Red Herring: Mikhail Gorbachev's Not-Quite Conversion
"Mikhail Gorbachev admits he is a Christian," read the blockbuster headline in the March 19 London Telegraph. I immediately e-mailed the article to Michael Reagan, who, like his father, Ronald Reagan, and like me, has always been deeply intrigued by the possibility of Gorbachev's faith.
I asked Michael Reagan if he would like to co-author an op-ed piece on this major development. "Good idea," he said tersely. I had a piece ready a few days later, and e-mailed it to Michael, only to have him respond by sending a new article about how Gorbachev quashed the speculation he stirred up by kneeling in silence for 30 minutes by St. Francis of Assisi's tomb.
Our article was suddenly as dead as Gorbachev's faith. What gives? What does Mikhail Gorbachev really believe and why is the world so interested?
Vladimir Lenin, one of the founders of the Soviet Union, insisted that "there can be nothing more abominable than religion." He compared Christianity to venereal disease, bragged about the moment as a teen when he "took off [his] cross and threw it in the rubbish bin," and crassly declared that "all worship of a divinity is a necrophilia." Speaking before the Party Congress in 1920, Lenin made clear the beliefs of the leaders of the Bolshevik state: "We do not believe in God."
Lenin's successors eagerly preserved that hateful tradition. As Mikhail Gorbachev would later put it, "Atheism took rather savage forms in our country." Gorbachev's predecessors pursued what he correctly characterized as a "war on religion." Stalin sent many Christians to gulags and blew up churches.
It was an accepted fact that the leader of the USSR would be an atheist had to be an atheist. If, at the height of the Cold War, it had been revealed that the Soviet leader was a Christian well, let's just say the news would have been of biblical proportions.
Ronald Reagan, however, suspected precisely that of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. The possibility deeply intrigued Reagan, and he struggled to keep it private, in his excitement.
On a number of occasions when the two leaders met at summits, Gorbachev stunned Reagan by invoking God's name, typically in expressions like "only God knows" or "God help us." The President was struck by this at the first summit they held together in Geneva in November 1985. In their very first plenary meeting, Gorbachev chimed in, "We have never been at war with each other. Let us pray God that this never happens." He dropped the G-word in a casual reference during his and Reagan's fireside chat at Geneva and that evening used a biblical quotation in an impromptu toast at a state dinner.
In a telling incident, the late Mike Deaver, who had known Reagan since the 1960s, spoke of how the President excitedly called him after his return from Geneva. Deaver perceived a "festive," "infectious" tone from Reagan, who asked him to come to the White House. Arriving within an hour, Deaver asked the President what he had learned about the Soviet leader. One might guess Reagan would mention something about Gorbachev's demeanor, charm, or a policy issue. But Reagan responded with two simple, whispered words: "He believes." A befuddled Deaver, knowing what Reagan meant and knowing that atheists ran the USSR, followed: "Are you saying the general secretary of the Soviet Union believes in God?" Reagan responded: "I don't know, Mike, but I honestly think he believes in a higher power."
That was the paramount issue on Ronald Reagan's mind concerning his historic meeting with the Soviet leader. The idea affected him so much that he even discussed it by letter and phone with former President Richard Nixon.