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June 12, 2004
Column #1,189

                                 "God and Ronald Reagan"
                              
     Last night a reader e-mailed, "Do you know if President Reagan was a Christian?"

     Frankly, I've had doubts since I began writing this column in 1981, the first year of his Presidency.

     From those early years, men I respected were persuaded his faith was genuine. One with no doubts was Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. He praised Reagan as "the first President to step out boldly to protect the unborn child. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were both pro-abortion."

     However, Reagan attended church only once in his eight years of presidency. Can a man who does not worship God be called Christian?

     When asked about his lack of church attendance during the 1984 presidential
debate with former Vice President Walter Mondale, Reagan said he feared endangering his own life and those of others: "I pose a threat to several hundred people if I got to church. I know all the threats that are made against me."

     Two months after his Inauguration, President Reagan was shot and the bullet
came within an inch of his heart. Fear was understandable. Why then, did he not invite clergy to conduct services within the White House? However, as an ex-President he did return to church.

     A new book by Paul Kengor, "God and Ronald Reagan," has persuaded me that
his faith was not only profound, but his driving energy and the key to understanding his effectiveness in restoring hope to America and in his strategy toward the Soviet Union, symbolized by his challenge in Berlin: "Tear down this wall, Mr. Gobachev."

       Nelle Reagan, his mother, was deeply religious. She not only led the largest Disciples of Christ Sunday School class and prayed so fervently people were healed, but she dedicated her life to the "poor and helpless," such as weekly visits to a TB hospital and the local jail where she came with apples, cookies and the Bible. Her faith and character inspired young Ron.

     By contrast, his father, Jack Reagan, was an alcoholic who an 11-year-old Ron found lying in the snow, drunk. Ron dragged him inside to his bed.

     If his father was unreliable, Ron learned his heavenly Father was always reliable.  Months later, Ron asked to be baptized. As he arose from immersion, the pastor said, "Arise and walk in newness of faith." Ron said he felt "called" at that moment when "I invited Christ into my life."

     It was in church that Ron began acting. At 13 he "convulsed the audience by
his one act dramatic reading," said a local newspaper. At 15 he began teaching Sunday School which he did weekly until he went to college. In Hollywood the young actor joined a Disciples church.

     He loved Matthew's quote of Jesus: "You are the light of the world. A city
on a hill cannot be hid." By the 1950's he was speaking of America as "A Shining City Upon a Hill."

     Reagan's pastor urged him to consider the threat of Godless communism. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan discovered there were 300 Communist Party members in Hollywood. Standing up to them sparked so many physical threats, he packed a revolver.

     Russian communists closed thousands of churches and sent clergy and millions of believers to their deaths. One Harvard study estimates communists killed 100 million of their own residents, ten times the number dying in World War II.  

     No wonder President Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire."

     As he recovered from an assassin's bullet, New York's Cardinal Cooke said,
"The hand of God was upon you." Reagan replied, "I know. I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him." Within weeks when no one thought a Soviet collapse was possible, he stunningly forecast at Notre Dame, "The West won't contain communism, it will transcend Communism....It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written."

     In 1982 he met with Pope John Paul II, who'd also escaped an assassination
attempt. Both felt they had been spared for a mission to defeat communism. They agreed to aid the Solidarity movement in Poland "as a wedge that could potentially split the USSR's empire in Eastern Europe...the splinter to crack the Iron Curtain," Kengor wrote.

     The Pope supported Reagan's military build up and his Strategic Defense  Initiative, despite strong objections by his bishops.

     Gorbachev later conceded that when Poland held free elections in June 1989,
the Soviet bloc was doomed. The Berlin Wall fell that fall.

     Reagan's faith kept him humble but gave him the vision and courage which
changed the world.

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