230 God and Reagan, Bush, Clinton

In God and Ronald Reagan:  A Spiritual Life (New York:  ReganBooks, c. 2004), Paul Kengor, a professor of political science at Grove City College, sympathetically crafts a spiritual biography of the 40th President of the United States.  Based upon a careful examination of his official papers, which reveal his “intense religious thinking” (p. viii), the author finds Reagan’s life an illustration of his presidential prayer  “‘that I can . . . perform the duties of this position so as to serve God,’” (p. vii).  

As a youngster Reagan was blessed with a fervently devout mother, routinely attended church, and was baptized in the Dixon, IL, Disciples of Christ church in 1922 at the age of eleven.  “When he arose from the water and heard the minister command him, ‘Arise and walk in newness of faith,’ he said he felt ‘called’—and that in that moment he had ‘a personal experience when I invited Christ into my life’” (p. 17).  He then became an active member of the congregation:  “Sunday school Sunday mornings, church Sunday morning, Christian Endeavor Sunday evening, church after Christian Endeavor, and prayer meeting on Wednesdays” (p. 28).   Good teachers and pastors and youth activities enriched and established his budding discipleship.

Financially helped by a football scholarship, Reagan joined some 250 students in 1928 at Eureka College, a Disciples of Christ institution.  He and the college were a perfect fit, and he looked back on those years with fondness for the “sound foundation” it provided him.  Drawn to the performing arts, he later landed a job as a radio broadcaster in Iowa and began to rapidly climb the career ladder that led him in five years to Hollywood.  A man who knew him well “in the early 1930s remembered him as a ‘deeply religious man’” who had “‘a strong inner faith’” (p. 43).  Signing with Warner Brothers, Reagan launched his movie career in 1938.  He also maintained his connection with the Disciples of Christ denomination by joining the Hollywood Beverly Christian Church, though his attendance would prove erratic as his acting career burgeoned.  Distressed by the Communist threat abroad (and within the Screen Actors Guild) he steadily shifted his political position.  “A Truman Democrat in the late 1940s, he was an Eisenhower Democrat by 1952, and a Nixon Republican by the early 1960s” (p. 52).    

In part this resulted from his growing awareness of—and opposition to—the threat of Communism and its war on religion.  Reagan read widely (e.g. Malcolm Muggeridge, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, William Roepke) and thought deeply about the nature of Soviet tyranny and the suffering Christians in the USSR.  “In the 1960s, he regularly assailed the ‘false god of Marx and his false prophet Lenin’” (p. 73).  He was especially influenced by Whittaker Chambers, who (in his classic anti-communist work, Witness) wrote that “‘in this century, within the next decades, will be decided for generations whether all mankind is to become Communist, whether the whole world is to become free, or whether, in the struggle, civilization as we know it is to be completely destroyed or completely changed.’  And Chambers challenged his readers to take the cause personally:  ‘It is our fate to live upon that turning point in history’” (p. 80).  As president, Reagan quoted these words in a stirring 1982 speech.    

Entering the political arena, Reagan was elected governor of California and served eight years in that capacity, assured that it was “‘part of God’s plan for me’” (p. 115).  In his first inaugural address, he gave witness to his faith by citing Benjamin Franklin’s dictum:  “‘He who introduces into public office the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world’” (p. 115).  During this time he forged  a life-long bond with Rev. Donn Moomaw, pastor of the Bel Air Presbyterian church the Reagans attended.  “Moomaw called Reagan ‘a man without guile—one of the most principled men I know. . . .  In his decisions he tries to be morally right, use his common sense and seek the guidance of God.’  He prayed with Reagan often, and said that they two spent ‘many hours together on our knees’” (p. 120).  

Following his successful gubernatorial career, Reagan entered the national stage with an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for president in 1976.  Four years later, however, he succeeded and was elected to the nation’s highest office, bringing with him a lifetime of spiritual sensitivities and commitments.  Closing his first inaugural address (wholly written by himself) he said:  “‘We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free.  It would be fitting and good, I think, if on each Inaugural Day in  future years it should be declared a day of prayer” (p. 160).  He not only called people to pray but prayed himself, “frequently invoking the image of Lincoln on his knees” (p. 173).  Surviving John Hinckley’s 1981 assassination attempt, he praised God, telling Terence Cardinal Cooke:    “‘I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him. . . .  Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him every way I can’” (p. 197).  This conviction was deepened by a meeting with Mother Teresa, who told him she “stayed up for two straight nights praying for you after’” he was shot.  “‘We prayed very hard for you to live’” (p. 208).  More pointedly, she admonished him:  “‘You have suffered a passion of the cross and have received grace.  There is a purpose to this.  Because of your suffering and pain you will now understand the suffering and pain of the world.’” (p. 209).  

