Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Ronald Reagan’s deep Christian faith shaped his character, his administration and his public policies more than has been widely acknowledged, according to a biographer.

“Ronald Reagan’s faith has been woefully neglected,” said Paul Kengor at a Heritage Foundation conference yesterday.

“Contrary to what the CBS miniseries would have Americans believe, Ronald Reagan was not obsessed with Armageddon, nor did he ever declare himself to be the Antichrist,” Mr. Kengor said, referring to last year’s TV miniseries “The Reagans,” which many critics said inaccurately portrayed the president.

Rather, Mr. Reagan’s faith permeated his entire life, from his early childhood to his later years in retirement.

“What he believed in the 1920s was consistent with what he believed in the 1990s,” said Mr. Kengor, author of the new book “God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life.”

According to Mr. Kengor, Mr. Reagan’s mother, Nelle, was probably the person who most helped instill the former president with his faith. “Had Nelle Reagan died in the 1920s from the epidemic that killed many at the time, he probably would not have become president,” he said.

Mr. Kengor’s book says that Mr. Reagan’s faith is what helped him ascend to the presidency of the United States. Mr. Reagan’s self-proclaimed “God-given optimism” is what motivated him throughout his life, Mr. Kengor said.

A lifelong member of the Protestant denomination the Disciples of Christ, Mr. Reagan frequently made references to God in speeches as president and in his vast personal correspondence.

In his first inaugural speech, for example, 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 Inauguration Day in future years, it should be declared a day of prayer.”

Mr. Kengor also notes three books that helped shape Mr. Reagan’s faith: the Bible, which Mr. Reagan believed was divinely inspired; Whitaker Chambers’ “Witness”; and Harold Bell Wright’s “That Printer of Udell’s.”

After reading “That Printer of Udell’s,” a story about a young boy who became a Christian and pursued a life in politics, Mr. Reagan, at the age of 11, told his mother: “I want to be like that man. I want to be baptized,” which happened soon afterward.

“Witness,” an autobiography chronicling Mr. Chambers’ repudiation of his communist past, helped shape Mr. Reagan’s staunch opposition to the Soviet Union. Mr. Chambers’ writings depicted the Cold War as a clash between Christian civilization, embodied by the United States, and Soviet communism, which championed government-enforced atheism.

Mr. Kengor said that in comparing Mr. Chambers’ writings and many of Mr. Reagan’s personal letters and speeches, a direct overlap can be found. For both Mr. Chambers and Mr. Reagan, Marxism-Leninism represented an all-out war on religion.

At a March 1981 meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, Mr . Reagan said Marxism was “a vision of man without God … a false and empty faith — the second-oldest in the world — first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with whispered words of temptation: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’”

During his presidency, Mr. Reagan crafted policies to assist anticommunist insurgencies in Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Poland.

After surviving an assassination attempt, Mr. Reagan believed that God had spared his life in order for him to fight communism. Mr. Reagan witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

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