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Ronald Reagan's Mission Trip to Moscow
At the close of the Cold War, the American president embarked on a personal crusade to promote religious liberty in the U.S.S.R.
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There is a good chance that Gorbachev, who to this day insists he is an atheist, had no idea what Reagan was talking about. On the other hand, Reagan knew that Gorbachev's grandmother had read him the Bible as a child. By this point in the summit, it was obvious that the president of the United States was not only on a diplomatic mission but also on a religious mission.
The final day of the summit came on June 2, ending with a brief farewell ceremony at St. George's Hall. The president had one last statement. In the spirit of St. George, he said, he hoped that with God's help peace and freedom would prevail, launching a new era in human history. He pointed out that he had arrived five days earlier on a Sunday. In saying goodbye, he borrowed a Russian proverb: Troitsa: ves' les raskroitsya. "At the feast of the Trinity on Sunday, the whole forest blossoms." Gorbachev's translator later said that while Russian believers might have known the proverb, it was totally foreign to the officials attending the ceremony.
They were not, however, confused by Reagan's closing. For the umpteenth time, he ended: "Thank you and God bless you."
Ronald Reagan clearly had a personal religious motivation at the summit, which he pursued on his own volition, certainly not at the urging of advisers. The question today is one of effect: What impact did this have inside the U.S.S.R.?
This we now know: Under Mikhail Gorbachev, religious faith flourished. He halted the 70-year "war on religion" (his description) begun by Lenin, and even sparked something like a religious revival in Russia.
Gorbachev's religious reforms, already underway before the Moscow Summit, accelerated after it. In 1988-89, the Russian Orthodox Church opened 2,000 parishes. The expansion was so furious that there were not enough priests.
Did the American president's pressure play a role? Gorbachev has never told us. His religious liberalization was partly a component of the general human-rights improvement ushered in by glasnost. Reagan himself felt he had made an impact, later saying so in his memoirs. No doubt, the summit didn't hurt the cause.
Such questions, including that of Gorbachev's personal faith, remain with us. What should not be questioned is the significance of what took place in Moscow 20 years ago, when the leaders of the two superpowers met for an important, fascinating summit that turned out to be the most unappreciated signpost of the end of the Cold War—certainly for Christians.
Paul Kengor is the author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (HarperCollins, 2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007). He is professor of political science at Grove City College.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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