What Ronald Reagan’s Legacy Can Teach Us Today About Religious Liberty

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The postmodern landscape of the West has been scorched by the unforgiving fires of secularism. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote of its desolate wasteland. He had seen it in the Soviet gulag only to see its hideous and dark spirit appear in late twentieth century America and Britain:

“The entire twentieth century is being sucked into the vortex of atheism and self-destruction. We can only reach with determination for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently pushed away…There is nothing else to cling to in the landslide.”

As we wind our way through the early years of the twenty first century the secular state seems to grow unabated and many fear that the landslide is inevitably leading to disaster. It is dangerous to ever disagree with Solzhenitsyn, but I do think there is something to cling to in the landslide. There is, of course, as the great Russian freedom man reminded us, hope in the very God we deny. Time and time again, He has proven that His love and grace are greater than all our disregard. But speaking of those instruments that he has provided for us, signposts to His grace, if you will, I think that we have the legacy of the 40th President of the United States to hold onto. I believe that President Ronald Reagan’s legacy of religious liberty is a strong branch to hold onto in the secular landslide and spiritual erosion of our own day. Let me explain what I mean, briefly, by pointing to two enduring areas of Ronald Reagan’s legacy that help us today to strengthen our grip on religious liberty and thus have the optimism and hope that President Reagan had against all odds.

First, President Reagan’s Legacy of Religious Liberty is that Religious Liberty is the First Right of all Rights.

We all know that President Reagan often used the John Winthrop phrase “city on a hill” phrase taken from his sermon aboard the Pilgrim ship Arbela, sailing to America from England. The phrase became the very hallmark of President Reagan’s political vision of America’s past and America’s future. It was a vision grounded in his understanding of the American dream. America was a nation of men and women who had covenanted with God to do great things for others if God would give His blessing to them and their posterity. President Reagan believed that we lived on the spiritual capital of those prayers and promises. He once said,

“While never willing to bow to a tyrant, our forefathers were always willing to get to their knees before God. When catastrophe threatened, they turned to God for deliverance” (National Day of Prayer Proclamation, 3/19/81).

We need to remember that we don’t live in a secular state. We live in a nation where the government was guarded from meddling with the free expression of worship of a faithful people. This is the first clause of the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. For President Reagan, it was first in his life also.

In his first year in office, during his first Christmas address to the nation, the President took the opportunity to share his own faith with the nation. Ronald Reagan knew that he was addressing a  nation filled with a host of people expressing their faith in many ways, as it should be in America. Yet as president he modeled that one did not have to leave faith at the door just because you worked in a government building. So he shared his faith that the child in the manger born that night was more than a baby. He believed that He was the Lord. The Washington Post printed the President’s address, but did not print that part of his address. President Reagan’s pastor at National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. was flabbergasted. He wrote to the Washington Post to protest what they had done. Nothing happened. So the pastor printed the entire address in the church bulletin. He was surprised when the received a note from President Reagan thanking him for printing his address, including his testimony about Jesus Christ. Having recently transferred his membership into the church from Bel Air Presbyterian Church in California, President Reagan added in the hand written note that he wanted never to embarrass the pastor or congregation or let them down. The pastor could not believe that the POTUS was reading the church newsletter! Yet it revealed what President Reagan felt was of supreme importance: religious liberty.

He would later demonstrate this in his dealings with Mikael Gorbachev and with other world leaders. He would prove this with seeking the asylum of Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union to immigrate to Israel. He would prove it in his support of Roman Catholics in Eastern Europe.

And this is what we learn: we must not muzzle anyone of any faith, including evangelical Christianity and conservative Jews and Roman Catholics who so often do get muzzled. If those, whose voices represent the main voices of freedom in Western Democracy are shut up, then other religions will soon be silenced as well. Islam flourished here because Christianity and Judaism is strong. If the faith of the Bible on which Western Civilization is silenced, then all faiths, and those of no faiths, will be subject to harassment or worse.

Religious Liberty is the first right of all rights. That is the first legacy lesson of President Reagan. The second is like unto the first.

President Reagan’s Legacy of Religious Liberty is that Religious Liberty is Fundamental to all other Rights.

This is very close to the first legacy lesson, but it is somewhat different. What does it mean that religious liberty is fundamental to all other rights? It means that when the founders placed religious liberty as the first of all of the Bill of Rights, the other rights derived their existence from this right. Freedom of conscience in expressing faith in the world towards the ultimate questions of a Creator, of the existential questions of “Who am I? Why am I here? And Where am I going? What is life all about?” gives worth and value to what it is to be human. If that is taken away, then all other rights are lost. As President Regan put it,

“Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience….Without God, there is a coarsening of the society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure” (Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast, Dallas, 8/23/84).