He was also convinced that God had spared him to speak and work, week after week, for the millions suffering under the curse of atheistic Communism.  As one of his closest advisors (William Clark) recalled, Reagan “‘did feel a calling, as I did, to this effort and the idea that truth would ultimately prevail.  Not that he would prevail, but the truth will prevail.’”  Clark remembered “‘that Reagan confidently told him and his staff, ‘several times both as governor and many times later as president,’ that ‘the wall around atheistic communism is destined to come down with the Divine Plan because it lives a lie’” (pp. 214-215).  God’s Plan for man, to Reagan, included the inalienable rights cited in the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  “In a 1983 address in Atlanta, he quoted a theologian who said that these rights are ‘corollaries of the great proposition, at the heart of Western civilization, that every  . . . person is a ressacra, a sacred reality, and as such is entitled to the opportunity of fulfilling those great human potentials with which God has endowed man’” (p. 228).  

These potentials were frustrated throughout the communist world.  So in 1983, speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, President Reagan shocked the world by calling the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” indeed “the focus of evil in the modern world.”  This was followed by a plea for prayer “‘for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God’” (p. 238).  It was, Kengor says, “one of the most polarizing speeches Reagan ever gave” (p. 235) and keyed up a chorus of critics, including the noted historian Henry Steele Commager, who declared, “‘It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all.’  He was particularly angered by what he saw as Reagan’s ‘gross appeal to religious prejudice’” (p. 249).  However, it effectively summarized  “a lifetime of Reagan’s thinking on the subject” (p. 240) and  dissidents behind the Iron Curtain found the words “evil empire” perfectly descriptive of their world.  

In his final year as President, Reagan became what Kengor calls a “missionary to Moscow,” attending his fourth “summit” with Mikhail Gorbachev.  “Eager to find every means possible to undermine Soviet communism, Reagan must have believed from the start in making God—and particularly biblical Christianity—a constant refrain during his 1988 trip to the USSR, he stood a real chance to weaken Soviet communism and even help change the country” (p. 283).  In speeches and interviews, private conversations and public broadcasts, Reagan appealed for religious freedom and faith in God.  Speaking in Gorbachev’s presence before a recently reopened monastery, “He called the restoration of the monastery a ‘first’ that he hoped would be followed by a ‘resurgent spring of religious liberty.’  He directly coaxed Gorbachev, this time on his home turf:  ‘We may hope that perestroika will be accompanied by a deeper restructuring, a deeper conversion, a metanoya, a change in 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’” (p. 300).  

In both public and private, Kengor says, Ronald Reagan was a consistently committed Christian, and God and Ronald Reagan fully demonstrates that thesis.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Providing a sequel to his study of President Reagan, Paul Kengor authored God and George W. Bush:  A Spiritual Life (Washington:  ReganBooks, c. 2004).  The book is dedicated to “Billy Graham, preacher to presidents” to indicate the great evangelist’s role in bringing George W. Bush to an active faith in Christ, on display in his first inaugural address, in January 2001, when he said:  “‘We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with His purpose.  Yet His purpose is achieved in our duty’” (p. ix).

Blessed with loving parents, Bush was born in 1946 and reared (from age two) in Texas.  For eleven years he regularly attended a Presbyterian church in Midland, where his father taught Sunday school.  Moving to Houston, the family attended an Episcopal church, returning to George H.W. Bush’s religious roots.  Following his father’s path, he attended Phillips Academy, an exclusive college prep school, then on to Yale University, where he earned a degree in history in 1968 as well as a reputation as a partygoer and prankster.   Ever emulating his father, Bush then “joined the Texas Air National Guard and became an F-102 fighter pilot” (p. 14).  After taking various short-term jobs he entered Harvard’s Business School and graduated with an MBA in 1975.  

