Type in "Ronald Reagan" on Amazon.com under "books" and nearly 14,000 results pop out at you. Want Reagan's ghostwritten autobiography An American Life? (In a speech in the early Nineties, Reagan quipped that he'd get around to reading it one of these days.) It's still in print. As are numerous collections of letters, including letters to Joe and Judy taxpayer, letters to Nancy, and copies of old radio commentaries, in Reagan's own hand. Also present are hagiographies (Peggy Noonan, Dinesh D'Souza), collections of Reagan quotations, volumes that continue to pour forth from the pens of Reagan administration alum (How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, A Different Drummer, etc.), and perhaps the most poorly conceived official biography in the history of official biographies (Dutch, by Edmund Morris).
The books only touch the tip of the iceberg that is the Reagan industry. Put crassly, Ronald Reagan sells. His image on the cover of conservative magazines will boost sales, and his name on direct mail is fundraising gold. The Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, for instance, is attempting to name one "notable public landmark" in every state, and one landmark in each of the nation's 3,067 counties, after the Great Communicator. The project also wants his mug stamped on the $10 bill and chiseled into Mount Rushmore.
Around the capital, advocates have already succeeded in lobbying Congress to rename one airport after our 40th president, and to put his name on a new federal building (the latter is an honor that son Michael insists his father, were he not under the fog of Alzheimer's, would have declined). Further north, the New Hampshire legislature voted last year to change the name of a local peak from Mount Clay to Mount Reagan, though—wouldn't you know?—the obstructionist federal government insists on waiting until after the namesake's death to formally recognize it.
The publishing end of the Reagan industry does turn out the occasional gem (e.g., some of the works of de facto official biographer, former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon), but the genre is riddled with so much hackjobbery and quickbuckery as to make any new entry suspect. Reagan's official stance toward the Soviets, "trust but verify," seems almost too lenient, and so I came to Grove City professor Paul Kengor's latest only after tossing back a few shots of skepticism.
Fascination with Reagan's faith is nothing new, of course, and Kengor's God and Ronald Reagan isn't the first book to carry the title. Conservative Christians, incensed by Jimmy Carter's ham-fisted attempt to force racial quotas on private religious elementary and high schools, provided the margin of Reagan's victory in 1980, and they never let him forget it. Several books came off the presses during the Eighties that played up the Gipper's statements on religion, his conversion experience, his opposition to abortion and secularism, and his belief that the Bible was the inspired word of God. However, there appears of late to be a renewed interest in Reagan's spirituality. God and Ronald Reagan only narrowly beat Mary Beth Brown's Hand of Providence: The Strong and Quiet Faith of Ronald Reagan (WND Books, slated for a late March release) into print.
This suddenly exotic faith grew out of Reagan's life. Son of a nominally Catholic father and a pious fundamentalist mother, he grew up in the Disciples of Christ church of Dixon, Illinois. There, he honed his oratorical skills as reader of Scripture, got his first taste of acting, and tried his hand at leadership. He taught the boys' Sunday school class for over two years, relinquishing it only when he went to Eureka College. Many members of the local congregation believed Reagan would become a preacher, and he nearly married the minister's daughter, whose unexplained nickname was "Muggs." From the picture Kengor paints, in solid workmanlike strokes, Reagan sounds not unlike some of the Baptist youths I grew up with while the 40th president was watching over the Oval Office.
Though Reagan grew away from his religious upbringing, he never repudiated it. Kengor makes a decent case that certain aspects of the Disciples of Christ—its anti-Communism; its free-church skepticism of the federal government; its emphasis on the horrible this-worldly effects of sin; its insistence that faith, hope, and charity could lay waste to any problem; its belief that God had a special plan for each and every one of us—provided the major themes of Reagan's presidency.
Kengor also sheds light on another mystery of Reagan's faith. In the '84 re-election campaign, conservative journalist Fred Barnes ambushed the president with a question about why, as a man of faith, he didn't make it to church on Sundays. Reagan said that, well, after the shooting, the Secret Service informed him that the security measures would impose an undue burden on a congregation. In truth, he hadn't regularly gone to church for a good many years and didn't appear to be troubled about this. Kengor explains that because of the huge number of moves as a young child, Reagan didn't make friends easily and was more introspective than most. Before the Disciples of Christ provided some stability and community in his teen years, the young Dutch conceived of his relationship with the Almighty in entirely solitary terms: God was there for him when no one else could be. For Reagan, church was but one possible manifestation of that relationship, ending Communism another.
Jeremy Lott is assistant managing editor of The American Spectator.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Also posted today is Books & Culture's Baseball Preview.
Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
How Do You Live with a Torturer? | A novel of Haiti by the brilliant young writer, Edwidge Danticat. (March 08, 2004)
God Is in the Details | A scientist affirms his faith. (Feb. 23, 2004)
History Repeats Itself, Sort of | How the fate of Eugene McCarthy's insurgency against LBJ sheds light on the 2004 presidential campaign. (Feb. 16, 2004)
The Worst President Ever? | Former Nixon aide John Dean attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Warren G. Harding. (Feb. 09, 2004)
Wholly, Wholly, Wholly | Calvinists and conga drums in Grand Rapids: a report from the seventeenth annual Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. (Feb. 02, 2004)
The Doom of Choice | Fate, free will, and moral responsibility in Tolkien. (Feb. 02, 2004)
A Rose Among Thorns | A new novel by the author of Father Elijah illumines the spiritual consequences of our simplest decisions. (Jan. 26, 2004)
Baptized in Fire | A new book on Martin Luther King, Jr., emphasizes his spiritual transformation. (Jan. 19, 2004)
O'Connor v. the Antichrist (Jan. 12, 2004)
Moody, the Media, and the Birth of Modern Evangelism | A cautionary tale. (Jan. 05, 2004)
A Few Coming Attractions from 2004 | Plus: What to buy with those gift cards, and some of the books in my to-read stacks. (Dec. 29, 2003)
The Top Ten Books of 2003 | Plus: The Worst Book of the Year, more good reading, digital books, and a little Christmas music. (Dec. 22, 2003)
Books at Warp Speed | We continue our annual roundup of noteworthy books. (Dec. 15, 2003)
Is "Sensual Orthodoxy" a Contradiction in Terms? | Read this unconventional collection of sermons and judge for yourself. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Books, Books, Books! | We begin our annual roundup. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Urban Eden | In City: Urbanism and Its End, a new history of New Haven, Connecticut, the city (in its late 19th-century form) is an ambiguous heaven-and the suburbs that relentlessly followed are hell. Which leaves us where, exactly? (Dec. 01, 2003)
Cool Drink of Water | A poet's voice in the evangelical wilderness.
Faith, Hope, and Charity in North Carolina | New novels by Michael Morris—whose first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, was a word-of-mouth hit— and Jan Karon, who continues her beloved Mitford saga. (Nov. 17, 2003)
Remember Afghanistan? | Two inside reports. (Nov. 10, 2003)
The Troubled Conscience of a Founding Father | An Imperfect God examines George Washington and slavery. (Oct. 27, 2003)
The Year of the Fish | The 2003 baseball season concludes with a bang—and 2004 is just around the corner. (Oct. 27, 2003)
I Shop, Therefore I Am | Critics of "consumer culture" are all wet, Virginia Postrel says. The riot of choices available to us resonates with our deepest aesthetic instincts (Oct. 20, 2003)
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