The only president to write a book on the value of human life in the womb was Ronald Wilson Reagan. In his classic book, Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation, President Reagan wrote,

“Despite the formidable obstacles before us, we must not lose heart. This is not the first time our country has been divided by a Supreme Court decision that denied the value of certain human lives. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 was not overturned in a day, or a year, or even a decade” (p. 19).

In that book, Reagan also wrote,

“The question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life? The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all its parts have been torn from its mother’s body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being” (p. 22).

We live in a day when Statism, an unhealthy and unwise dependence upon the State, is replacing our dependence upon self, the family, the community, the Church and synagogue, the grassroots government systems, and in many cases, God. It is no wonder, then, that the State seems to march unimpeded through increasing layers of our lives. There seems to be a veritable welcome mat at so many front doors. But there is a Faustian deal and a devil’s debt to be paid for trading our freedom for security from the government. It was a deal that President Reagan warned us against. The deal usually involves the taking of religious liberties first because the State, a beast-like force that is operated by an elite hierarchy, sometimes unwittingly doing the bidding of unseen powers, strikes first at the fundamental of all rights, religious liberty, in order to deal a blow to all liberties. Reagan knew this. The city on a hill reminded him of the fundamental nature of that liberty. That city must continue to shine in our own commitments and we must never allow her gates to be opened to any who would offer us safety if we just stop letting the light shine for just one second. It is, as the President would say, still the last best hope for mankind.

In 2004, Jerry Newcombe interviewed Dr. Paul Kengor for a TV piece on President Reagan’s faith. Dr. Kengor said, “What the historical record has overlooked is that Ronald Reagan was carried by a set of Christian convictions that go back to the 1920’s that carried him even longer, and that, in fact, informed those political convictions that came later. And that’s the side of Ronald Reagan that we all missed.”

I happened to believe that the famous Reagan optimism is grounded in the faith of Ronald Reagan, a faith that grew stronger through the years. Ronald Reagan believed that only one thing could ever hurt this nation and that would be if we finally forget that we really were the city on the hill that Winthrop prayed for us to be on that ship in the Atlantic ocean that day. If religious liberty, the first of all liberties, the fundamental liberty that feeds freedom itself, were taken for granted, then we would lose the connection with the One who has secured the blessings of freedom for America. In days like these it is good that we recall these prophetic words from President Reagan: “If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”

I don’t believe we are there. I believe that there are still many who pray for God to stir our hearts to seek His face and turn to Him for guidance in these days. Amidst all of the social engineering that the current administration is doing with our military I still see soldiers turning to God. As a Christian minister I still pray with soldiers to receive Christ. I still lead people in prayer in civic gatherings in our country. I still see the expressions of faith that are present in the many immigrants coming to our shores. America is not forgetting God even if some in our government may be and some elites may want us to. The problems are too great. The challenges of life are too complicated. The landslide is happening too quickly.

But there is something to hold onto. There is a legacy. There is a city on a hill still shining. Thank God. And thank God that every now and then He exalts righteousness in our midst and gives us a leader who reminds us that the city is not made with human hands, but is an eternal city that we seek. I can think of no more powerful words in this regard than words Ronald Reagan declared when asked about the greatest need of our nation. His reply?

“I think our nation and the world need a spiritual revival as it has never been needed before … a simple answer … a profound and complete solution to all the trouble we face.” (1972, Governor’s Prayer Breakfast, Sacramento, CA)

I hope you will allow me the license at a time like this to say “Amen.” For the sake of all men and women of all faiths I pray that too. May God bless you and may God bless America with such vision again. Thank you.

The Reagan Family

Comments

  1. I have a different picture of Reagan’s spirituality. The first characteristic of his spiritual side involved the externalization of evil. While the Soviet Union was, and rightly so, described as evil, we knowingly supported terrorists in Afghanistan in order to draw the Soviet Union into their own Vietnam. The people of Afghanistan were caught in the middle of our proxy war there. We supported Saddam Hussein even after he used chemical weapons on his own people and against Iran. We supported and practiced terrorism in Nicaragua and supported and trained para militaries in other countries of Central America. These groups targeted unions and liberation theologians. And yet, the Soviet Union was the only empire of evil according to Reagan.

    Another spiritual dimension of Reagan is that being a Christian can be solely based on what one claims for themselves. So as Reagan harks back to the time of the founders, did he take their practice of slavery and their ethnic cleansing of the America’s indigenous people into account before determining how Christian they were? And while Reagan waxes eloquently about religious freedom and the need for religion and revival, don’t most of today’s wars have a significant religious component? That settlers in the Occupied Territories, Muslims in the Middle East and East Asia, and Christians through America’s military interventions are all too often fighting wars in the name of religion. And they can do this because they believe they are being righteous and their enemy is only evil.

