Cover Story

PROVIDENTIAL PRESIDENT

Long before Ronald Reagan was leading crusades against Soviet communism and American abortion, he was a boy in Illinois discovering a spiritual "inheritance" that would be the foundation for his later convictions

Issue: "Reagan: Providential president," Feb. 7, 2004

TWO YEARS AGO RONALD REAGAN passed John Adams and Herbert Hoover to become the country's longest-living president. On Feb. 6 he was in line to extend that record, hitting his 93rd birthday. Observers (except for those blinded by leftist ideologies) can't miss the 40th president's achievements-the economic growth, the Cold War victory, the summits and treaties. They also are writing about his relationship with his wife, his love of liberty, his image of America as a Shining City Upon a Hill.

Yet, if the past is a barometer, what was closest to Mr. Reagan's heart throughout his life is being mentioned only rarely-his faith in God. Ronald Reagan's Christian faith has been the single most consistent, dominant feature of his life. The peak periods of Mr. Reagan's faith were the bookends of his life-his adolescence in Dixon and his mature years as president and former president of the United States. As president, his faith spiked up after the March 1981 assassination attempt.

The early origins of Reagan's faith forged the religious convictions he maintained throughout his public life. These spiritual influences began in the Reagan household, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. His father Jack was a shoe salesman who took a new job at every turn and moved his family from Illinois town to Illinois town.

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One move, though, had an unplanned outcome: Wrestling with the loneliness of a little boy who had just moved to a third new town, 5-year-old Ronald ventured alone to the attic of his new home. The previous tenant had left behind a large collection of bird's eggs and butterflies enclosed in glass. Ronald escaped into the attic for hours at a time, "marveling at the rich colors of the eggs and the intricate and fragile wings of the butterflies." "The experience," he remembered, "left me with a reverence for the handiwork of God that never left me."

Eventually the Reagans settled in Dixon in 1920, and it was Dixon that made Ronald Reagan. The town provided a host of inspirations, the most important of which were spiritual-individuals like Rev. Ben Cleaver, Rev. H.G. Waggoner and his son John Waggoner, and Ronald's Sunday school teacher Lloyd "Brownie" Emmert. These other influences comprised what Mr. Reagan later aptly called his "inheritance." Surrounded by devout members of the Disciples of Christ denomination, he experienced "a small universe where I learned standards and values that would guide me for the rest of my life," as he later wrote.

The span of that life included the entire rise and fall of the Soviet Union. Ronald was 6 years old when the Bolshevik revolution hatched in October 1917. Sixty-four years later Mr. Reagan was president, leading a crusade against Soviet communism partly motivated by his belief that as a Christian he was "enjoined by Scripture" to resist and attack evil. "There is sin and evil in the world," Mr. Reagan said in his March 8, 1983, "Evil Empire" speech, "and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might." A year later he told a Joint Session of the Irish National Parliament that the "struggle between freedom and totalitarianism today" was ultimately not a test of arms or missiles but a "spiritual struggle." As the Soviets themselves recognized in a formal statement from TASS, the official Soviet news agency, "President Reagan uses religion with particular zeal to back his anti-Soviet policy."

Mr. Reagan took his stand in the 1940s, when the Cold War was just beginning, and Mr. Reagan was a popular after-dinner speaker in Hollywood. In his talks, Mr. Reagan received raucous applause when he spoke sharply against fascism, the totalitarian monster of the recent past. After one such speech to the men's club at the Beverly Christian Church, the Disciples denomination where he worshiped, Rev. Cleveland Kleihauer told him that denouncing fascism was good, but he should also speak about a new threat: "I think your speech would be even better if you also mentioned that if communism ever looked like a threat, you'd be just as opposed to it as you are to fascism."

Mr. Reagan told his minister that he hadn't given much thought to the threat of communism. Nonetheless, he agreed it was good advice. From now on, he would declare that if a day came when it looked as though communism posed a threat, he would denounce it just as vigorously. When he did, however, his left-wing audiences suddenly grew disapprovingly quiet. Over five decades later, he thanked that minister for the "wake-up" call. Mr. Reagan's assault on communism began at that moment, when a man of God, in a house of God, prompted him.

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