactly of Gandhian proportions. As he too briefly acknowledges, many of Reagan's pious formulations, like the "shining city on a hill" motif and the imprecations against Communist godlessness, were commonplaces of America's "civil religion." In other words, sometimes it's hard to tell where spirituality ends and rhetoric begins.
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“A profound character study, an engrossing work of history...a heartbreakingly beautiful love story about one man and his Maker.” (—Peter Robinson, Reagan speechwriter and author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life)
“Paul Kengor now reveals the inner heart and soul of this great man.” (—Judge William P. Clark, National Security Advisor, Reagan Administration)
“Paul Kengor takes the reader to depths where no other writer has yet been—Ronald Reagan’s very soul. ” (—Peter Schweizer, author of Reagan's War)
“God and Ronald Reagan fundamentally transforms the historical view of Ronald Reagan and his place in the 20th century.” (—Donald M. Goldstein, co-author of At Dawn We Slept)
“Paul Kengor has performed a masterful service by shining a light on this underappreciated but central aspect of Reagan’s life.” (—Steven F. Hayward, author of The Age of Reagan)
“[A] superb book—no interpretation of Ronald Reagan will be complete without reference to this vital work.” (—Stephen Knott, Ronald Reagan Oral History Project, University of Virginia)
“In this meticulously researched and insightful book, Paul Kengor finds the ultimate source of Ronald Reagan’s resolve against communism.” (—Andrew E. Busch, author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom)
“God and Ronald Reagan deepens our understanding of Reagan’s life and the times in which he governed.” (—Matthew Dallek, author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics)
“Illuminates the role of faith in the life and worldview of one of the 20th century’s most important figures.” (—Rich Lowry, editor-in-chief, National Review)
“Illuminates the role of faith in the life and worldview of one of the 20th century’s most important figures.” (—Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow, Heritage Foundation, and author of Ronald Reagan: A Political Biography)
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Dr. Paul Kengor, a professor of political science at Grove City College 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. 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. Kengor understood what Morris could not fathom. He ended his first chapters: “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 50’s to prayer breakfasts as California governor in the 60’s 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 Whitaker 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 Theresa wrote to him, “There is a purpose to this. This has happened to you at this tine 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 to 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 pope 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 sunk 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 to live under God and not man. In Reagans first five years in office three Soviet leaders died in office (Brezhnev, Nov 82 Andropov, Feb 1984 and Cherenkov Mar 85). None of those men could have done what their successor did with Reagan. Mikhail Gorbachev assumed office in 1985 and held 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 Whitaker 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 worst. 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. We will learn from both by reading this amazing book.
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