How Ronald Reagan Reinvented Religion


Mr. Diggins, a professor of history at the City University of New York, is the author of Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History (Norton, 2007).

CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISM made its move into twentieth century American politics at just about the same time as Ronald Reagan left the governorship of California in 1975. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, warning the country that"Satan had mobilized his forces to destroy America," mobilized older conservatives called the Moral Majority to rescue the country from spiritual jeopardy. In 1988, the Reverend Pat Robertson set up the Christian Coalition. The followers of these groups all worked strenuously to assure Reagan's election in 1980, and when he gave his famous"evil empire" speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, on March 8, 1983, blaming liberalism on the secular drift in America, the religious Right must have felt portents of the Second Coming.

But what exactly was the nature of Reagan's religious beliefs? The striking thing about his sense of religion is how much it enables us to forget religion. On this subject the radical Left has had it all wrong.

In the 1960s, when Reagan was governor of California, activist students assumed he was a reactionary conservative who would find himself in thrall to the fundamentalist Right that was sprouting in Orange County. But those who advocated"participatory democracy" in the expectation it would lead to socialism faced a Reaganite conservativism advocating popular democracy to bring capitalism to fruition. It was tempting for the New Left to dismiss the religion of the American Right as the"opium of the people," a set of beliefs that promised to relieve what Marx called the"sigh of the oppressed." In Reagan's America, the Left saw religion as repressive, distorting the people's deepest yearning for freedom and the fulfillment of humanity's every need and wish. The guru of the era was Herbert Marcuse, the German emigre and author of One-Dimensional Man, a text that taught the students of Reagan's sunny California that not only the mind but the body itself had been crippled by Christianity, denying its desires for the"polymorphous perverse," sex any which way. No one seemed to notice how Reagan transformed religion from the governor's podium and later from the president's pulpit. Redefining the nature of desire, Reagan's religion would deny nothing because life offered everything. Our beliefs about God no longer repress but liberate, as though Christ died on the Cross so that we might better pursue happiness, not the salvation of our souls.

Reagan's carefree attitude toward religion reminds one of America's great master of mockery, H. L. Mencken, who, in Treatise on the Gods, contrasted the nation's civil religion to the first Christian sects:

Observing a Roman cardinal dashing down Fifth avenue in his Rolls-Royce, with bands braying, drums rolling, and cops clearing his regal way, one forgets the rule of St. Benedict, and the sisters in the hospitals. One forgets, too, the Stylites on their pillars, the Dendrites roosting in trees, the Boskoi who ate only grass, the Euchites who prayed incessantly, the Trappists who never speak.

As Mencken noted, it is not what one believes about religion but what one forgets about it--the saints and the sinners.

President Reagan almost never left the White House to go to church, and he seldom invited a chaplain in to give services (though he attended church occasionally upon leaving office). Reagan defended religion against those who sought to purge it from public life, but he hardly wished to see Americans submit themselves to an ecclesiastical establishment. Conservatives who hold up the family as a source of authority hearken back to the seventeenth-century monarchist Robert Filmer, whether they know it or not. Filmer had justified the"divine right" of kings with such reasoning. Reagan's relations toward his own children reveal a man who would not see the young suffer from patriarchal or churchly repression, or from any inhibitions alien to their own being. As his family letters indicate, he tried to advise his children based on his own experiences with life, but he did not preach or pontificate. He advised his son Michael that infidelity is a natural impulse but perilous to genuine love; he did not browbeat young Ron when he told his father that he had lost his faith; he taught his daughter Patti how to improve her essay on Bonnie and Clyde without seeming to mind the film's erotic content.

In his campaign speeches, Reagan asked Americans whether or not they were"better off," and he assured his followers that his economic programs intended to"let the people flourish," establishing a criterion for American politics that was as far from conventional religion as was imaginable. He made comfort and pleasure, not conviction and piety, the measure of all things. Two centuries earlier, when the historian Edward Gibbon asked whether Christianity did anything to contribute to the happiness of Roman civilization, he had to be reminded that Jesus' message offered a way to rise above the longing for material possessions, and it had nothing to do with being"better off." Like Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan revered Jesus of Nazarus as an oracle of moral wisdom. While Jefferson denied the divinity of Christ and Reagan upheld it, however, neither political leader believed that the meek shall inherit the earth or that the self was the seed of sin. One president could not stay away from Sally Hemings, the other would not chase the money changers from the temple.

Conservatives who are convinced that America is fundamentally a religious country like to quote Tocqueville to the effect that the"tie" of religion is what binds America together, and if that tie is broken, all is lost. Tocqueville indeed says as much in Democracy in America, calling religion"the first of American political institutions." He also advised, however, that neither the Christian principle of sacrifice nor the political ideal of classical virtue dares stand in the way of modernity. What, then, binds America together?"What serves as a tie to these diverse elements?" Tocqueville wrote to a friend of the riddle of America's fragmented social order."What makes of them a people? Interest. That's the secret. Individual interest which sticks through at each instant, interest which, moreover, comes out in the open and calls itself a social theory."