— Ronald Reagan
It’s a curious thing for any biographer: When you write a book on a historical figure — particularly an unappreciated aspect of a historical figure, in my case, Ronald Reagan and his religious faith — it’s inevitable that you will get asked questions like, “How would Ronald Reagan react to the war on terror?” or “What would Reagan think about gay marriage?”
Some of these questions are difficult to answer. Gay marriage, for instance, was simply inconceivable in Reagan’s time.
Yet, there is one current question I could shed some light on: “How would Reagan respond to the attempt to remove ‘One Nation Under God’ from America’s pledge of allegiance?”
Answer: he would be quite disturbed.
“One Nation Under God” was added to the pledge by the Eisenhower administration and Congress in the 1950s. Dwight Eisenhower was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite presidents. He was the first Republican president that Reagan, once an ardent Democrat, voted for. Reagan keenly identified with the ridiculous characterization of Eisenhower as a lazy dummy, an amiable dunce controlled by his staff. Reagan ordered that two presidential portraits be hung in his White House: Eisenhower’s and Calvin Coolidge’s.
Eisenhower’s rationale for “One Nation Under God” was one Reagan supported wholeheartedly: to draw a moral and religious distinction between the American republic and the Soviet empire. Reagan himself described the difference: “Two visions of the world remain locked in dispute. The first believes all men are created equal by a loving God who has blessed us with freedom. Abraham Lincoln spoke for us…The second vision believes that religion is opium for the masses. It believes that eternal principles like truth, liberty, and democracy have no meaning beyond the whim of the state. And Lenin spoke for them.”
Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as a “Godless tyranny” and a “Godless collectivist antheap.” The founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, had called religion “necrophilia” (sex with a corpse) and compared it to venereal disease.
“There is nothing more abominable than religion,” sneered Lenin, a proud member of the League of the Militant Godless. Said Reagan: “Atheism is as much a part of communism as is the gulag.” The 40th president assailed the USSR for its “war” against “the very ideas of religion and freedom.”
Though sophisticated people ridiculed him for calling the USSR an “Evil Empire,” Reagan had a clear intent: to draw an unmistakable moral demarcation between the American system, based on the ideal that human beings are endowed by a Creator with inalienable rights, and the Godless Soviet system. In other words, Reagan’s objective was the same as Eisenhower’s with the line “One Nation Under God.”
Of course, communism and the Soviet Union are dead. Yes, but God is not.
“God isn’t dead,” began Reagan in a line he used since the 1960s. “We just can’t talk to Him in the classroom anymore.” He lobbied incessantly for the right of children to pray in public schools.
“Can it really be true,” he appealed in February 1984, “that the First Amendment can permit Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen to march on public property, advocate the extermination of people of the Jewish faith and the subjugation of blacks, while the same amendment forbids our children from saying a prayer in school?” Reagan personally said a prayer at his high school commencement ceremony in Dixon, Illinois in 1928, quoting the New Testament’s John 10:10.
Reagan thought it important to acknowledge God in school. Doing so reminded young people that they possessed sacred rights granted by the Almighty rather than by benevolent government bureaucrats who can arbitrarily take them away.
Worse, Reagan feared that if America turned its back on God, He might no longer shower the country with so many blessings. Reagan was fond of a phrase from Whittaker Chamber. “History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died,” wrote Chambers.
Speaking at Georgetown University in October 1988, Reagan quoted Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the classic “Democracy in America”: “Tocqueville said it in 1835, and it’s as true today as it was then: ‘Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is more needed in democratic societies than in any other.’” He warned his academic audience: “Learning is a good thing, but unless it’s tempered by faith and a love of freedom, it can be very dangerous indeed.”
Again, it’s not always clear where figures from the past would stand on the issues of today. We can be confident, however, that Ronald Reagan would not be enthusiastic about removing God from the pledge of allegiance-and for reasons worth remembering.