Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. In this latest edition, professor of political science and executive director of the Center—Dr. Paul Kengor—is interviewed by Kathryn Jean Lopez—editor-at-large of National Review Online, where this Q&A first appeared. In honor of Ronald Reagan’s birthday this month, Lopez asks Kengor about the Health and Human Services mandate forcing Catholics to offer and purchase health-insurance plans that violate their consciences and what the 40th president might have advised.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Did Ronald Reagan ever face a backlash from some of his base like we’re seeing on this HHS mandate issue?
Paul Kengor: Two points on that:
First, I’d hesitate to describe the Catholic backlash against Obama as a backlash from his base, even some of his base. Sure, Obama won a majority of self-professing Catholic voters in November 2008; those voters effectively made him president. However, many of those Catholic voters are not regular Mass attendees; they check “Catholic” in the religious-affiliation box in exit polls. When you actually break down the data from November 2008, you see that faithful, weekly-Mass-going Catholics voted decisively against Obama. And if you surveyed daily communicants—that is, daily Mass-goers—you’d find an even higher percentage who voted against Obama. Even deeper, if you survey daily Mass-goers under the age of 50, you’d think you were at CPAC. These are the “John Paul II Catholics,” the “Evangelium Vitae Catholics.” I should add that these categories also apply to priests.
This means that the future Catholic Church is much more loyal to the Church’s teachings on matters such as abortion and contraception.
Second, Reagan never faced a huge backlash from his base, though he did occasionally get conservative criticism. To cite one important example, certain leading conservatives were worried that Reagan was being duped by Mikhail Gorbachev and was giving away the store to the Soviet leader. They were the subject of a very interesting New York Times magazine piece in January 1988, entitled, “The Right against Reagan.”
Lopez: Is there anything from Reagan’s record that might be instructive to the sitting president?
Kengor: Well, yes, but I doubt Obama will listen.
Reagan did indeed have a major area of disagreement with the Catholic bishops. It was over Reagan’s pursuit of the MX missile and the whole nuclear-freeze controversy. The leader among the bishops was Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Reagan’s point-man in communicating with the bishops was Bill Clark, the head of his National Security Council, a very faithful Catholic, and a good man. Clark carefully worked with the bishops. Clark even brought in an old Catholic friend, the famous Clare Boothe Luce, who also worked with the bishops. They all worked extremely well together, coming to an agreement in April 1983. Cardinal Bernardin ultimately told the New York Times that he believed the bishops had in fact “misunderstood” the Reagan administration. He credited Clark with clarifying the administration’s position. Clark had made clear to him that Reagan nuclear policy was guided by “compelling moral considerations.”
In short, Reagan worked with the bishops. He liked them. He liked the Catholic Church. I would even say that Reagan loved the Catholic Church. His father had been Catholic, and Reagan was very sympathetic to Catholicism. I record an example in one of my books where Reagan in the spring of 1989 told a group of visiting Poles that he considered John Paul II his “best friend.” And if John Paul II wasn’t literally his best friend, Bill Clark was one of them. Reagan’s brother and sister-in-law were daily communicants.
In other words, Reagan wanted to be on the same team as the bishops. He respected their moral authority and thinking. They were kindred souls.
Obama, on the other hand, could care less. Ditto for his chief advisers—folks like David Axelrod. For Obama, the promotion and preservation of “abortion rights” is where his heart is. He’s a true believer. He thinks that Catholics and their Church are flatly wrong on the abortion issue. He has no desire for common ground on this issue.
Lopez: Is there anything from Reagan’s record that might be instructive to the Republicans still vying for their party’s nomination—specifically on this mandate fight?
Kengor: Yes, it’s this: The Catholic bishops are highly educated, very intelligent, and very thoughtful men. And if your position is indeed morally defensible and on the side of what’s right, you can work with them. On this issue, Romney and Gingrich and Santorum are all with the bishops. They have nothing to fear or fight.
Lopez: Reagan was a convert on the issue of abortion. Might he have advice for Mitt Romney, who also is one?
Kengor: Reagan never supported abortion. As governor, though, he was forced to grapple with the issue for the first time. It was the late 1960s, pre-Roe. Very few people even thought about the abortion issue. It wasn’t a political issue. Reagan had been an FDR Democrat in the 1930s and 1940s. If any Democrat back then had come forward and advocated “abortion rights” and taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, embryo destruction, contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients, he would have been seized by authorities as a public menace and confined to a lunatic asylum. Seriously. No one back then would have supported the Democratic Party platform today.
