What do you most hope that readers take away from your book?
Kengor: I want Republicans and conservatives to understand the difference between conservatism, libertarianism, and progressivism. As to progressivism, when readers look at my 11 principles of Reagan conservatism, they will immediately recognize those principles as not just Reagan principles but the very antithesis of progressive “principles,” assuming we can really ever define progressive principles. (I won’t get into that here.) I want Republicans and conservatives to also have a clear set of guidelines on how and where a conservative Republican is different from a liberal or progressive one, on how a Ted Cruz stands in such stark contrast to a John McCain.
Also, I sincerely hope and wish that liberals/progressives will give this book a read. Our conservative ideology is far more thoughtful than they realize. It is rooted above all in what Reagan and other leading conservative thinkers from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk to William F. Buckley Jr. called “time-tested” ideals and values.
You talk at length in your book about the indelible link between Reagan’s faith and freedom. Can you expand on this?
Kengor: This is an important question that particularly defines the differences between conservatives and libertarians.
Conservatives constantly talk of freedom. Go to any gathering of conservatives, and you hear a freedom mantra: freedom, freedom, freedom. They speak of “freedom” almost as if it were a one-word synonym for conservatism. Reagan also constantly spoke of freedom, and how every generation must fight anew to preserve it.
Yet, as Reagan understood, to invoke freedom alone is a mistake. Freedom by itself, isolated, alone, is libertarianism, not conservatism. For the conservative, freedom requires faith; it should never be decoupled from faith. As I say in the book, freedom not rooted in faith can lead to moral anarchy, which, in turn, creates social and cultural chaos. Freedom without faith is the Las Vegas Strip, not the City of God.
Genuine freedom – and certainly the Christian conception of freedom – is not license. As noted by Pope John Paul II, with whom Reagan had an excellent relationship, without the rock and rudder of faith, freedom can become confused, perverse, and can even lead to the destruction of freedom for others. John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, said that the West suffers from a “confused ideology of freedom,” one that has unleashed a modern “dictatorship of relativism.” It truly does. America does.
In the New Testament, Galatians 5:13-14 states: “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use your freedom as opportunities for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Freedom needs faith. The conservative understands that. Reagan understood that. A true Reagan conservative will understand that.
In light of the goings-on in the Ukraine (knowing that you get this question all the time), what do you think Reagan would say, and how would he act?
Kengor: One of the 11 principles in this book is anti-communism. Reagan dedicated his long life to undermining communism, particularly Soviet communism. Reagan said that nothing was more anti-freedom than pure communism. Vladimir Putin is an old KGB guy. Nothing that a KGB guy would do would ever surprise Ronald Reagan.
I could say much more, but in the interest of brevity I’ll stress this one thing that Reagan would indeed “say,” as you asked. The operative word is “say.” Despite liberals framing Reagan as a reckless cowboy, he rarely used force. He never sent troops into Poland while the Soviets were threatening Poland and (as we now know) even moved troops near the Polish border. Rather than deploying troops or firing missiles, Reagan fired verbal missiles – words as weapons. He used the presidency as a moral pulpit to encourage those “captive peoples” who were being suppressed by Russia and the communist world. His public and very vocal and encouraging voice of support for people under the Russian or communist jackboot was literally constant. It was very important to those people, as anyone from the former communist world will fondly tell you today. They adore Reagan. It’s no coincidence that today they build statues to Reagan in Poland and elsewhere in the former Communist Bloc.
Reagan would unhesitatingly make himself a voice for the oppressed in the Ukraine right now.
Can you speak a little bit to Reagan’s aversion to nuclear weapons?
Kengor: He was a nuclear abolitionist. He detested nuclear weapons to the point that he was actually willing to completely abolish them – if he could get the Soviets to agree.
And what did liberals say about Ronald Reagan in the 1980s? They said that he loved nuclear weapons, adored them. They portrayed him as a trigger-happy nuclear warmonger itching to launch Armageddon. It was awful. Yet again, they didn’t pause to actually read Reagan’s words and understand him. It was pure caricature – cartoonish, buffoonish, mean-spirited caricature. What Reagan was doing was building up in order to build down, pursuing military strength so America wouldn’t need to use the military. He called this “peace through strength.” And it worked.
You speak to the stark contrast between Barack Obama’s adherence to the notion of “collective action” and Reagan’s belief in the individual. Would you care to elaborate on this point?
Kengor: This is a good point to conclude. I think this is extremely significant. I lay this out in the final principle that I cover in the book.
Reagan had the highest respect for the individual, whether the person wallowing in the Gulag, the person growing in the womb, the person paying taxes, the person caught on the treadmill of welfare-state dependency, the entrepreneur who starts a business and creates jobs and generates prosperity. Reagan was confident in the individual’s ability to make a difference, to pick up himself or herself, to make and mirror America’s exceptionalism. He constantly extolled the individual. Reagan said that every individual is a “res sacra,” a sacred reality.
Obama, on the other hand, constantly extolls what he calls “collective action.” The word “collective” appears very frequently in Obama’s rhetoric, including in his memoirs, “Dreams from My Father.” He has spoken of the need for “collective salvation,” and recently in his inaugural evoked our “collective shoulder” that drives the engine of “progress.” This collective action, says Obama, advances what he calls “redistributive change.”
Obama once told an interviewer: “In America we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.”
This Obama quotation is the anti-Reagan, right down to its dismissal of the “John Wayne hero.” Reagan believed in the John Wayne hero – in fact, Reagan knew John Wayne well, and John Wayne as a big Reagan political supporter.
Barack Obama, in his beliefs, his actions, his choices, and above all his ideology, is really the anti-Reagan and the anti-Reagan conservative. That, too, is something that readers will unmistakably take away from this book, even when it isn’t explicitly pointed out.
This is a crucial period of retrenchment, refinement, renewal for conservatives. It’s time to get back to basics and remember what we believe and why. I wrote this book to help that process. And who better to help us in that process than Ronald Reagan, the very embodiment of conservatism?
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.