number of people believed in this book from the very beginning. Many in this room fall
into that category, but two aren't here. One, who was absolutely
crucial, is an editor in New York named Cal Morgan. The biggest
problem I had with this book was trying to find a publisher. Cal
Morgan saw the book and realized its potential right away.
Another person who championed the project
from the very beginning was the late B. Kenneth Simon, who really
would have wanted to be here today. Ken Simon was the first person
to support the project. Ken was deeply impressed by the fact that
the book, by focusing clearly on Reagan's faith and respecting
Reagan's faith, showed an intellectual side of Reagan that has been
greatly underestimated. In fact, I would like to dedicate this talk
at the Heritage Foundation, a place which Ken loved so very much,
to Ken Simon.
It has been 23 years since Ronald Wilson Reagan was
inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States. During that
time, innumerable books have been written on various aspects of
Reagan--his political philosophy, his economic program, his trade
policies, his Middle East policy, his attack on Soviet Communism,
even his love letters to his wife. Yet, the single most important
force in Ronald Reagan's life has been woefully neglected: his
faith in God.
History has aptly acknowledged Reagan's
legendary sense of conviction. Americans never had to struggle to
figure out where this man stood on any particular issue. And yet,
while Reagan's key political beliefs remained consistent from the
late 1940s onward, his religious beliefs were consistent even
longer. The historical record abundantly reflects that Reagan was
driven by those core political convictions. What the record has
overlooked is that his core religious convictions carried him yet
Where did he get his spiritual values?
There were a number of influences. First and foremost was his
mother, Nelle Reagan. I'm confident that had Nelle Reagan died in
the winter of 1918-19--a near-victim of the devastating influenza
epidemic that killed millions of healthy, middle-aged mothers
around the world--Ronald Reagan very likely would not have become
President. It was Nelle who insisted her boy go to church--a
request he happily obliged--and it was in church that Reagan picked
up not only those core beliefs and values, but also the intangibles
so vital to his success: his confidence, his eternal optimism
(which he called a "God-given optimism"), and even his ability to
speak. Indeed, history has also overlooked the fact that the Great
Communicator found his first audiences in a church. He learned to
speak in a church.
Aside from Nelle, there were others who
made their mark: Ben Cleaver, Lloyd Emmert, and the Waggoners.
There were figures that dropped into the story momentarily, made a
crucial difference in Reagan's life and career--and thus,
history--and then exited the stage forever. Some were men like the
Reverend Cleveland Kleihauer, whose rather extraordinary influence
(at a Hollywood church in the 1940s), I address in the book.
book, God and Ronald Reagan, speaks to all of these influences.
Today, however, I'd like to briefly address the role of two books
in shaping Reagan's faith.
is interesting that for a man not considered an intellectual, two
authors were fundamental to influencing Reagan's most intimate
thoughts. Ronald Reagan's two favorite books--not
coincidentally--both happened to have a profound effect on him
spiritually. One was a 1903 book titled That Printer of Udell's, by
a minister-novelist named Harold Bell Wright. The other was by
Whittaker Chambers, who, in 1952, penned his book, Witness.
(Actually, Reagan also cited the Bible as one of his favorite
books. He called it "the greatest message ever written." This was
because--at least in part--he believed its words were of "Divine
inspiration." Of this, he "never had any doubt.")
be sure, Wright and Chambers were not the only intellectual
influences on Reagan. He read C.S. Lewis, from whom he even
borrowed apologetics. He was especially drawn to conservative
intellectuals who converted from atheism/agnosticism to an
anti-communist Christianity--figures that remarked upon the
relationship (or lack thereof) between God, freedom, and communism.
These were thinkers like Malcolm Muggeridge, Wilhelm Roepke, and
Frank Meyer. Reagan also devoured the work of Alexander
Solzhenitsyn, and he greatly respected the lesser known writings of
an attorney named Laurence W. Beilenson. (Beilenson and Reagan carried on a
longtime relationship, exchanging ideas in numerous letters.)
Today, I'd like to briefly focus on the
influence of Wright and Chambers.
That Printer of Udell's
an adult, Ronald Reagan was asked his favorite book as a child
growing up in Dixon, Illinois, in the 1920s. He said the book that
"made a lasting impression on me at about the age of 11 or 12,
mainly because of the goodness of the principal character," was one
"I'm sure you never heard of." The book was That Printer of Udell's: A
Story of the Middle West, written by Harold Bell Wright in 1903.
also mentioned this work in his memoirs when speaking of his
"heroes." He called Udell's a "wonderful book about a devout
itinerant Christian," which "made such an impact on me that I
decided to join my mother's church." In a letter he wrote from the White
House to Harold Bell Wright's daughter-in-law, he added:
It is true that your father-in-law's book,
indeed books, played a definite part in my growing-up years. When I
was only ten or eleven years old, I picked up Harold Bell Wright's
book, That Printer of Udell's [Reagan's underline for emphasis]...
and read it from cover to cover....
That book ... had an impact I shall always
remember. After reading it and thinking about it for a few days, I
went to my mother and told her I wanted to declare my faith and be
baptized. We attended the Christian Church in Dixon, and I was
baptized several days after finishing the book.
The term, "role model," was not a familiar
term in that time and place. But I realize I found a role model in
that traveling printer whom Harold Bell Wright had brought to life.
He set me on a course I've tried to follow even unto this day. I
shall always be grateful. [Again, Reagan's
Udell's first words are "O God, take ker
o' Dick!" This was the final plea of the broken-hearted, dying
mother of the novel's protagonist, Dick Walker. Little Dickie's
mother was a committed Christian who suffered at the hands of a
horrible creature--an alcoholic, abusive spouse. In the opening
scene, Dick's mom succumbs as his father lies passed out on the
floor in a drunken stupor.
Young Dick escapes. He immediately runs
away from home, and eventually becomes a tramp in Boyd City. No one
will hire him, including the Christians he appeals to in a brave,
moving moment when he wanders into a church, attracted by the
music, words, and warmth his late mom had described to him. The
young vagabond goes inside for inspiration and guidance. He knows
from what his mother taught him that this is a good place--a place
of refuge and stability that he can count on. Like Reagan, Dick's
mom conditioned him to find comfort in God. At church--with God--he
found an anchor.
church scene is a pivotal part of the book. Here he learns about
the church, himself, and "fake" versus "real," or "practical,"
Christianity. A practical Christian is one that would give Dick a
job. And one such
Christian does just that: A man named George Udell hires him as a
printer, beginning for Dick somewhat of a Horatio Alger path to
personal and spiritual improvement and fulfillment. Dick becomes a
prominent player in the church and the community--a man of
Printer of Udell's is an evangelical novel. Today, it might only
find a spot in fiction sections of Christian bookstores. It
features chapters with titles like "Philippians 4:8." This section
of the New Testament emphasizes the importance of prayer for
"everything" and, in Christ's words, exhorts Christians: "Whatever
you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me - put
it into practice."
Reagan himself would later say that the novel made him "a practical
novel's clear lines of right and wrong left a mark on Dutch Reagan.
More than fifty years after reading Udell's, he reminisced that
it--and other books from his youth--left him with "an abiding
belief in the triumph of good over evil." These books, he said,
contained "heroes who lived by standards of morality and fair
play." There was no
doubt about good and bad guys, and no moral equivalency.
moral of the story takes shape as the new, improved Dick, now a
printer at Udell's, and on his way to becoming a "practical"
Christian, conceives a plan to help save the wretched city. Just as
Reagan came to believe that God had a plan for him, Dick Walker
believed himself to be moved by God--even unwittingly at times--as
part of a greater plan. In Dick's case, it was a plan to do
"Christ's work in the city"--Boyd City, with its "low standard of
Reagan, too, Dick learned to speak in a chapel. The budding
rhetorician was discovered as he honed his craft--in a church.)
Dick's plan goes on to make a real
difference. The city's bums, burglars, and prostitutes find good
work; bars are supplanted by reputable businesses, concerts replace
burlesque shows. Churches, naturally, grow, as does attendance at
colleges and high schools. Boyd City becomes a model--a kind of
shining city--of how applied Christianity and common-sense
solutions can make a difference. At one point, a traveling salesman
peering out the window of a passing train is struck by the
improvement; "I'm sure of one thing," he mutters, "they were struck
by good, common-sense business Christianity."
Ultimately, Dick, a committed Christian,
marries a brown-eyed girl named Amy Goodrich, with whom he is
instantly smitten. She becomes his life partner. He is sent off to
Washington, D.C., as a polished, elected representative from Boyd
City. The last image we get of Dick is one that would have
moistened Reagan's eyes: kneeling in prayer before heading to
Washington to change the world--the admiring Amy at his side. Dick
is such a success that he can't be confined to little Boyd City. He
needs to make a difference in his country as a whole.
finishing Udell's final page, Reagan closed the book, and walked
over to his mother. "I want to be like that man," he exclaimed,
referring to Dick, "and I want to be baptized." The book changed
Decades later, Ronald Reagan read another
book that shook his foundations. Published by Random House in 1952,
Whittaker Chambers's Witness was, to Reagan, a mesmerizing source
of information and affirmation. All of those interviewed for my book
talk of how Reagan could recite passages from Witness verbatim.
This is evident in speeches throughout his public life. There are
copies of Reagan speeches in which he crossed out lines and
inserted whole sections from Witness. These verbatim insertions
were made from his outstanding memory.
audience today knows the Chambers story well: There's no need to
rehash it here. For those unaware, I'll note briefly that Chambers,
once an atheist and communist, accused Alger Hiss, a high-level
State Department official, of being a Soviet spy.
Chambers's succinct title, Witness, is
clever. Yes, Chambers became famous as a witness in the Alger Hiss
trial. But he was in fact a witness to so much more. A history
professor could teach much of the 20th century through the life of
Chambers. Yet, Chambers, in his autobiography, served as another
kind of witness--to faith, to God, to Christ, as Christians
understand the word "witness." He ultimately saw himself as a
witness in the religious manner. Chambers's pilgrimage to
Christianity is a thread throughout his autobiography.
my book, I dedicate a full chapter to the many links between
Chambers and Reagan. Here I'll mention just a couple of
the foreword to Witness, Chambers states candidly: "I see in
communism the focus of the concentrated evil of our time." This is hauntingly
similar to Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech some thirty years later,
where Reagan called the USSR "the focus of evil in the modern
world." Chambers frequently employed the word "evil" to describe
"Communism is absolutely evil," he declared in Witness.
page nine of Witness, one encounters a passage later featured in
the "Evil Empire" speech, as well as in a lesser known, March 1981,
Reagan speech to the faithful at the Conservative Political Action
Conference (CPAC) Dinner. Speaking of communism, Chambers wrote,
"It is not new. It is, in fact, man's second oldest faith. Its
promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the
Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: `Ye shall be as gods.'" He
continued: "They [other ages past] have always been different
versions of the same vision: The vision of God and man's
relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man
without God. It is the vision of man's displacing God as the
creative intelligence of the world." Similarly, Ronald Reagan liked to
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.
There are indeed many ways that Chambers's
work impacted Reagan. For instance, when and how did Chambers make
the turn from atheist-communist to Christian-conservative? Reagan
could provide that answer in a flash. A passage from Witness that
he could quote off the top of his head was the one in which
Chambers explained his heavenly shift. It moved Reagan, reflecting his
perception of the chasm separating Christianity from communism.
Here is the passage in Reagan's words:
Chambers marked the beginning of his
personal journey away from communism on the day that he was
suddenly struck by the sight of his infant daughter's ear as she
sat there having breakfast. And then, he said, he realized that
such intricacy, such precision could be no accident, no freak of
nature. He said that while he didn't know it at the time, in that
moment, God--the finger of God had touched his forehead.
Reagan loved this ear anecdote. In the
Presidential Handwriting File at the Reagan Library, I found a
Speech Department draft of an address he gave to CPAC in February
1982. Reagan scratched out a sentence and quote from Chambers
(placed by a speechwriter who knew Reagan liked Chambers) in favor
of the ear passage.
Throughout his life, Chambers had a number
of such meaningful encounters with nature, each time prompting him
to momentarily consider God. One of these incidents occurred in his
childhood: It is somewhat reminiscent of a deep experience that
young Reagan had with a butterfly collection in the attic of his
family's rented home in Galesburg, Illinois. Chambers wrote of the
occurrence in Witness:
One day [in my early childhood] I wondered
off alone and found myself before a high hedge that I had never
seen before. It was so tall that I could not see over it and so
thick that I could not see through it. But by lying flat against
the ground, I wriggled between the privet stems.
I stood up, on the other side, in a field
covered from end to end, as high as my head, with thistles in full
bloom. Clinging to the purple flowers, hovering over them, or
twittering and dipping in flight, were dozens of
goldfinches--little golden yellow birds with black, contrasting
wings and caps. They did not pay the slightest attention to me, as
if they had never seen a boy before.
The sight was so unexpected, the beauty
was so absolute, that I thought I could not stand it and held to
the hedge for support. Out loud, I said: "God." It was a simple
statement, not an exclamation, of which I would then have been
incapable. At that moment, which I remembered through all the years
of my life as one of its highest moments, I was closer than I would
be again for almost forty years to the intuition that alone could
give meaning to my life--the intuition that God and beauty are
then, did Chambers not become a religious believer earlier? The
reasons are not entirely clear. But one is certain: When young
Reagan had such experiences and entertained such notions, they were
reaffirmed by a faith-nurturing mother; the saintly Nelle.
Chambers's deeply troubled mother did no such thing. She was a
proud atheist who, on occasion, attacked any thought of God by her
little boy. "My mother," wrote Chambers, "belonged to a generation
of intellectuals for whom the word God was already a little
embarrassing." God did not create the world, she instructed her
child, "The world was formed by gasses cooling in space." While Nelle fostered
religious belief, Chambers's mom summarily dismissed it.
Where They Differed
Alas, amidst all the likenesses, there is
one monumental difference between Whittaker Chambers and Ronald
Reagan. It had ramifications for everything they said and did.
Chambers was a pessimist, whereas Reagan was the quintessential
optimist. Each fully integrated that mindset into his Cold War
thinking. Whereas the Cold War thinking of each man was grounded in
his view of God, Reagan's faith-based optimism made him optimistic
about the Cold War's end. Chambers, on the other hand, soberly
feared that while he was joining the right side by rejecting
communism, he was leaving "the winning side for the losing side."
Reagan, however, did not feel that way. He
believed the United States would win the battle against communism.
He vowed his nation could defeat the USSR and win the Cold War. He
trusted that communism was not the future. He was so certain of
this that one day as President he would actually pursue a
deliberate course to achieve that goal--to secure victory.
While Chambers influenced or affirmed
Reagan's thinking on communism, he did not affect Reagan's thinking
on the final destiny of communism, nor God's role in it. Reagan
foresaw Marxism's fate as no better than the ash-heap of history.
Though the two agreed on much, they diverged in their estimation of
the final outcome. That minor divergence between two mere men would
make a major difference in the world. And while the intellectual
influences on Reagan's faith and worldview were many, that unique
cause and confidence was his own, from which he would not be
Paul Kengor, Ph.D. is
Associate Professor of Political Science at Grove City College,
Grove City, Pennsylvania.