Ronald Reagan on Religious Tolerance
February is the month that we recognize our presidents. It has also become the month that Republicans remember Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s birthday is February 6, the forerunner to Lincoln’s birthday (February 12), Washington’s birthday (February 22), and Presidents’ Day (February 17). Throughout the nation, county and statewide Republican groups have been changing their longtime annual Lincoln Day dinners into Reagan Day dinners. On February 25, we at the Center for Vision & Values will host our superb Ronald Reagan Lecture.
Thus, this is also a time when conservatives reach back for various nuggets of wisdom from the Gipper that are badly needed as our current president fundamentally transforms the nation. Among those nuggets, one that you likely will not hear is a gem of a Reagan speech delivered in Dallas 30 years ago. It offers a desperately needed message on religious tolerance – the subject of our April Center for Vision & Values conference.
Today’s liberals/progressives, who incessantly preach diversity and tolerance, have been unrelenting in their current campaign of religious intolerance. They mandate that everyone, including religious believers, pay for contraception and abortion drugs; those who disagree are framed as favoring a “war on women.” They vigorously demonize and sue anyone who disagrees with them on gay marriage: a Christian florist in Washington state, a Christian wedding photographer in New Mexico, a Methodist group in New Jersey, Catholic Charities in Massachusetts and Illinois, Christian bakers in Oregon and Colorado, and on and on.
It’s a good time for a lesson on genuine religious freedom. So, here it goes – a poignant speech and healthy reminder of religious tolerance that not even Reagan aficionados remember.
On August 23, 1984, Reagan was in Dallas to address an ecumenical prayer breakfast. He spoke at 9:30 AM in the Reunion Arena. He was introduced by Martha Weisend, the co-chair of the Texas Reagan-Bush campaign. A choir had just regaled the crowd. Reagan called the performance “magnificent.”
The president began by saying that he was speaking not as a theologian or scholar but as someone who had “lived a little” as an American and had been active in the political life of the nation for about four decades. During that time, Reagan had experienced much. He had been a self-described “hemophiliac liberal” (a bleeding-heart liberal), a Democrat, an FDR Democrat, a Harry Truman Democrat, a progressive Democrat, a Democrat for Eisenhower, a Democrat for Nixon (1960), and finally a conservative Democrat, a Republican, and a conservative Republican. “I speak,” he told the crowd, “I think I can say, as one who has seen much, who has loved his country, and who’s seen it change in many ways.”
He himself had changed in many ways, but not one way: He had always believed “that faith and religion play a critical role in the political life of our nation – and always has – and that the church – and by that I mean all churches, all denominations – has had a strong influence on the state. And this has worked to our benefit as a nation.” Reagan then followed with a brief history lesson on religion and the republic:
Those who created our country – the Founding Fathers and Mothers – understood that there is a divine order which transcends the human order. They saw the state, in fact, as a form of moral order and felt that the bedrock of moral order is religion.
The Mayflower Compact began with the words, “In the name of God, amen.” The Declaration of Independence appeals to “Nature’s God” and the “Creator” and “the Supreme Judge of the world.” Congress was given a chaplain, and the oaths of office are oaths before God.
James Madison in the Federalist Papers admitted that in the creation of our Republic he perceived the hand of the Almighty. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, warned that we must never forget the God from whom our blessings flowed.
George Washington referred to religion’s profound and unsurpassed place in the heart of our nation quite directly in his Farewell Address in 1796. Seven years earlier, France had erected a government that was intended to be purely secular. This new government would be grounded on reason rather than the law of God. By 1796 the French Revolution had known the Reign of Terror.
And Washington voiced reservations about the idea that there could be a wise policy without a firm moral and religious foundation. He said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
That Washington quote was one of Reagan’s favorites, as was the image of America’s first president (while he was still a military general) kneeling to pray in the snow of Valley Forge, which Reagan called the “most sublime image” in American history. Why? Because it showed that from the outset this nation’s leaders humbled themselves and looked beyond themselves – to God – for guidance in the goodness of their actions. “I believe that George Washington knew the City of Man cannot survive without the City of God,” Reagan told his audience in Dallas, “that the Visible City will perish without the Invisible City.”
Reagan also invoked his other favorite prayer line from a president. He loved the line in which Lincoln said that he was often driven to his knees by the “overwhelming conviction” that he had “nowhere else to go.”
How fitting that this month of February marks these three presidential birthdays: Lincoln, Washington, and Reagan. The three were linked not just in birthdays but in prayer.
