February 6 marks the hundredth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birthday and the occasion has already prompted renewed interest in his life, legacy, and presidency. President Barack Obama has made it known he is reading Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Many commentators have speculated that Obama is studying Reagan to learn how to better connect with the American people, but there is a more important reason to admire Reagan. His most important legacy is his insistence that America’s strength lies in its spiritual vitality.
In The Wall Street Journal last week, David Davis pointedly declared that it was “Reagan's simplicity of language and clarity of views that made his insights and policies so powerful.” Reagan believed strongly in three things: God, the American people, and the danger of centralized power. Although simple, these principles were powerful because they point to a higher purpose.
At the age of 11, Reagan read That Printer of Udell’s, a book about a boy who, thanks to Christian charity and love, overcomes poverty and an alcoholic father to make something of his life. Reagan credited the book for pushing him towards his evangelical faith and said the account left with him “an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil.”
During the Cold War, he elevated those spiritual tones to the forefront of the assault on totalitarianism, issuing scathing indictments against godless communism’s hollow core. While détente deemphasized the spiritual dimension of the Cold War, Reagan made the moral argument paramount.
He told political prisoners and dissidents they weren’t forgotten, saying, “We, your brothers in God, have made your cause our cause, and we vow never to relent until you have regained the freedom that is your birthright as a child of God.” His words and deeds would earn him the title “The Great Liberator.”
At home, he believed Washington was impotent to solve problems, but the people were strong—with one caveat, that people were strong in God. Religion is vibrant when the rule of law under God is protected and only then can freedom prosper. He called for spiritual revival and overruled pragmatic aides who implored him to talk less about the sacred life of the unborn. Reagan knew the ultimate strength of the nation was not in military might, material goods, or Washington, but in devotion to the Lord.
In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, his name resurfaced in the news, as commentators cited him as a model for public discourse. Former President George W. Bush aptly declared that Reagan was “never known to slight or embarrass others.” The trait is a witness to the character of a Christian.
Recently, some commentators have attempted to cast doubt on the man and undercut his achievements by questioning his mental faculty while in office. This is not new: Reagan was called an “amiable dunce,” a “mad man” and “medieval” by political opponents. These attempts hardly mattered to him, as he himself showed indifference toward debates over his legacy, disregarding aides who begged him to defend attacks on his record.
The most spiritually significant of his actions, however, may have been his departure from public life. In a letter to the American people in November of 1994, he revealed his Alzheimer’s affliction. “When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future,” he wrote.
His biographer Edmund Morris called the letter “a masterly piece of writing” with “the simplicity of genius.” It was a letter he crafted alone at his desk in one draft. “I find it very difficult to think emotionally about Ronald Reagan, but there is one thing he did that catches me in the heart, and that is the courage with which he left his conscious life,” Morris stated.
“I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things,” Reagan said in his farewell address in 1989. It’s not the policies that point to Reagan’s greatness but his principles. His ideas are timeless because they evoke deeper truths about man, his relationship to the state, and most importantly, his Creator.