He then returned to Midland to seek success in the oil business, starting “at rock bottom” (p. 17).  He also met a delightful Midland girl named Laura Welch, whom he married in 1977.  Twin daughters arrived four years later.  After years of at best desultory church attendance, George joined Laura as a member of the first United Methodist Church.  Though involved in various church programs, he struggled with a drinking problem and sensed a deep spiritual need unsatisfied by mere church attendance.  In 1985, joining his extended family for a vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine, he fortuitously met a guest of the family, Billy Graham.  Hiking on the beach, the two men “had a heart-to-heart conversation.  ‘I knew I was in the presence of a great man,’ said Bush.  ‘He was like a magnet; I felt drawn to seek something different.  He didn’t lecture or admonish; he shared warmth and concern.  Billy Graham didn’t make you feel guilty; he made you feel loved’” (p. 22).  Though no “crisis experience” took place, in those moments “Graham ‘planted a mustard seed in my soul,’ Bush later wrote.  ‘He led me to the path, and I began walking’” (p. 23).  George W. Bush became a sincerely committed Christian.

Walking rightly in years ahead led him to stop drinking, study the Bible, and pray daily.  He also followed his father into public life and was elected Governor of Texas in 1994.  In his first inaugural address, “Bush promised fellow Texans:  ‘The duties that I assume can best be met with the guidance of One greater than ourselves I ask for God’s help’” (p. 31).  That involved developing a “compassionate conservatism” attuned to the needs of all people—somewhat akin to the messages preached in the relatively conservative Texas Methodist churches he attended.    Reelected in 1998, he began to envision (ever mindful of his father’s accomplishments) a presidential campaign in 2000, deeply persuaded (as he told a prominent evangelist, James Robison) that “‘God wants me to run for president’” (p. 62).  

Elected President in 2000, Bush brought a robust and public Christian faith to the White House.  This was evident in his first inaugural address, presidential appointments and pronouncements.  “His first official act was to make Inaugural Day a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving, ‘knowing that I cannot succeed in this task without the favor of God and the prayers of the people’” (p. 89).  He also did whatever  possible to protect unborn babies, reversing President Clinton’s unswerving promotion of abortion rights.  Just as importantly, behind the scenes—away from the cameras—he lived out his faith, as Kengor shows, giving ample illustrations of the many ways the president cared personally for various individuals.    

Barely into his presidency, George W. Bush had to deal with the September 11, 2001 Islamic terrorists’ attacks upon the nation.  It could not have been other than a defining moment for the nation’s commander-in-chief.  During those trying times, he not only issued public statements, calling people to pray and turn to God, but  he personally “leaned on the words of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who during the darkest days of Nazi rule had said, ‘I believe that God can and wants to create good out of everything, even evil’” (p. 128).  This, of course, did not mean inaction!   Bush quickly authorized an attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan and (two years later) the invasion of Iraq.  

Bearing the burden of such decisions, Bush continually sought God’s guidance, beginning “each morning with prayer, and by reading his daily Bible devotional.  He often turns to a cabinet member to request a prayer before beginning a cabinet meeting’ (p. 161).  Indeed, Garry Wills said, the Bush White House was “‘honeycombed with prayer groups and Bible study cells, like a whited monastery’” (p. 159).  Their prayers helped secure a distinctive atmosphere, says David Frum, who noted that “the evangelicals in the Bush White House were ‘its gentlest souls, the most patient, the least argumentative.  They were numerous enough to set the tone of the White House, and the result was an office in which I seldom heard a voice raised in anger—never witnessed a single one of those finger-jabbing confrontation you see in movies about the White House’” (p. 171).  

The war with Iraq, increasingly unpopular as this book went to print, elicited increasing personal attacks on Bush and his religious beliefs.  Leftists (many of them churchmen) stridently attacked the president, and his faith was often subjected to ridicule.  Yet he persevered, confident he was doing the right thing, liberating the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship.  “‘Every nation has learned, or should have learned,’ Bush said, ‘an important lesson:  Freedom is worth fighting for, dying for, and standing for—and for the advance of freedom leads to peace’” (p. 316).  He also realized, that “‘the ways of Providence . . . are far from our understanding.’”  Finally:  “‘Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance.  Behind all of life and all of history, there’s a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God. . . .  We pray for wisdom to know and do what is right’” (p. 326).  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Turning from presidents Reagan and George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton, Paul Kengor portrays a different kind of Christian in God and Hillary Clinton:  A Spiritual Life (New York:  Harper Perennial, c. 2007).  Whereas the two presidents gave witness as Christians to a personal relationship with God (mediated through Jesus Christ) and were committed to traditional doctrines, Hillary Clinton proclaims her faith primarily through social action.  Doing good, she believes, makes her Christian.  

