In a fraught political campaign season, the shadow cast by 40th American President Ronald Reagan is very long indeed. More than one Republican candidate has tried to claim his mantle, pointing back to “the Reagan years” as the time when our nation was at its best and most hopeful. But what was this larger-than-life figure really like? We can easily marvel at a list of his accomplishments on Wikipedia — husband, actor, governor, president, pro-life advocate, the Soviet Union’s great rival, just to name a few prominent examples. But there is another descriptor for Reagan that is discussed with far less frequency: Christian. For those who seek to understand who Reagan was beyond the thumbnail bios, his own letters and journals provide some of the best glimpses of the man of faith behind the legend.
One of the most gripping events of Reagan’s presidency was his attempted assassination by a disturbed stalker named John Hinckley. Through the courageous, swift action of his Secret Service agents, Reagan escaped with his life, though he was seriously wounded. In his journal, he recalls what it was like in the emergency room as he struggled to breathe and pray at the same time: “I focused on that tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children and therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.” Indeed, he would later learn from Billy Graham that Hinckley’s family members were “decent, deeply religious people” who were “crushed” by what their son had become. President Reagan is rightly remembered for standing firmly against the enemies of the free world, but this story shows him to be a man who could forgive his enemies as well.
Reagan’s passion for souls also comes through as he writes about the illness of his father-in-law. His wife, Nancy, was greatly concerned because her father didn’t know the Lord. In a heartfelt entry, the President wrote, “I think he knows fear for the first time in his life,” hoping for an opportunity to share the gospel with the dying man before it was too late. Sadly, we don’t know if he ever did.
That same heart moved Reagan to reach out in personal, tangible ways to people he didn’t even know. Stories of heroism particularly stirred him, including a Baltimore Sun write-up about a young woman who cut her hand on a chain link fence while rushing to catch a falling baby. Reagan tracked her down and called her personally, meanwhile quietly inquiring about whether her hospital bill could be covered, “because she is evidently poor.” He also writes about trying to reach out to an old man who had given away all his life savings to the Reagan campaign, then wept because he couldn’t give anymore. Reagan managed to contact the man’s daughter, who promised to obtain the number of the nursing home. We never find out if the two connected.
But Reagan’s eagerness to connect with people was not limited to his supporters. In 1984, as he read reactions to his State of the Union address, one in particular caught his eye: a woman who was steadfastly pro-abortion and called herself an “ex-Republican.” He thought about writing to her, but “just on a hunch,” he phoned instead. After convincing her that yes, this was the real President Reagan, he encouraged her to consider the personhood and rights of the unborn. She was impressed enough to promise that she would “give it some deep thought.” He took the opportunity to chat with her on a personal level, learning that she was divorced and struggling to make ends meet. He closes the journal entry saying simply, “I think I made a friend.”
Of all the things that we could say about Ronald Reagan, no higher praise can be offered the man than this: Ronald Reagan loved the American people for who they were, not for what they could offer him. And of those who loved him back, lining the streets to cheer him on as he wore his arms out waving to them, he writes simply, “I keep thinking this can’t continue, and yet their warmth and affection seems so genuine I get a lump in my throat. I pray constantly that I won’t let them down.”
May God grant us faithful men for whom this prayer is their heart’s cry as well.