By Goode, Stephen
Insight on the News
Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT
Paul Kengor has written a good book on a subject no author adequately covered until he took it up: the deep and abiding religious faith of Ronald Reagan. President Reagan's faith, Kengor shows, permeated every part of his life and therefore played a major role in shaping his views on every subject from abortion and school prayer to foreign affairs and the American vision in history.
This may surprise many. After all, Reagan rarely attended church and made no dramatic professions of his Christianity or at least none that made TV and entered the memory of the nation. But, as Kengor notes, "Rather than bringing himself to church, President Reagan brought the church to his presidency."
It was Reagan's faith that led him to see the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." And it was his Christian identity, Kengor tells Insight, that gave him the quiet confidence and self-certainty that made him a great leader and earned him the sobriquet "the great communicator."
Kengor, who is an associate professor of political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, shows how early on and how deeply regular prayer became a part of Reagan's life. It remained a part of his life as president too, when he began private prayers before Cabinet meetings. And then there were the prayers with families of Marines who died in battle. A close associate of Reagan told Kengor that a favorite hymn of the president's, particularly during his second term, was the familiar one beginning, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. e"
Another major characteristic of Reagan's faith, Kengor says, is his humility. Kengor's next book, as yet untitled, will be about the faith of George W. Bush; it is due out sometime later this year. He finds the religious character of both men similar. "It is humility that Bush has as well," Kengor says. "His faith is a very humble faith."
Insight: What prompted you to do a book on Ronald Reagan's religious faith?
Paul Kengor: I was doing a book on Reagan and the end of the Cold War, so I read the speeches and the letters. I interviewed everybody I could. I asked everybody what Reagan was saying behind closed doors, what he was saying at Cabinet meetings, at NSC [National Security Council] meetings.
The letters and the speeches were really illuminating. Everywhere I looked, I came across religious references. I'm talking about not just the sign-off at the end of the speech where he says "God bless you and God bless America." I'm talking about sometimes some pretty deep theological statements.
Q: What do you mean by deep?
A: One of the letters I was reading I feature it in the book was from Reagan's exchange of letters with a liberal Methodist minister. This was in the latter 1970s. The minister didn't like what Reagan said, so he took him on. I think he had heard a Reagan radio commentary and he wrote to Reagan to complain of Reagan's "limited Sunday-school theology."
Reagan was always kind in his letters. He was always civil. He started arguing back and forth with the guy, and it became apparent to me that Reagan was using C.S. Lewis' "liar, Lord or lunatic" argument from Mere Christianity. You know that argument: Lewis says that from Christ's own words about himself you have to assume he is Lord, a liar or a lunatic. And, frankly, if you've read Lewis, then you are not just a shallow man who goes to church occasionally. There is something much deeper there.
So I knew pretty soon that I had a book on Reagan's religious faith. Then I wanted to know from where all this religious stuff in Reagan's life came. What were the roots? What was the foundation?
Q: You make a very convincing case about the importance of Reagan's mother, Nelle, in the formation of the Christian faith of the future president.
A: Nelle's is a great story. I keep telling people there's a Mother's Day message in this book. …