In this ambitious work David T. Byrne analyzes the ideas that informed Ronald Reagan’s political philosophy and policies. Rather than appraising Reagan’s personal and emotional life, Byrne’s intellectual biography goes one step further; it establishes a rationale for the former president’s motives, discussing how thinkers such as Plato and Adam Smith influenced him. Byrne points to three historical forces that shaped Reagan’s political philosophy: Christian values, particularly the concept of a universal kingdom of God; America’s firm belief in freedom as the greatest political value and its aversion to strong centralized government; and the appeasement era of World War II, which stimulated Reagan’s aggressive and confrontational foreign policy. Byrne’s account of the fortieth president augments previous work on Reagan with a new model for understanding him. Byrne shows how Reagan took conservatism and the Republican Party in a new direction, departing from the traditional conservatism of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. His desire to spread a “Kingdom of Freedom” both at home and abroad changed America’s political landscape forever and inspired a new conservatism that persists to this day.
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About the Author
David T. Byrne is an adjunct professor of history at California Baptist University and Santa Monica College. He contributes to the blogs The American Thinker and Crisis: A Voice for the Faithful Catholic Laity.
Read an Excerpt
I, in my own mind, have thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as the promised land. ... I believe that God in shedding his grace on this country has always in this divine scheme of things kept an eye on our land and guided it as a promised land.
— Reagan, "America the Beautiful"
Reagan's ideas emerged from a Christian context. Like so much of Western thought, his political and ethical philosophies are intertwined with his religious cosmology. Religious influences permeate all Westerners because we have been shaped by our pasts, at both cultural and intellectual levels. Reagan's branch of Christianity provided the foundation for his domestic and geopolitical philosophy. This will be described in more detail throughout this work.
Reagan's childhood was materially poor but rich in spirit. His mother, Nelle, taught him her religious beliefs, which were a Protestant form of Christianity. She schooled him in Christian doctrine and lived a Christ-centered life. One of her friends recounts, "Many of us believed that Nelle Reagan had the gift to heal. She never laid on the hands or anything like that. It was the way she prayed, down on her knees, eyes raised up and speaking like she knew God personally, like she had lots of dealings with him before. If someone had real troubles or was sick, Nellie would come to their house and kneel and pray." Nelle's granddaughter Maureen said Nelle made you feel like you could change the world. Reagan's father, Jack, was an alcoholic Irish Catholic, but Nelle's Christian beliefs shaped her son. She imbued him with optimism too. He recalled, "While my father was a cynic and tended to suspect the worst of people, my mother was the opposite. She always expected to find the best in people and often did." This optimism endured throughout Reagan's life, infusing not just his personality but his political beliefs as well.
Nelle belonged to the Disciples of Christ, an evangelical brand of Protestantism, which can be traced to the Second Great Awakening that began in the United States in the early 1800s. Politically charged, this Great Awakening paralleled the rise of modern democratic politics. Its leaders insisted that Christian principles should be applied to political and social issues because religion provides us with answers to ethical questions and politicians create laws that foster ethical behavior. Politics and religion can never separate, just as modern-day ideologies can never be separated from politics. How can any ethical system be separate from the field that tries to create a just society? This Great Awakening contributed to the abolition movement in the nineteenth century and, later, women's suffrage and temperance movements.
The Second Great Awakening was also a reaction against the Enlightenment notion that if God exists, He created the world and then left the scene, like an absentee landlord. This deism promotes the image of a distant God who has no concern for His creation, but evangelicals insist that God intervenes in the world and in our lives. God inspires people, evangelicals believe, and all of our success in the world is due to God's divine will. For an athlete, this means that every victory is achieved with God's help; for an author, it means that every book that author writes is shared with God; and for the president of the United States, it means that every bill signed into law contains God's grace. For those unfamiliar with this religion, these may be notions that smack of messianic arrogance, but devout evangelicals believe that they achieve nothing on their own because God's hand guides everything. We are merely His agents.
Besides relying on Scripture, evangelicals draw inspiration from Christianity's greatest philosopher, St. Augustine. Augustine reconciled Platonic philosophy with the teachings of Jesus. Plato divided the world into two: the world of forms (ideas) and the world of appearances. The latter, he held, were cheap, meaningless representations of the true and perfect forms. All truth and goodness, according to Plato, could be found in the universal, permanent, immaterial forms. Augustine continued these ideas by arguing for the existence of two worlds: this earthly, material, temporary world, and the next world, the universal, permanent, immaterial world of God. One day the Kingdom of God will descend upon the entire world, engulfing all nations. God never distinguishes between nations, races, and cultures. As Nelle Reagan wrote, "Those who have turned against missions have turned against everything Christ taught — and the very last words he uttered, 'Go ye into all of the world and preach the gospel to every creature.'" Like any good Christian, Reagan was taught the universal nature of his values and that he must spread them.
Reagan prayed to this providential Creator regularly. Prayer is central to Christians because it brings them closer to God and allows them to recognize His grace. It strengthens their relationship with God. Although prayer can be a laundry list of wants, it can be more than that. Reagan always prayed before taking off in an airplane, as many people do, but while a secularist might presume that Reagan prayed that he would survive each flight, he actually prayed that he would accept whatever God had in store for him. Reagan believed that God had a plan for him.
