I was never a Ronald Reagan fan. Like many blue dog, pro-life Bible Belt Democrats, I found it impossible to vote for him. One of my closest graduate school friends said that he lost his Christian faith (I am not joking) because he could not worship a God who allowed Reagan to reach the White House.
Reagan was a B-grade actor, a talented but shallow politico. Thus, I was surprised when the evidence began to emerge that Reagan did most of his own reading and writing. It turned out that all of those pre-politics Reagan radio commentaries were not produced by ghost writers and then read on the air by a PR pro. Reagan wrote them, in longhand. He wrote those punch lines. He wrote the paragraphs summarizing all of those books and journal articles.
As a Jimmy Carter-era evangelical, I also had doubts about the depth of Reagan’s Midwestern, old-school mainline Protestant faith.
I say all of that because of an amazing feature that ran the other day in The Washington Post under this headline: “A private letter from Ronald Reagan to his dying father-in-law shows the president’s faith.” It was written by editorial-page columnist Karen Tumulty.
Once again, we face a familiar question: Why was this a topic for an editorial-page feature, instead of the front page or, perhaps, in the newspaper’s large features section? Where would this feature appeared if a letter had emerged containing revelatory information about Reagan’s views on the Soviet Union, his thoughts on aging or even his views on abortion?
Don’t get me wrong. This is a fine essay and the subject material is gripping. The overture:
Something tugged at Ronald Reagan on that otherwise slow August weekend in 1982.
“Again at the W.H.,” the president noted in his diary. “More of Saturdays work plus a long letter I have to write to Loyal. I’m afraid for him. His health is failing badly.”
Loyal Davis, Reagan’s father-in-law and a pioneering neurosurgeon, was just days away from death.
Something else worried Reagan: The dying man was, by most definitions of the word, an atheist.
“I have never been able to subscribe to the divinity of Jesus Christ nor his virgin birth. I don’t believe in his resurrection, or a heaven or hell as places,” Davis once wrote. “If we are remembered and discussed with pleasure and happiness after death, this is our heavenly reward.”
Reagan, on the other hand, believed everyone would face a day of judgment, and that Davis’s was near. So the most powerful man in the world put everything else aside, took pen in hand and set out on an urgent mission — to rescue one soul.
The history of this letter is certainly interesting. As Tumulty noted, it is not part of the public holdings of the Reagan Library. The columnist found it in a box of Nancy Reagan materials, while doing research for for a biography of the first lady. Tumulty thanks the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute for granting permission to publish it.
But is this old letter really “news”?
As I explain to my students at The King’s College each semester during a lecture on the history of news, information out of the past is “news” if it reveals new information about newsworthy people and events. If someone discovers new information about Abraham Lincoln, that’s news — no matter how old it is.
In this case, it appears that the crucial issue is whether religious material is valid news, even though this letter opens a window into the mind of one of the most important leaders of the late 20th century, Tumulty writes:
The discovery of this intimate missive, four pages of White House stationery randomly tucked in a file, stopped me. You do not have to be a believer yourself — or believe that Reagan’s policies were perfectly aligned with Christian teachings — to appreciate what this private letter said about him.
I could sense Reagan’s earnest intensity, how carefully he had collected his thoughts. Not a word of his small, round script was crossed out. Had he written and revised several versions, sending the one that said just what he wanted it to? Near the end were three watery smudges. Spilled coffee? Someone’s later tears?
The Christian testimony found here is blunt and to the point, the stuff of miracles and belief in the Jesus found in traditional Christianity. It is clear that Reagan is talking about high stakes — eternal life.
Click here to see an annotated version of the full text.
At the end of the piece, Tumulty addresses the elephant in the journalism sanctuary — that this letter is also important as a POLITICAL document.
Religious faith, for better or worse, is a proxy in our politics, offered as proof that those who lead us start from a foundation of values. Americans seem to expect piety from their presidents. Polls over the years suggest at least 4 out of 10 would not support an otherwise-qualified candidate who does not believe in God.
Reagan represented a conundrum for social conservatives: He had arisen from the Gomorrah of Hollywood, divorced, signed the most liberal abortion law in the country when he was California governor and rarely set foot inside a church while president.
But he managed to marshal an army of fundamentalists in 1980 to defeat a born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter, who taught Sunday school and who was married to his hometown sweetheart.
Yes, Donald Trump even shows up, along with press-grabbing Trump evangelicals who have even been willing to raise doubts about Reagan — as a way of boosting the moral status of The Donald.
My journalism question is a familiar one: Why not interview experts on both sides of the Reagan faith debate and turn this into a major news story? It’s hard to imagine a better news hook. What makes this an opinion-page subject?
Yes, the religion angle is powerful. At the end there is this:
Did the letter have any impact? Nancy Reagan, who was with Loyal Davis when he died, and who saved the letter he received from his son-in-law, would later claim that her father did turn to God at the end of his life.
Two days before his death on Aug. 19, 1982, Davis sought out a hospital chaplain, and prayed with him, Nancy said. “I noticed he was calmer and not as frightened.”
A deathbed conversion? That may have been a daughter’s wishful thinking.
One thing, however, is certain — something that should not be lost as religious people rationalize their political allegiances today: Faith was not an electoral stratagem for Ronald Reagan; his private words show it was his starting point, and the core of who he was.
News? Why or why not?