In some ways, one might be surprised that so many conservative evangelicals ever fell so deeply in love with a former Hollywood film actor who went into politics but rarely into church sanctuaries. But make no mistake: Ronald Wilson Reagan and evangelicals became inseparable. After giving him the presidency, conservative Protestants shaped Reagan's policies, and in turn Reagan's presidency shaped American evangelicalism.
In his presidential speeches to evangelical groups, the Great Communicator didn't just communicate that conservative Christians were important to him and to the countryhe told them that they were crucial. For example, Reagan's 1983 "evil empire" speechone of the most significant speeches of the 20th centurywas delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals (photo). That speech included references to C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, "a great spiritual awakening in America," America's own "legacy of evil," school prayer, the Ten Commandments, and this telling litany: "an overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of adultery, teenage sex, pornography, abortion, and hard drugs." (He reiterated many of these themes in other addresses to the NAE.) But significantly, the speech began with Reagan telling the Christian leaders how important they were to him:
I'm pleased to be here today with you who are keeping America great by keeping her good. Only through your work and prayers and those of millions of others can we hope to survive this perilous century and keep alive this experiment in liberty, this last, best hope of man.
I want you to know that this administration is motivated by a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America in you, her people, and in your families, churches, neighborhoods, communitiesthe institutions that foster and nourish values like concern for others and respect for the rule of law under God.
A few months later, Reagan again communicated his affinity for evangelicals by speaking at the National Religious Broadcasters convention within hours of announcing his candidacy for a second presidential term. In that speech, Christianity Today wrote, Reagan aligned "himself more closely than ever before with conservative Christian moral causes."
"Today I feel like I'm doing more than returning for a speech; I feel like I'm coming home," he said in his opening remarks. "Under this roof, some 4,000 of us are kindred spirits united by one burning belief: God is our Father; we are His children; together, brothers and sisters, we are one family." Noting his declaration of 1983 as the Year of the Bible, he said, "Can we make a resolution here today? -- That 1984 will be the year we put its great truths into action? Within the covers of that single Book are all the answers to all the problems that face us today if we'd only read and believe."
Reagan cautioned against "claiming God is on our side," adding, "the real question we must answer is, are we on His side?" America's abortion rate, he said, suggests that we are not. But Christian ministries, he said, "show us that lives are saved, people are reborn and, yes, dreams come true when we heed the voice of the spirit, minister to the needy, and glorify God."
Here's how Reagan ended that speech:
Our mission stretches far beyond our borders; God's family knows no borders. In your life you face daily trials, but millions of believers in other lands face far worse. They are mocked and persecuted for the crime of loving God. To every religious dissident trapped in that cold, cruel existence, we send our love and support. Our message? You are not alone; you are not forgotten; do not lose your faith and hope because someday you, too, will be free.
If the Lord is our light, our strength, and our salvation, whom shall we fear? Of whom shall we be afraid? No matter where we live, we have a promise that can make all the difference, a promise from Jesus to soothe our sorrows, heal our hearts, and drive away our fears. He promised there will never be a dark night that does not end. Our weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. He promised if our hearts are true, His love will be as sure as sunlight. And, by dying for us, Jesus showed how far our love should be ready to go: all the way.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.'' I'm a little self-conscious because I know very well you all could recite that verse to me. [Laughter]
Helping each other, believing in Him, we need never be afraid. We will be part of something far more powerful, enduring, and good than all the forces here on Earth. We will be a part of paradise.
Now that Reagan has quite literally become a part of Paradise (though the usual caveat goes here about only God knowing for sure), tributes are pouring in from Christian leaders around the country. Notably, a few of them worked in Reagan's administration:
Focus on the Family President Don Hodel, (served as Reagan's Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Energy):
Along with millions of others, my sympathies are with Mrs. Reagan and his family, tonight. A great man has passed from the scene, but his memory and accomplishments will live on.
Few experiences in my life have been as rewarding and enjoyable as serving in President Ronald Reagan's Cabinet. He was a man of great vision, traditional American values and very strong convictions, and he ran the country by those principles.
He exemplified that ideas matter, values have consequences and leadership matters. Nothing represents this better than an instance from a Cabinet meeting. Someone was making a presentation, trying to convince the President on a matter, and -- right in mid-sentence -- President Reagan stopped him and said, 'Wait! You're talking politics. I want to know what you think is right!'
This determination to seek right and his vision of freedom for all mankind drove him in his successful efforts to bring down the Soviet Union (and the Berlin Wall), to restore the rights of citizens by, among other things, bringing down confiscatory tax rates, and to restore America's self-confidence.
It was apparent to those around him that the President had an abiding faith in God which gave him calm and confidence through all the demands of his presidency and the attacks of his critics. America and the world were tremendously well-served by President Reagan, and even though his illness took him from the public arena some time ago, there will be less sparkle now that we know he is gone.
May he rest in peace and may we always remember his remarkable character and his accomplishments.
Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who served eight years in the Reagan administration:
My heart goes out to Mrs. Reagan and the Reagan family on the passing of Ronald Reagan, a modern day American Hero. Our country lost an extraordinary man and extraordinary President."
History will record that Ronald Reagan's clear vision of what was at stake in the cold war lead to the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the triumph of liberty. He transformed the Republican Party, making it a voice for the values of hearth and home. His insistence that the American people were over taxed led to the biggest decline in marginal tax rates in the history of the country and the revival of economic growth, the effects of which echo even today. I will forever by honored by the opportunity to serve him.
Evangelist Billy Graham:
Ronald Reagan was one of my closest personal friends for many years. Ruth and I spent a number of nights at the White House and had hundreds of hours of conversation with the President and First Lady.
Mr. Reagan had a religious faith deeper than most people knew. Nancy is one of the strongest and most dedicated women I have ever known. She and the children have my love and prayers.
The President was a man of tremendous integrity, based on his religious belief. I visited him and Nancy on numerous occasions in recent years and always had prayer with them. Though her husband was unable to communicate at times, Nancy would say, "When you prayed, I think he knew you were here."
The love between Ronald and Nancy Reagan was an example to the nation. No man ever had a more loyal and loving wife and no children ever had a more loving and faithful mother than Nancy.
Focus on the Family chairman and founder James Dobson:
I loved President Reagan as a man and admired him as a leader. He restored dignity to the White House and demonstrated a deep respect for the institution of the family, which had been badly damaged by the excesses of the 1960s and '70s.
I observed him from close range during his presidency and was always impressed by his warmth and the ease with which he led. He talked often about America being a 'shining city upon a hill' -- a reference to Jesus' words in Matthew 5. President Reagan's values were often rooted in the timeless truths of Scripture.
May we never forget the contributions this great man made to this nation.
(It's worth noting that Graham had originally been scheduled to speak at Reagan's funeral, but cannot because of his own ill health. Franklin Graham is scheduled to speak at a Mexico evangelistic crusade and will be unable to attend as well. However, Reagan family spokeswoman Joanne Drake told The Orlando Sentinel that Billy and Ruth Graham were the first people to speak to Nancy Reagan after her husband's death.)
Other links of note regarding Reagan and his faith:
- Pope John Paul II Pays tribute to Reagan | Vatican statement said John Paul recalled Reagan's contribution to "historical events that changed the lives of millions of people, mainly Europeans" (Associated Press)
- The intellectual origins of Ronald Reagan's faith | Ronald Reagan's two favorite books--not coincidentally--both happened to have a profound effect on him spiritually (Paul Kengor, The Heritage Foundation, April 30, 2004)
- Ronald Reagan: Messiah, Antichrist or normal mainline church guy? | Maybe his most important legacy in American religious culture is the Religious Right and the Religious Left (Terry Mattingly, GetReligion)
- Reagan's penchant for prayer | Ronald Reagan brought his belief in the power of prayer and the importance of the Bible to the Oval Office. An excerpt from Paul Kengor's God and Ronald Reagan (Beliefnet)
- Ronald Reagan, my Christian hero | He was as pro-life, pro-family, pro-national defense and pro-Israel--as we were. (Jerry Falwell, 2002, Beliefnet)
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