Born in 1947, young Hillary followed her father’s example in most every realm, including a commitment to Methodism.  Though he rarely attended services, Hugh Rodham was almost bellicose in defending the denomination of his ancestors.  Attending the Park Ridge Methodist Church in Chicago, young Hillary took to heart “that ‘wonderful old saying’ of the church’s founder John Wesley,’” who said:  “‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can’” (p. 11).  Hillary’s willingness to embrace the social gospel was powerfully accelerated by the Reverend Don Jones, who came to her church as youth minister.  Fresh out of Drew Theological Seminary, Jones tried to radicalize his young charges without unduly antagonizing the relatively conservative older members of the congregation.  In particular, he urged the youngsters to support the civil rights movement and a politically mandated redistribution of wealth.  This involved taking them to meet Saul Alinsky, the “always irreverent Chicagoan” who worked to pull “down the ‘power structure’ throughout capitalist America” by “organizing demonstrations throughout the country” (p. 18).  

Off to Wellesley for her college years in the mid-1960s, she kept in touch with Don Jones and avidly read Motive (the Methodist youth magazine he gave her) which vigorously proclaimed both pacifism and the social gospel as proclaimed by the National Council of Churches.  She slowly discarded her father’s conservative political convictions for the liberalism of her Jones and her professors, opposing the Vietnam War and a espousing racial and economic justice.  Graduating from Wellesley, she seriously considered joining Saul Alinsky, who offered her a job in California, but decided instead to go to law school, entering Yale in the fall of 1969.  Here she met Bill Clinton and began the tumultuous and historically significant partnership that would largely impact Arkansas, America, and the world.  

In Arkansas, Hillary both supported her husband’s career and pursued her own ambitions as an attorney.  While he maintained his own religious ties, attending a large Baptist church in Little Rock, she found a church home in a liberal Methodist congregation and “traveled around the state giving a speech that explained why she was a Methodist” (p. 72).  Working with her husband, she inspired the establishment of the “Governor’s School,” a summer program in the ‘80s that brought 400 high school students together to study what seems to have been a Don Jones curriculum—social change through governmental action.  One of the young students “said that the goal of the program seemed to be to ‘deprogram’ young people away from the traditional values they had learned and to inculcate them into the brave new world of postmodernism, with special attentions to ‘feelings’ and so-called critical thinking” (p. 80).  

With Bill’s election to the presidency in 1992, Hillary envisioned the White House as a doorway to her own political ambitions, which included appealing to a certain swathe of Christians.  The first couple decided to join the same church and attended Foundry United Methodist, whose pastor Philip Wogaman, espoused an aggressively liberal agenda—even opening “his pulpit to fellow Methodist and author of Roe v. Wade, Harry Blackman” (p. 100).  On one core conviction the Clintons persevered:  abortion rights.  Despite encounters with and rebukes from Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, Bill and Hillary resisted all pro-life appeals and initiatives, even opposing “a ban on the grim procedure of partial-birth abortion” (p. 212).  For her, it was not important “how Jesus felt about abortion, but how Jesus felt about the minimum wage” (p. 233), and the position of her Methodist church provided ample support for her views.  

Her religious convictions were tested by yet another escapade involving her husband and another young woman—Monica Lewinsky.  Subsequently, Bill was impeached and Hillary had to decide what to do.  For comfort and guidance she relied on counsel from a pastor, prayer and the Christian call to forgive those who harm you.  She also realized her husband and her political ambitions could not be severed!  Elected to the Senate in 2000, she spoke often in churches (particularly African-American congregations in New York City), and her convictions on such things as racial justice, same-sex unions, and abortion rights tacked closely with those of the Democrat Party.  

For Hillary Clinton, championing a variety of progressive political causes equates with being a Christian, whereas doctrinal orthodoxy, traditional ethics, and personal piety matter little.  

# # #