Seventy days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan, press secretary Jim Brady, and two members of the President’s protective detail were shot outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. The bullet that struck the President narrowly missed his heart and lodged in his lung. It would be 12 days before the recovering Reagan returned to the White House and resumed making entries in the diaries he kept throughout his presidency. The quotation at the head of this article is from that day’s entry, famously expressing the deepened sense of gratitude Reagan felt that he had survived an assassin’s attack.
The entry for April 11, 1981, contains a much longer statement about what went through President Reagan’s mind as he lay on the operating table at George Washington Hospital. It says a great deal about the nature of his faith and its impact on him as well as others:
Getting shot hurts. Still my fear was growing because no matter how hard I tried to breathe it seemed I was getting less & less air. I focused on that tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children & therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.
The ready forgiveness for John Hinckley and a prayer for his spiritual recovery were quintessential Reagan. The Friday after his return to the White House was Good Friday and he notes in the diary a conversation that day with Billy Graham, who told the President that he knew the Hinckley family and that they were “decent, deeply religious people who are completely crushed by the ‘sickness’ of their son.” Reagan’s empathy was boundless.
The faith of Ronald Reagan was evident in both his deeds and his words, as anyone who ever had the honor to work with him rapidly recognized. His faith had all the characteristics of a lived Christianity in 20th-century America. It was in his bloodstream, born of a deep familiarity with the Bible, a natural acceptance that God was the author of freedom, and a belief (the historian James MacGregor Burns praised him simply as a “man of conviction,” a description Burns regarded as the essential quality of leadership) that our nation had enjoyed unique blessings from God. In speech after speech and policy after policy, Reagan displayed not a theologian’s sifter but an informed Christian’s understanding of the eternal struggle between good and evil and the centrality of this struggle in human affairs.
Reagan’s clarity about these matters irritated his critics, who (at least until the recent boomlet of Reagan adulation among liberals) derided or dismissed him as naïve or simplistic about such issues as Soviet relations, nuclear weapons (Reagan repeatedly denounced the amorality of the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction”), and welfare policy. In matters of faith as well as policy, these critics completely underestimated Reagan’s depth.
Dr. Edwin J. Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, notes in his introductory essay to Reagan’s speech to the British Parliament in June 1982 that the President kept two books on his nightstand, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness and George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty. The salience of Witness for Reagan, who cited Chambers’s work as the basis for his conversion to political conservatism, lay in its interpretation of the modern world as a “critical conflict of faiths.” On the one hand lay the new political faith of communism, which began with its supposition that God did not exist and that the glorious march of mankind toward communal perfection served to replace Him. Against that march was set the heritage of Western civilization, which doubted the perfectibility of mankind and put its stock in “individual liberty, representative government, and the rule of law under God,” as Reagan summarized it in his speech in the Palace of Westminster.
These same themes were the preoccupations of Reagan’s best-known addresses to domestic audiences. One of those speeches, to the National Association of Evangelicals in March 1983, is most remembered for Reagan’s use of the phrase “evil empire” to describe the Soviet Union. But the speech was likewise strong in its analysis of the state of American culture and the harmful influence of public policies favored by secularizing bureaucracies. Reagan took his audience through a succession of issues, from his support of a constitutional amendment to protect voluntary school prayer, to parental notification prior to distribution of contraceptives in federally funded clinics, to the right to life of the unborn. These were not merely “social” or wedge issues to Reagan, but matters touching the character and prospects of the nation. He believed their right resolution would reflect a “much deeper realization that freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted.”
Nearly every biographer or author of a “Reagan appreciation” writes of his humor and sunny disposition, but these assessments often begin and end with his personality or Irish heritage. Reagan’s humor spawned a volume devoted to his “wit and wisdom” and provided story after story in the remarkable and moving tribute paid to him by speechwriter Peter Robinson in his book How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. Robinson first drafted the words that became the emblem of Reagan’s speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate -- “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” But writers like Robinson and others in the Reagan White House, whose lives were similarly changed by the experience, knew that they could rely on Reagan’s firmness of conviction because it was nourished in the same wellsprings as his humor: the optimism of an abiding faith.
In the midsummer of 1987, Reagan said, “I do not come here to lament. For I find in Berlin a message of hope, even in the shadow of this wall, a message of triumph.” Where others of a more timid diplomatic mindset saw only deadlocked struggle, military risk, or, at their worst, moral equivalence, Ronald Reagan saw an opening, an imbalance that would inevitably tilt in favor of freedom. He closed his speech that day with a prediction that some critics thought hubristic, but that seemed completely natural for him: “This wall will fall, for it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.” Reagan’s optimism, Reagan’s humor cannot be seen apart from Reagan’s hope -- nor can that hope be seen apart from his faith in a saving and sovereign God.
One final testament to that faith comes in the most domestic setting of all. That Ronald Reagan did not enjoy lifelong closeness with his two youngest children, Patti and Ron, is a drama that, as seen in Ron, Jr.’s new biography of his father, is still being played out. For Patti, however, an appreciation for her father’s Christianity blossomed into a book that appeared just a year after she posed for Playboy magazine, an act of rebellion that must have grieved him terribly (he commented favorably even in his presidential diaries whenever a new movie he and Nancy had seen was profanity-free). But one searches in vain among Reagan’s statements for even a hint of disparagement or pain over the political and personal differences he had with his youngest offspring. It is not difficult then to see in Patti’s prose in Angels Don’t Die: My Father’s Gift of Faith a reflection of the constancy of Reagan’s own love for her: “God's love never wavers,” she writes of learning from him, “and that no matter how harsh life seems, or how cruel the world is, that love is constant, unconditional, and eternal.”
Parenting and politics, as the Reagans showed, can be worlds apart, even in direct conflict when the demands of a public life overshadow and obscure the emotional intimacy that make a home life possible. The family sacrifices that leaders like Ronald Reagan make when they walk upon a world stage are widely noted but just as widely assumed. It is safe to assume, however, that Reagan never took these sacrifices as somehow necessary evils, and my guess is that few events in the last full decade of his life meant more to him than his younger daughter’s slim book recounting a journey home.
For his epitaph, carved in stone above his resting place at the Reagan Library, our 40th president chose three phrases from his dedicatory address there: "I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there is purpose and worth to each and every life." Of this quality was Ronald Reagan’s “sunny optimism” made -- not a glib embrace of universal fellowship, but a profound confidence, born of experience, that through repentance and gratitude each of us can find our way back to the fold.
Chuck Donovan is senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. He was a writer for President Reagan from 1981-89.