Once Reagan became governor, the abortion issue was thrust upon him by the California assembly. He immediately dissected the moral arguments and concluded that abortion was wrong. That said, he was faced with a piece of abortion legislation pushed by the legislature. He tried to improve the legislation but was badly misled, and thereby signed into law a bill that helped to legalize abortion in California. It was a perfect example of unintended consequences. Reagan later considered it a gigantic mistake and one of his greatest regrets in office. He was truly shocked and appalled. I did a piece on this for NRO a few years ago. I recommend it for further details.
Lopez: How much of a gamble was Reagan for pro-lifers? How happy were they with him during his administration?
Kengor: He wasn’t a gamble at all. By 1981, he remained firmly pro-life and was arguably even stronger from a political standpoint because he had been so badly burned as governor. He was now wary. He vowed to be vigilant in never again allowing abortion proponents to sucker him.
As president, Reagan supported a human-life amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Such an amendment would have inserted these words into the Constitution: “The paramount right to life is vested in each human being from the moment of fertilization without regard to age, health or condition of dependency.” Think about that. He favored providing every human being—at all stages of development—protection as “persons” with the “right to life” under the 14th Amendment. That amendment never passed, which is too bad. It might have killed Obama’s mandate, or at least posed a significant challenge.
Note here that Reagan, a Protestant, took a position in lock-step with that of the Roman Catholic Church: Life begins at conception.
Reagan gave innumerable pro-life statements while president. They are a treasure. His rhetorical stance in favor of life and use of the bully pulpit to push the pro-life cause is one of the most unappreciated but meaningful things he did as president. I could give a hundred examples, but I’ll share a forgotten one:
In July 1987, Reagan gave a wonderful talk to a small group of pro-life leaders. He began: “Many of you, perhaps most, never dreamed of getting involved in politics. What brought you into politics was a matter of conscience, a matter of fundamental conviction…. Many of you have been attacked for being single-issue activists or single-issue voters. But I ask: What single issue could be of greater significance?” Reagan said that if one is unsure precisely when life begins, one should err in a way that protects rather than robs life: “If there’s even a question about when human life begins, isn’t it our duty to err on the side of life?”
Amen to that. Reagan finished with this: “I’d like to leave with you a quotation that means a great deal to me. These are the words of my friend, the late Terence Cardinal Cooke, of New York. ‘The gift of life, God’s special gift, is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness or weakness, hunger or poverty, mental or physical handicaps, loneliness or old age. Indeed, at these times, human life gains extra splendor as it requires our special care, concern, and reverence. It is in and through the weakest of human vessels that the Lord continues to reveal the power of His love.’”
Unlike Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, a liberal icon and racial-eugenicist who spoke to the New Jersey KKK, Reagan wasn’t eager to expunge the gene pool of what Sanger termed “human weeds.”
No, said Reagan, every human being, from the moment of conception, was a “ressacra,” a “sacred reality,” made in the image of God. All humans possess a God-given dignity that those of us among the living have a duty to protect.
Let’s just say that President Obama disagrees.
Lopez: Clearly, then, Reagan’s faith informed these issues?
Kengor: It sure did. Here, too, I could say a lot. But I’ll end with this example, which drove the New York Times so crazy with rage that it editorialized against Reagan.
In January 1984, Reagan gave a speech to religious broadcasters, in which he said: “God’s most blessed gift to his family is the gift of life. He sent us the Prince of Peace as a babe in the manger.” Like 19th-century clergy who led the movement to abolish slavery, Reagan as a Christian saw himself as duty-bound to fight abortion, which he equated with slavery in terms of moral outrage and deprivation of human dignity. He made that analogy to the National Religious Broadcasters: “This nation fought a terrible war so that black Americans would be guaranteed their God-given rights. Abraham Lincoln recognized that we could not survive as a free land when some could decide whether others should be free or slaves. Well, today another question begs to be asked: How can we survive as a free nation when some decide that others are not fit to live and should be done away with? I believe no challenge is more important to the character of America than restoring the right to life to all human beings. Without that right, no other rights have meaning.”
Reagan then quoted the words of Christ: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for such is the kingdom of God.”
Together, Reagan assured the religious broadcasters that they could convince their fellow countrymen that America “should, can, and will preserve God’s greatest gift”—the right to life.
That’s the fight we’re in right now, thanks to President Obama.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online, where this Q&A first appeared.