This deference to God does not mean that modern evangelicals believe human beings have no agency in this world. Providence should not be equated with fatalism. Nelle introduced a young Reagan to the book That Printer of Udell by Harold Bell Wright, a work that stresses human ability to change the world. Reagan cites this work as one of the most important influences on his life and thought. He writes:
[The book] had an impact I shall always remember. After reading it and thinking about it for a few days, I went to my mother and told her I wanted to declare my faith and be baptized ... and I was baptized several days after finishing the book. The term "role model" was not a familiar term in that time and place. But I realize I found a role model in that traveling printer whom Harold Bell Wright had brought to life. He set me on a course I've tried to follow even unto this day. I shall always be grateful.
Udell is a Christian story about a hardworking man named Dick who sees the world as a struggle between right and wrong. Seeking to apply Christian principles to his own corrupt world, Dick helps those in need. That Printer of Udell insists that some of our fate lies in our own hands. In modern times we take for granted the idea that individuals can influence important events, but this sentiment was less common in the Middle Ages, when God was seen to be the ultimate cause of most historical events. Human agency dominates our modern world, however; we control everything, our society tells us. Reagan, like other modern devout evangelicals, believed that God controls events, but human beings too can mold the world. This unifies Christian thinking and its belief in an omnipotent God with our modern feeling that individuals matter. The medieval Christian chanted, "Let the Kingdom of God come," but the modern Christian chant, as uttered by the nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, is "May the Kingdom of God come, and our hands not remain idle." We can help bring the Kingdom of the Lord to the earth. We are not helpless because we have free will.
Udell inspired a new religious faith in Reagan. As a young adult he joined a Christ-centered ministry called Christian Endeavor, a group that taught the Bible to young people and promoted spiritual strength among its members. Reagan even taught classes for the organization, and he seemed to have had a flare for making the Bible come alive. His activities as a young man were not merely spiritual, however. He also thrived in the secular world. In high school he played a variety of sports, participated in drama, worked on the yearbook, and was student body president. Despite what his detractors contend, these are the typical high school activities of a highly intelligent person. Still, Reagan's religious beliefs were never far from his thoughts. His high school commencement speech cited John 10:10, where Jesus tells his followers, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." Christianity affirms eternal life. No other religion offers so much to believers; arguably, all a Christian needs to receive this eternal life is faith. It is very seductive.
Reagan's evangelicalism must be contrasted with the "hellfire and brimstone" approach preached by those who insist humanity is (mostly) damned. The latter descends from Calvinism, but Reagan's evangelicalism explicitly rejected many Calvinist doctrines, including the total depravity of man, the belief that all human beings are completely separate from God, and the theory that we have no free will. Reagan's Christianity was optimistic, open, and hopeful. In a 1950 interview he said he didn't believe in hell: "I can't believe an all wise and loving father would condemn any of his children to eternal damnation." It's not that those who don't believe in God will burn forever in the netherworld. Everyone will always be loved by God. Rather, they will be separate from God, a fate worse than any physical torment because they will be separate from all that is good and just. In his classic work, The Great Divorce (1945), which Reagan certainly read, C. S. Lewis asserts, "A damned soul is nearly nothing. ... Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it." The damned, those who reject God, don't suffer; they just feel nothing. This is the opposite of life.
Reagan, like Lewis, believed in free will: "Nor do I believe that God can be blamed for all the tragedies in the world. The tragedy of war, for instance. If we each lived according to the rules of the Bible, if we loved our neighbor and did unto others as we would have others do unto us, how could war ever be? The responsibility is in our hands alone. And our lives are in our hands. I'm not a fatalist." Evangelical, anti-Puritan ideas could not be better expressed. Reagan believed that a close relationship with God was, in fact, obtainable in this lifetime, for everyone, at any age. Reagan descended from this Christian faith, and although Scripture played a key role in his faith, Reagan, like other evangelicals, did not bow only to Scripture, as did the Puritans and Calvinists. Reagan's brand of Christianity was a little more liberal. This does not make it any less Christian.
Some of Reagan's biographers find his version of Christianity paradoxical. One writes, "The nature of Reagan's religious beliefs is baffling. He seemed to offer Christianity without Christ and the crucifixion, a religion without reference to sin, evil, suffering or sacrifice." This is true, but Reagan's brand of Christianity represented the Protestant view that no specific acts (rituals) are necessary for the good life. This was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. For Catholics, activities such as confession, attending mass, and receiving communion are required. Protestants may practice these activities in one form or another, or they may not. Just because Reagan didn't express any outward or public manifestations of Christianity doesn't mean he was less religious or Christian. Protestant Christianity is a relationship with Jesus Christ. For Protestants, all that is technically required is faith in Christ. The good life is built on that. A more solid foundation cannot exist.
