God and Ronald Reagan

God and Ronald Reagan

God and
Ronald Reagan:
A Spiritual Life

by Paul Kengor
416 pages, $26.95

Ronald Reagan's spiritual pilgrimage has been a topic of great interest, and sometimes heated debate, among evangelicals.

In his conscientiously researched "spiritual life" of the 20th century's "patron saint" of small-government conservatism, Grove City College political science professor Paul Kengor has added a relatively new dimension to the Reagan biography: the President as a man of deeply-rooted faith in a providential God.

Kengor's sweeping examination of the spiritual quest of the man he calls a "practical Christian" should quiet the controversy about whether Reagan had an entrenched faith. Reagan's faith was not only sincere and vocalized throughout his life, Kengor asserts, it also provided fuel for the fire of his single-minded determination to bring down communism.

It is both fitting and revealing that Kengor dedicates his volume to Reagan's mother Nelle. There is little doubt that she was the anchor of the family, a woman of optimism, leadership abilities, and great piety.

The young Reagan boys, Ronald (nicknamed Dutch) and Neil (called Moon) probably turned to Nelle often for spiritual help and comfort. Jack Reagan, their father, was a shoe salesman who moved the family from one Illinois town to another. Kengor reports that before they finally settled in Dixon, the young boy who one day would be President had lived in five different towns and 12 rented apartments, leaving him lonely and introspective.

A Catholic, Jack Reagan left the children's religious upbringing mostly in the hands of his extraordinary wife. It was Nelle who introduced Ronald to an evangelical novel that would have a lasting effect on his life. Written by Harold Bell Wright at the beginning of the 20th century, That Printer of Udell's is the tale of Dick, a runaway boy with an alcoholic father whose fortunes turn better after a "practical Christian" offers him a job. The stark moral contrast between right and wrong in the novel, and the emphasis on local, faith-based solutions to social problems, apparently left a deep mark on young Ronald.

Kengor points out that throughout his pre-college years, Reagan's mentors were, by and large, profoundly committed Christians who imbued him with a strong sense of morality and an "unshakable" faith.

It was the Dixon years, Kengor asserts, that "instilled in Reagan the conviction that God had a special plan for everyone, and for America as a whole."

Throughout his life, according to Kengor, Reagan had the sense that America has a special calling under God to bring freedom to the world. In the 1960s, Reagan gave a speech supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that became a byword among the Republican right.

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Borrowing a phrase from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Reagan said U.S. citizens have an obligation to oppose atheistic communism: "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny."

Much of this spiritual biography traces the evolution of Reagan's understanding of his own increasingly vocal role in bringing that rendezvous about.

The writer traces the roots of Reagan's zealous opposition to Soviet repression to the time he spent in Hollywood. A popular after-dinner speaker, the then-actor often received energetic audience approval for condemning fascism.

But according to Kengor, it was a "man of God in a house of God" who informed Reagan of the dangers of communism and suggested adding it to his catalogue of threats. Kengor says Reagan's assault on communism often met with a cool reception among the same groups.

That was no deterrent to a man convinced of the dangers of Soviet rule. Throughout his career, Reagan heeded well the Rev. Cleveland Kleihauer's advice. His passion to bring religious and political freedom to Communist countries, as well as his avowed determination to shrink the size and reach of the U.S. government, drove his political campaigns.

Even among his critics, there is the sense that Reagan's unwillingness to compromise his quest for religious freedom, and his constancy in voicing his convictions, contributed in part to the eventual demise of the Soviet Union and to the dawning of religious freedom in many parts of the old Communist world.

Reagan did not get consistently high marks from the right. Some Christians were deeply troubled by his decision not to attend church on a regular basis.

"This religious truancy was difficult for even many of Reagan's most diehard Christian conservative supporters to countenance," Kengor writes.

The author makes a solid case that Reagan, who attended church regularly when not residing in the White House, was concerned foremost with the security burden he might impose on a congregation he chose to visit.

Kengor's chapter on astrology raises some questions that he might have addressed head-on, including the hint that the President was overly credulous at times. After the 1981 assassination attempt on him, assertions that his wife, Nancy, and possibly the President himself consulted an astrologer when scheduling meetings or making decisions rocked Christian circles.

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In defending the President (and laying most of the blame at Nancy's door), Kengor makes a revealing comment: "Reagan was a man of supreme confidence in his beliefs, who often flummoxed people with his candor: he was known to speak freely of flying saucers, aliens, ghosts, and spiritual visitations."

The President, as other writers have noted, was indeed known to occasionally mix up fact and fiction. If he allowed a tinge of non-Christian mysticism to creep into his worldview, that made him more like many other Americans, comfortable with scanning some New Age bestseller with one eye and the Left Behind series with the other.

Although Kengor succumbs often to the irresistible temptation to throw red meat to political conservatives by demonizing "cynical elites" and liberals, on the whole this is a fair and exhaustively researched tome.

Kengor rarely goes below the surface to ask about the psychological makeup of the man who served two terms as President. Did one encounter with a minister in a Hollywood church really motivate Reagan's lifelong hatred of Communist ideology? Why did a man who saw the world in stark terms of a battle between good and evil have an administration riddled with staffers accused of ethics violations?

One must conclude that in many ways Ronald Wilson Reagan continues to remain an enigma, even to a sympathetic biographer. The main achievement of Kengor's labor is to remind the Christian public that the former President was a humble but determined man of prayer, assured in his faith that God would never abandon him.

Kengor sums it up well near the end of his book. In the years that Alzheimer's stole from him, as he bravely faced the cruel disease with his devoted wife by his side, Reagan and his well-wishers could be assured of one thing: The man whose faith sustained him did not walk into the darkness alone.

The Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans, a priest associate at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania, reviews books for various national publications.

Related Elsewhere:

Shortly after Reagan's death, CT interviewed Paul Kengor: Ronald Reagan's Faith, Not Just Policies, Ended Communism | The author of God and Ronald Reagan discusses the spiritual life of America's 40th president

Books & Culture also reviewed God and Ronald Reagan: Books & Culture's Book of the Week: "Trust but Verify" | Ronald Reagan's faith.

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God and Ronald Reagan is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.

Other Christianity Today articles about the former president include:

How Ronald Reagan Wowed Evangelicals | He rarely delivered on their issues, but the Great Communicator changed the movement. (June 22, 2004)
Pastoring a Wounded President | Until an assassination attempt, Ronald Reagan regularly attended National Presbyterian Church. After the attempt, Louis Evans was among the few people invited to minister to the family. (June 22, 2004)
Winners from the Gipper | Looking back at the best films of Ronald Reagan. (June 09, 2004)
Weblog: Remembering Ronald Reagan | What Billy Graham, Jim Dobson, Pope John Paul II, and others are saying about the death of the former president—and what he said about evangelicals. (June 07, 2004)
CT Classic: President Reagan and the Bible | He speaks out strongly for the importance of Scripture. (June 07, 2004)

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