If you did a poll asking when the Cold War ended, you would get a variety of answers. It is difficult to agree on a decisive moment, but a good candidate for Christians might be the events of summer 1988, and specifically the Moscow Summit—maybe the most unappreciated of the summits between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The Moscow Summit revealed that the Cold War was in its final days. It was also an unheralded milestone for believers of all stripes.

This was the summit during which Ronald Reagan put his arm around Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square—quite a change from five years earlier when he declared the U.S.S.R. an "Evil Empire." But the forgotten story of the Moscow Summit and the history of the Cold War is Reagan's actions on behalf of human rights, and particularly religious freedom. There were two components to this story: One was Reagan's striking religious statements at the summit, which got virtually no attention from the American secular media; the other was Gorbachev's remarkable changes concerning religious liberty.

God bless the U.S.S.R.

It began on May 29, 1988. After disembarking the plane, Ronald and Nancy Reagan shuffled to the Kremlin's majestic St. George's Hall. As they strode in from one end, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev entered from the other. They exchanged pleasantries and then offered official statements.

Appropriately, it was Sunday. Reagan's self-ascribed role of religious emissary started in that initial ceremony. As he finished his conventional opening remarks, he stunned those gathered by pausing to deliver this direct salutation to the general secretary and his comrades: "Thank you and God bless you."

While such a closing is hardly unusual to American ears, it was unheard of in the Soviet Union, an officially atheist country where religious content was prohibited from television and radio—facts Reagan knew well. As Reagan's words were translated for all Russians to hear, the hardened Kremlin atheists visibly blanched. Gorbachev's translator, Igor Korchilov, braced himself and recorded that these words rang like blasphemy to the Soviet officials: "The heretofore impregnable edifice of Communist atheism was being assaulted before their very eyes."

Reagan and Gorbachev held their first one-on-one that day; it lasted an hour and 11 minutes. The off-camera conversation went back and forth, with Gorbachev going first. When it was Reagan's turn, he immediately spoke on religion in Russia, defending the rights of Muslims, Jews, Protestants, and Ukrainian Catholics and insisting that all had a right to attend their chosen place of worship. If Gorbachev improved religious liberty, Reagan told him, he would greatly enhance his image worldwide and be viewed as a "hero."

Gorbachev responded by claiming there was no serious problem with religion in Russia, though he acknowledged earlier "excesses." Reagan was not convinced, and a debate ensued. The discussion of religious faith went on for so long that it comprised a quarter of the official notes (recently declassified) by the American note-taker. It was illustrative of the direction the summit would follow.

Restored worship

One of the most memorable moments came the next day, when Reagan met religious leaders at the restored Danilov Monastery, an oasis of Orthodox Christianity in a spiritual desert. It had been founded in 1282 and recently restored, a glorious possibility under Gorbachev that did not exist under his predecessors.

Reagan noted "the deep faith that lives in the hearts of the people of this land. Like the saints and martyrs depicted in these icons, the faith of your people has been tested and tempered in the crucible of hardship … We in our country share this hope for a new age of religious freedom in the Soviet Union. We share the hope that this monastery is not an end in itself but the symbol of a new policy of religious tolerance that will extend to peoples of all faiths. We pray that the return of this monastery signals a willingness to return to believers the thousands of other houses of worship which are now closed, boarded up, or used for secular purposes." He called for a "resurgent spring of religious liberty."

Reagan knew that Gorbachev had done far more for religion than any leader in the history of the U.S.S.R., but he pushed hard nonetheless: "We may hope that perestroika will be accompanied by a deeper restructuring, a deeper conversion, a mentanoya, a change in the heart, and that glasnost, which means giving voice, will also let loose a new chorus of belief, singing praise to the God that gave us life."

Reagan finished by citing an Alexander Solzhenitsyn quotation that echoed Alexis De Tocqueville in Democracy in America: "When you travel the byroads of central Russia, you begin to understand the secret of the pacifying Russian countryside. It is in the churches. They lift their belltowers—graceful, shapely, all different—high over mundane timber and thatch. … In our prayers we may keep that image in mind: the thought that the bells may ring again, sounding through Moscow and across the countryside, clamoring for joy in their new-found freedom."

"Put your sword in its place"

On day three of the summit, Reagan spoke to students at Moscow State University, whom he saw as the next generation of leaders. Igor Korchilov called it "one of the finest examples of oratory I had ever heard." Reagan offered an American civics lesson. Among America's finest freedoms, he said, was freedom of religion. He told the students that Americans "are one of the most religious peoples on Earth" and that if they traveled to "any American town" they would encounter "dozens of churches" and "families of every conceivable nationality worshiping together." Why were Americans so religious? Because "they know that liberty, just as life itself, is not earned but a gift from God."

Reagan spewed this blasphemy in front of a giant bust of Vladimir Lenin, which stared down grimly. "There is nothing more abominable than religion," Lenin had once scowled. Reagan later joked that as the students gave him a standing ovation, he pivoted around and saw the Lenin statue weep.

But Reagan was not finished with the religion talk. Later that day, in an official state dinner at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador's residence, Reagan toasted Gorbachev. He spoke dramatically of "the voice":

I believe … we both hear the same voice, the same overwhelming imperative. What that voice says can be expressed in many ways. But I have found it in vivid form in Pasternek's poem, 'The Garden of Gethsemane.' Listen, if you will, to Pasternek's account of that famous arrest: 'There appeared—no one knew from where—a crowd of slaves and a rabble of knaves, with lights and swords and, leading them, Judas with a traitor's kiss on his lips. Peter repulsed the ruffians with his sword and cut off the ear of one of them. But he heard: 'You cannot decide a dispute with weapons; put your sword in its place, O man.' That's the voice. 'Put your sword in its place, O man.' That is the imperative, the command. And so we will work together that we might forever keep our swords at our sides.

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."

Ripple effects

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.