    But Reagan also started the almost carte-blanche treatment of business that we see today. And what is the result? The scandals and economic collapses as well as foreign policies all revolving around the need for American businesses to make a profit.

    Certainly Reagan put on a pleasant enough appearance and had appealing mannerisms. But is that what appealed to us or was it the flattery he used to describe his romanticized view of America and by extension us?

    • Charlie rodriguez says:

      Curt, it’s hard to know where to begin with a reply to all you’ve said about President Reagan, but I want to make two brief points which I hope you will consider. First, I think your multitude of criticisms and personal attacks (even if phrased politely) are naive and do no show the proper balance–your view is not the only one, sir–of historical events, of capitalism, of government, of religion, of the true nature of Christianity, and of evil itself. Second, I think if you were to ask liberals such Nancy Reagan, Ron Reagan, Tip O’Neil, Ted Kennedy, and many Hollywood notables–they would differ with you. You see, Curt, they knew and loved the man Ronald Reagan, and he loved them. They had differences, of course, but they respected and loved one another.

    • Michael Milton says:

      Or was it his leadership and convictions?

      • Charlie and Michael,
        What historical context allows for the supporting of murderers and terrorists on multiple continents? Was it because, out of his optimism, he called his own country “a city upon a hill”? Even the original reference was made by those who took part in ethnically cleansing the land of its indigenous population.

        The story of the Puritans somewhat reflects Reagan’s problems. That is that the Puritans had made these magnanimous claims about themselves, partially because of the harsh persecution they faced in England, and tried to live up to these claims by how they treated each other–which was rather harsh anyway. What they were in denial of was the evil they practiced against the Indians. So the same went for Reagan as he even described Vietnam as a “noble cause” for example. The problem with Vietnam was that while we first tried to help the French reestablish their colony there, we then proceeded to violate the Geneva Accords and prevented the South Vietnamese from being able to choose reunification. So how was it that Reagan, and others, so romanticized their own country, and thus themselves by extension, and demonized his opponents while either conducting or supporting others in the mass murder of civilians? Was it because regardless of how one treats others, when fighting against evil, nothing one does can be regarded as morally wrong?

        Yes, the people who knew him personally either had respect for him or loved him and perhaps that is the problem. If only those who were murdered by US terrorism or American supported paramilitary troops in Central America had known him, they would have loved him. The same goes for those who were murdered by a Reagan supported Saddam Hussein or those who were terrorized by Osama Bin Laden and others.

        Jesus said that we are known by our fruit, not by what we claim about ourselves. And the ability to recognize evil in another while being blind to one’s own sins makes one resemble the Pharisee from Jesus’s parable of the two men praying.

  2. Charlie Rodriguez says:

    Curt, your overwhelming focus is criticism of Reagan and of unjust wars. Obviously, I don’t agree with you about Reagan, so let’s call it a draw there. But, let me remind you that it was moderates and conservatives (in the media and in congress) who encouraged Roosevelt to support Churchill. It was Truman who bombed Japan. It was Kennedy who got us into Vietnam. It was Johnson (another Charlie Wilson) who escalated the war in Vietnam, and it was Nixon (yes, I know, he was responsible for Watergate, so what else is new) who got us out. It was Obama and Clinton who sat by and did nothing to protect our Consulate in Bengahzi. This is just tit for tat. The real issue is who best understands war, how to save Europe, America, etc. I don’t disagree with you about wrongs on both sides of the isle. When the chips are down and our backs are against the wall, I’ll side with those who understand what it takes to protect us and our friends from those who want to destroy us. Historically that has always been Conservatives. Remember, it hasn’t been too long ago that many Democrats were conservatives.

    • Michael,
      Quoting Monty Python And The Holy Grail, “we’ll call it a draw.” I do agree that both sides of the aisle are guilty. But we have to realize that when immoral actions on are part increase the need for protection, we have to find a way to escape the vicious cycle.

      FYI, I am neither a Republican or Democrat. I refuse to vote for either party. In fact, I am not even sure we should call them Republicans and Democrats. Rather, we should call them the ‘Them’ and ‘Not Them’ parties. That is because their basic appeal for votes is that they are not the other guys.

  3. charlie rodriguez says:

    Curt, this conversation has been healthy and a blessing. Thank you. One final fact about Reagan that I hope you will agree with. He was able to sit down and work with those who disagreed with him, and like Tip O’Neil, most actually liked and admired Reagan. It’s a good model for leadership, regardless of party affiliation.