Reagan continued: “Religion played not only a strong role in our national life; it played a positive role. The abolitionist movement was at heart a moral and religious movement; so was the modern civil rights struggle. And throughout this time, the state was tolerant of religious belief, expression, and practice. Society, too, was tolerant.”
Here, Reagan had arrived at the religious tolerance portion of his remarks. He said that this tolerance had begun to slip in the 1960s, when “great steps” were taken by those seeking to secularize the nation and remove religion from its “honored place.” He gave examples, beginning with the removal of prayer in schools and words like “Under God” from the pledge of allegiance. Reagan believed that the simple acknowledgement of God in the pledge taught children that their inalienable rights come not from government but from God. If they come from government – from men – then government can take them anyway. If they come from God, however, government cannot dare taken them away.
As I read Reagan’s words now, I’m floored by the thought that the ACLU, which purports to champion civil liberties, would be leading some of these lawsuits suing Christian bakers and wedding photographers who invoke their sacred religious freedom in the First Amendment of the Constitution. These people of faith, citing their faith, beg not to be compelled to make a cake for or photograph a same-sex ceremony. The liberals tell them they must, by force of their trembling hands, or they will be forced out of business.
Ronald Reagan would not be shocked. He understood liberals. He had been one himself. He knew their claims of open-mindedness were self-serving. He saw how extreme the left could become when equipped with power. Such realizations drove him out of the increasingly left-drifting Democratic Party.
Along those lines, Reagan told the crowd in Dallas: “And the frustrating thing for the great majority of Americans who support and understand the special importance of religion in the national life – the frustrating thing is that those who are attacking religion claim they are doing it in the name of tolerance, freedom, and open-mindedness. Question: Isn’t the real truth that they are intolerant of religion? They refuse to tolerate its importance in our lives. […] So, I submit to you that those who claim to be fighting for tolerance on this issue may not be tolerant at all.”
Reagan sensed that religion’s “special place” in the American polity was already disappearing, and he knew what a tremendous loss that would be. “There are, these days, many questions on which religious leaders are obliged to offer their moral and theological guidance, and such guidance is a good and necessary thing,” said Reagan. “To know how a church and its members feel on a public issue expands the parameters of debate. It does not narrow the debate; it expands it.”
Again harkening back to George Washington’s understanding, Reagan said: “The truth is, politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality’s foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related. We need religion as a guide. We need it because we are imperfect, and our government needs the church, because only those humble enough to admit they’re sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive.”
Again, tolerance. Reagan kept returning to the need for religious tolerance. And here, nearing his closing, he expressed some powerful lines that every self-proclaiming liberal/progressive in America needs to read and heed:
A state is nothing more than a reflection of its citizens; the more decent the citizens, the more decent the state. If you practice a religion, whether you’re Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or guided by some other faith, then your private life will be influenced by a sense of moral obligation, and so, too, will your public life. One affects the other. […] We establish no religion in this country, nor will we ever. We command no worship. We mandate no belief. But we poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings. We court corruption when we leave it bereft of belief. All are free to believe or not believe; all are free to practice a faith or not. But those who believe must be free to speak of and act on their belief, to apply moral teaching to public questions.
Note the words “decent,” “command,” “mandate,” “poison,” “corruption,” “free.” The refusal by liberals/progressives to tolerate the religious beliefs of Americans who disagree with them on matters from marriage to abortion poisons and corrupts discourse and disagreement in this nation.
Reagan reiterated along those lines:
I submit to you that the tolerant society is open to and encouraging of all religions. And this does not weaken us; it strengthens us, it makes us strong. You know, if we look back through history to all those great civilizations, those great nations that rose up to even world dominance and then deteriorated, declined, and fell, we find they all had one thing in common. One of the significant forerunners of their fall was their turning away from their God or gods.
Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we’re mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society.
This is also, said Reagan, a danger to a word that progressives invoke incessantly: democracy. Reagan understood that as well: “And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
With that, Reagan concluded: “I thank you, thank you for inviting us here today. Thank you for your kindness and your patience. May God keep you, and may we, all of us, keep God.”
That was Ronald Reagan in Dallas 30 years ago. He would be horrified at what liberals are doing today, though not surprised.
The coarsening that America is undergoing in this current assault on our most basic First Amendment religious freedoms is undermining the Shining City on a Hill that Ronald Reagan cherished.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.