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Jewish World Review March 16, 2004 / 23 Adar, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Religion, spiritual freedom & Ronald Reagan 10 minutes with author Paul Kengor | It's getting embarrassing how little we really knew about Ronald Reagan when he was president.

We've just learned, thanks to recent books such as "Reagan: A Life in Letters" (co-authored by CMU professor Kiron Skinner) that the "dumb actor" was a lot smarter, a lot craftier in his dealings with the Soviets and much more in charge than the media and his ideological foes made him out to be during the 1980s.

Now, thanks to Grove City College political science professor Paul Kengor's best-selling "G-d and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life," we have a full account of the serious, lifelong religious faith that had a profound impact on Reagan's character, his presidency and the West's bloodless victory in the Cold War. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

I talked toKengor by telephone on Wednesday:

Q: What were Ronald Reagan's core religious beliefs?

A: He was a devout believer. It was definitely a Christian faith, but it was a Christian faith that was certainly tolerant of other faiths. It was a Protestant Christian faith, yet Reagan was surrounded by Catholics, for example, on his staff, and worked very closely with Catholics.

He had an extraordinary relationship with Pope John Paul II. These two guys believed that G-d had spared their lives in the assassination attempts of 1981. They were both shot within a couple of months of each other, and they both believed that G-d had spared their lives for a special purpose, which they came to believe had to do with confronting Soviet communism.

Q: Were Reagan's religious beliefs from childhood through the presidency significantly different from mainstream Christianity's — love G-d , love they neighbor?

A: They weren't significantly different. Reagan had a theology where he believed heavily in G-d 's plan — that G-d has a plan for everybody, and that all the twists and forks in the road are part of G-d 's plan. He believed bad things happen for a reason that's normally a good reason that G-d is in control of. His mother, Nelle, gave him that belief.

Where Reagan might have been unusual was in the incredible optimism that he took from that. A lot of people think that G-d is involved in their lives, but Reagan was so certain of it, that even when he lost his presidential bid in 1976, it was OK, because it was for a good reason.

Where his beliefs were extraordinary was that for most people their religious faith affects their own life, their family and those closest around them. But for Reagan, it affected what he did in the grand contest, the supreme ideological war of the 20th century, which was the battle between, if you will, American-style democratic capitalism and Soviet-style communist totalitarianism.

Q: Besides his mother's influence, what else or who else was really influencing him in those early, formative spiritual years?

A: This is one part of the book I'm excited about. I got to go back and find out about these individuals who were so core to Reagan's' life that no one ever even talked about, that previous biographers just skipped.

There was a guy named Rev. Ben Cleaver who becomes one of the single most important people in Ronald Reagan's life. Reagan became almost a pastor's kid to this guy. This guy was like a father figure to him. I think that there's a good chance that Reagan probably even heard some lectures on the evils of Bolshevism and Soviet communism on the knee of Rev. Cleaver in the 1920s.

Q: These beliefs that Reagan picked up stuck with him his whole life and gave him strength he would not have had otherwise?

A: Absolutely. Reagan's confidence and self-security was so critical to what he did. Imagine. Just to call the Soviet Union "The Evil Empire." People went nuts when he said that. They criticized him and called him all kinds of names. Aside from that, they were blaming Reagan for homelessness, for AIDS, for wanting to start a nuclear war. They called him a dummy.

That stuff didn't bother him. And it didn't bother him because of that faith-based confidence, which gave him this self-security.

Q: You say in your book that Reagan used religion and spiritual freedom to undermine the Soviet Union, and that it was not just a casual thing.

A: Reagan believed that religion could be the Achilles' heel of the Soviet Empire. He used those exact words. He pointed to the example of Poland especially after the pope's visit in the late 1970s. Religious freedom in Poland was really helping to undermine communism's control on the Polish people.

Q: When he gave speeches directly over the heads of Soviet officials to the Soviet people, he sent them spiritual messages?

A: He sure did. He was trying to do that himself. He said when I go there in May and June of 1988 for the Moscow Summit, I'm going to make as many religious statements as I can to help try to spark some kind of religious revival.

This is where my book changed. I was doing a book on Reagan and the end of the Cold War, and I started reading all these Reagan statements from that summit and I was blown away. I said, "What on Earth is Reagan doing talking about the garden of Gethsemane in his toast to (Mikhail) Gorbachev?" He spoke at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Moscow twice in one day. In one, he talks about the garden of Gethsemane and in the next he gives a pitch for creationism.

Q: What did the Soviets make of Reagan's "G-d -talk"?

A: They were disgusted by it. They were appalled by it. They thought it was disgusting. Reagan's translator even said that when Reagan ended every statement with "G-d bless you, and G-d bless the Soviet people" — which he did a couple dozen times — that the hardline atheists visibly blanched.

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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