As a committed Christian, Reagan did believe in God, Christ, the Resurrection, and, of course, salvation. Salvation played a dominant theme in his life, although the application of salvation often differed; some applications were personal, others were political. When analyzing the young Reagan almost all Reagan biographers refer to the following story he told of himself as an eleven-year-old boy: "I came home to find my father flat on his back on the front porch, and no one there to lend him a hand but me. He was drunk, dead to the world. I stood over him for a minute or two ... seeing his arms spread out as if he were crucified, as indeed he was — his hair soaked with melting snow, snoring as he breathed." Reagan saved his father by dragging him into the house but never told him about the event. Salvation can be a private phenomenon. Or it can be public. As a teenage lifeguard, he allegedly saved seventy-seven people from a river so turbulent, the city prohibits swimming there today. The local newspaper touted Reagan's feats and made them front-page stories. Reagan called lifeguarding his favorite job.
Experiences like these, combined with his Christianity, led Reagan to view himself as a savior, although, as he writes in his memoirs, few recognize they need to be saved. "I would have been fine if you'd left me alone," maintained most swimmers whom Reagan saved. Even during his movie career, with one exception, he played the good guy. The one exception, The Killers (1964), in which he slaps Angie Dickenson, bombed at the box office, suggesting that even years before his presidency, many Americans preferred Reagan as the good guy. This theme of Reagan as savior shaped him into the popular cold warrior he became when he attempted to save America from communism.
Secularists may scoff at Reagan's notions about salvation, but salvation has been so fundamental to the Western intellectual and cultural heritage that modern Western ideologies remain steeped in the concept. Environmentalists, for example, seek to save the earth from the effects of sinful human activity. Animal rights activists view mankind as innately sinful, living with no regard to animals, whom they seek to save. These ideologies, too, seek to perfect a world writhing in sin. Environmentalists and animal rights activists seek a purity that is religious in nature. It involves abstinence (e.g., vegetarianism or minimizing one's carbon footprint) in the name of salvation. This is not a coincidence. Salvation is a central part of the Western heritage, one that secularism hasn't expunged.
Reagan was a mama's boy, and he learned about salvation from her. Something he learned from his father was a tolerance for different ethnicities and races. Jack Reagan, born in 1883, was a second-generation Irish American whose parents arrived in the United States, like so many other Irish immigrants, around the time of the Civil War. Changing the family surname from O'Reagan to Reagan helped with assimilation. However, this didn't limit the discrimination that they, along with several million other Irish immigrants, faced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because of this personal experience, Jack Reagan hated discrimination. He refused to let his children see Birth of a Nation for the way it portrayed the Ku Klux Klan. One night the Reagans stopped at a motel that did not allow Jewish guests. Instead of patronizing the business, the Reagan family slept in the car. Likewise, at the peak of his acting career, Ronald Reagan ended his membership with a popular country club in the Los Angeles area because they denied Jewish members. Reagan was particularly sensitive to America's immigrant and ethnic history because his family epitomized it.
After graduating from high school, Reagan did something fewer than 10 percent of high school graduates did in the 1920s: he went to college. He was the first one in his family to do so. His parents never even finished high school. In 1928 the future president started at Eureka College, a private Christian school with roughly 250 students. Reagan later said these were the best times of his life. He played football, was on the swim team, joined a fraternity, was on the student senate, worked myriad jobs to make ends meet, and achieved average grades as an economics major. Like many college students, Reagan's intellectual curiosity peaked later in life. The most telling event of Reagan's college career had nothing to do with academics; it occurred his freshman year when he was chosen as a spokesman for his class regarding a dispute between administration and faculty. Reagan's peers trusted that he could advance their cause. It was a harbinger of things to come.
The primary goal of Eureka College was to promote and instill biblical values. The Bible was the word of God for everyone at Eureka, and it was required reading for all students. Reagan believed that the Bible held the answers to all of the world's problems. Though sometimes nameless, the authors of the Bible were great thinkers. Even those who disagree with the Bible's tenets — those who deny its validity — have been influenced by its ideas. It remains fundamental to Western culture and civilization. The Bible's most popular book, the Book of Revelation, contributed to Reagan's cosmology, as well as that of many secular thinkers, by describing life as a great struggle between good and evil. It promises victory for the righteous, but only after titanic conflict. The book was composed around the time of the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, when Christianity was in its infancy and struggling against the Roman yoke, so the Book of Revelation gave Christians reason for hope, even in a time of deepest despair. Revelation promises the defeat of evil, followed by the utopian Reign of Saints, but only after a titanic conflict known as Armageddon. This religious paradigm can easily be applied to the cold war, as well as contemporary American struggles against Islamic extremists. For the secular, the Book of Revelation is fiction, but for many evangelicals, like Reagan, it explains both the present and the future.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ronald Reagan"
Copyright © 2018 David T. Byrne.
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Table of Contents
Contents Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Religious Roots 2. From Liberal to Conservative 3. Fostering Freedom at Home 4. Understanding Reagan 5. A Moral View of the Cold War 6. Promoting Freedom Abroad 7. Did Reagan’s Ideas Matter? 8. The Reagan Intellectual Legacy Conclusion Appendix: “A Time for Choosing” Notes Bibliography Index