Born in Illinois, Ronald Reagan might have been remembered by history as a famous film actor. While serving as a captain in the U.S. Army in the 1940s, he made training films for troops. After he was discharged from the army in 1945, he signed a million dollar contract with Warner Brothers. By the end of his long Hollywood career, he had over 120 film and television credits.
But Reagan was not destined to be remembered primarily as an artist. In 1964, Reagan announced himself to the political world as an advocate for individual freedom and responsibility. In a televised speech supporting presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Reagan reminded a national audience of their heritage: “They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.” Sixteen years later, Reagan himself won the presidency in a landside victory over Jimmy Carter. And for the next eight years, Reagan instituted in policy and in government the principles of classical liberalism, perhaps more so than any other figure in history.
A resolute foe of communism, Reagan never failed to speak candidly about freedom and human dignity. Together with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II (another former actor), Reagan redefined the struggle of freedom against totalitarianism in terms of good versus evil. In a 1983 speech, he introduced a phrase that to this day serves as the moniker for Soviet Russia: the “evil empire.” Reagan challenged Gorbachev in Communism's own backyard when, under the shadow of the Berlin Wall, he publicly commanded him to “tear down this wall.”
Reagan strongly condemned the “threat posed to human freedom by the enormous power of the modern state,” and worked to limit the power of government at home as well as abroad. Although some initially ridiculed his economic policies and predicted economic ruin, his tax-cuts and business incentives sparked great economic growth. Reagan embraced free-market economics so tightly that the term “Reaganomics” is still used today by detractors and adherents alike.
Reagan was also known to be a sincerely, if quietly, religious man, never shy to remind Americans that their heritage was a religious one on which their freedoms were founded and by which they were safeguarded. In a 1984 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, he affirmed that “all our material wealth and all our influence have been built on our faith in God and the bedrock values that follow from that faith.” Taking his cue from Abraham Lincoln, he denounced as “absurd” the idea that he could be a successful president without prayer.
Hero of Liberty image attribution: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons