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Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 2003 / 10 Adar I, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

The 'religiosity' of Ronald Reagan 10 minutes with author Paul Kengor | If you think all the Ronald Reagan books we need have already been written, you haven't met professor Paul Kengor of Grove City College.

Kengor, a well-published expert on presidents and foreign policy, has just written "Reagan, G-d and the Evil Empire," a book that looks into how the Gipper's heretofore unexplored religious faith influenced his politics. And it's just the first of several Reagan books Kengor plans to write.

Published by the conservative-friendly and successful HarperCollins imprint, Regan Books, "Reagan, G-d and the Evil Empire" is aimed at general audiences, not academics, and will be out late this year. With President Reagan having just celebrated his 92nd birthday, it seemed like a good time for Kengor to give us a little preview:

Q: What, in a 60-second sound bite, is the gist of your book?

A: It's the first true, comprehensive examination of Ronald Reagan's religious faith and how it affected his life and presidency. I'm certain people are really going to be shocked. He was a Christian and he took it very seriously.

It's often said that Reagan was a man of conviction, and he was. Reagan's political convictions remained pretty consistent going back to the '50s and 1940s, even though he changed political parties at one point. But what is not appreciated is that his religious convictions remained almost totally consistent going back to about the 1920s, so they guided him even longer.

My book began as a book about Reagan's personal role in the end of the Cold War. What I ended up learning was, was that his faith drove a lot of what he did in going after the Soviet Union. He saw the Soviet Union as an "Evil Empire," and evil in a Biblical sense as well. He said in his "Evil Empire" speech that he believed he had a Christian obligation, literally, to go after the Soviet Union and destroy its evil empire.

Q: Why is Reagan's faith still a mystery after all the books and all the media attention - he was president for eight years.

A: That's a good question. Probably because it was dismissed by both sides. You had the left, which never took it seriously, because it never took Reagan seriously. Reagan was a dummy. And with a lot of politicians, the left will sometimes doubt their faith and look at it cynically. They certainly did that in Reagan's case. They thought when Reagan talked about religion he was doing it to appeal to the religious right, to Christian conservatives, so they just dismissed it.

And on the right, the Christian right in particular, when the astrology stuff broke, and as people realized Reagan didn't attend church much as president, people on the right were suspicious as well. So they, likewise, didn't take him real seriously on the faith issue.

Q: What was Reagan's religious faith and where did he get it?

A: He got it from his mother, Nelle. Nelle was the central force in his life. If Nelle Reagan had died in 1919, when she contracted the flu virus that killed almost 20 million people around the world, I don't think Reagan would have become president. She was that important in his life. She's the one who turned him into a Christian, who convinced him that things happen for a reason that's determined by God. And that individuals are handmaidens of God, and that individuals have a divine purpose. This came from her.

Q: Were they a specific religious denomination?

A: The Disciples of Christ Church.

Q: Are they precursors to Christian fundamentalists today?

A: Not really. It's also known as the Christian Church, but Disciples of Christ is the most accurate way to categorize it. It's not known as a particularly conservative or evangelical or fundamentalist denomination. In fact, today the mainstream leadership is, if anything, liberal or liberal-to-moderate. They've never really been conservative.

Richard Allen, Reagan's national security adviser, told me that Reagan had a sort of generic Christianity, and that's exactly right. It was a generic Christianity and that translated into a belief not just that God picks individuals to do certain things. Also, Reagan believed that God had chosen America as a special nation with a special purpose. So this all comes together in Reagan becoming convinced that, at that point in time, in the 1980s, God chose America for a special purpose in the Cold War - to confront atheistic Soviet communism.

Q: Why didn't he make a bigger deal of his religion?

A: (Former Attorney General) Ed Meese told me - and he's a good source for this, because he was with Reagan in the '70s in California - that Reagan was put off by what he perceived as politicians in the 1970s wearing their religion on their sleeve. I think he had Jimmy Carter in mind. And he didn't ever want to appear that he was using his religion for political purposes.

Q: So how did you find out about his religious faith?

A: This is what blew me away: I was writing just a regular book on Reagan and the Cold War. I went back and I read through all the old presidential papers, all the old presidential speeches, all the old Reagan statements, all of Reagan's handwritten letters, and over and over and over, I repeatedly was hit with Reagan's views on religion.

Reagan talking about God; Reagan talking specifically about Jesus Christ. I thought, "Where did this come from?" He was saying it. He wasn't saying it publicly, though sometimes he was. I started photocopying these references. Pretty soon I had this pile, which just increased. It went from half an inch to an inch to 6 inches to three or four boxes.

In the end, I had all this material that really everybody else seemed to miss. I think people missed it because - this sounds polemical, but I think it's an important point - most historians are on the left, politically. And a lot of journalists who write biographies of presidents are on the left, and I think a lot of them dismissed Reagan's religiosity. They didn't take it seriously. Or, even more important, they weren't interested in it.

Me, I'm personally a Christian, I'm personally a conservative, and I'm interested in that stuff. So when I saw that, I didn't let it go. I said, "I'm really intrigued by all this and I want to learn more about it."

Q: Are there any other Reagan mysteries out there?

A: Yeah, there are. A couple of them, though, are subjects of other books, so I don't want to give them away.

Q: Do we really need any more Reagan books?

A: We need different Reagan books. There are things out there about Reagan - there are wrinkles, there are things about him that are not know - that require more research. One thing, for example: The definitive biography of his early life remains to be written. A narrative biography for the general public.

Edmund Morris did a lot of that, but I think, for example, a good biography of Reagan's parents is probably needed. Another book would be to take a serious look at Reagan's intelligence, because he was actually very intelligent man and that's completely contrary to perceptions of him. He had a photographic memory as early as childhood. He was a very intelligent human being.

Even saying that to this day elicits laughter from the elites, but it's absolutely true. And somebody needs to lay it out.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald