When Ronald Reagan went to his 688-acre Rancho de Cielo (“Heaven’s Ranch”), high above Santa Barbara, California—the Santa Ynez mountains on one side and the blue Pacific Ocean on the other—he referred to it as his “view on freedom.”
Freedom and liberty were primary to Reagan and I will tell you why.
If you have never been to the ranch, you should make the trek. Also stop by his presidential library on the way, in Simi Valley, where they have all his memorabilia and the actual Air Force One. That place records a period in American history when we re-energized greatness.
Those of us who worked for the 40th president, or who were appointed by him, realized that he was very much a called person—a man on a mission, and with a vision. It was contagious. And yes, as always, just as with Donald Trump, the left-leaning media got Reagan continually wrong and mocked his manners, charm, and political persuasion.
What they most detested was his visceral, firm resolve as an anti-communist and his abiding Christian faith.
A letter discovered just recently shows Reagan the president to have been a man of deep, traditional, abiding faith. It’s a letter he wrote in his own hand from the White House to his father-in-law, Loyal Davis (Nancy’s father), when Davis was on his deathbed in August 1982.
Davis, a leading neurosurgeon, was a nonbeliever. Reagan, who adored his father-in-law and was very attached to him, used the letter to try to convince him of the truth of the Christian understanding of Jesus and the world to come. To gain “a greater life, a greater glory,” he concludes, “all that is required is that you believe and tell God you put yourself in his hands. Love, Ronnie.”
With its quotations from scripture, its appeals to biblical prophecy and its expression of personal belief, the letter makes clear that Reagan had lost none of the earnest faith that had shaped and directed him in his youth.
Although Reagan’s father (an alcoholic, who died prematurely) was a Roman Catholic and his parents married in a church, his mother had herself baptized into the Disciples of Christ the year before he was born and brought him up in that tradition. The Disciples emerged from the early 19th-century Protestant Restoration Movement, which was devoted to recovering the basic tenets and practices of the early church. Hoping to transcend denominationalism, they insisted on calling themselves just “Christians.”
At the age of only 11, Reagan decided that he was ready to be baptized as the result, he later recalled, of reading a book his mother had given him: That Printer of Udell’s, a novel published in 1902 by a devout churchman named Harold Bell Wright.
Written in the spirit of Charles Monroe Sheldon’s 1897 bestseller In His Steps, the book advances a conservative gospel program of helping the poor and sick, but with distinctly restorationist elements. It is laced with criticism of doctrinal differences among the varying Protestant churches, and in contrast to Sheldon’s exclusive focus on the regeneration of individuals, Wright is concerned to show how Christ-like activity can make one’s community into a model for others.
The influence of the Disciples only increased after Reagan formally joined his hometown church as a pre-adolescent. The minister, Reverend Ben Cleaver, became a kind of surrogate father, giving young Reagan advice, teaching him to drive, and helping him get into Eureka College, the Disciples’ institution of higher learning in Illinois.
There can be little doubt that Reagan’s adult worldview harked back to what historians have called the Disciples’ “unashamed city-on-the-hill patriotism.” In other words, it was no accident that Reagan’s favorite political trope was to equate America with the city Jesus evokes, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” from Matthew 5:14-16.
Reagan did not come up with this idea on his own. Its source in American rhetoric is the well-known address given by John Winthrop to the Puritans embarking for Boston aboard the ship, Arbela, in 1630. In latter-day political discourse, it was also employed by president elect John F. Kennedy in a speech to the Massachusetts legislature in 1961.
But Reagan made it his watchword, using it when he announced his candidacy for president in 1979, in accepting the Republican nomination in 1984, and in bidding farewell to the nation in 1989. The image perfectly embodied his project of restoring America after the country’s defeat in Vietnam and the “malaise” and downturn of the Carter years.
Being a city on a hill meant serving as that “light unto the nations” that the prophet Isaiah identified as Israel’s special role in the world and that antebellum restorationists had long since attributed to America itself.
As Reagan put it in his 1979 announcement, “A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and, above all, responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill.”
Nothing perhaps better expresses his spiritual vision than Reagan’s famous 1984 campaign television ad, “Morning in America” which was expressly designed to convey the idea that under him the nation had experienced a new beginning—or more precisely, was re-experiencing its beginning: “It’s morning again in America,” the voice-over intones. “Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four short years ago?”
Reagan’s firm belief that God had a plan for his life was fortified by his survival of an assassination attempt in March 1981. He even forgave his would-be assassin. In many addresses, proclamations, letters, and private conversations, he repeatedly stressed his faith in God and prayer, the inspiration of the Bible, and the divinity of Jesus.
It was also demonstrated in his holy alliance with both Pope John Paul II, a firm Polish Catholic anti-communist, and Britain’s Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The troika together fought to bring down the Berlin Wall and end communism. They were united and diligent in faith.
Reagan often used biblical metaphors and even bible verses to reiterate his conventual call to remind the nation and the world of America’s spiritual context and reason for being. He once boldly said, “The Founding Fathers believed that faith in God was the key to our being a good people and America’s becoming a great nation.” Reagan reminded the country that, “If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
On that magical ranch, where Reagan collected his soul, communed with his God, and made peace with his Maker, Ronnie would often go horseback riding. You may recall the pictures of him on his famous white horse, El Alamein. In many conversations with his lifetime friend and political advisor, Judge William Clark, they would discuss what they called the “DP.”
The DP was the Divine Plan.
Reagan knew who he was, who made the world, who created order and freedom in it, and especially after the attempted assassination on his life, he fathomed that God had a distinct plan for his own life. It is why he survived. His vision for America, inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, was not just a mere rhetorical ploy or a political device. It was rooted in his own religious identity and personal commitment to Jesus Christ. It gave rise to his ebullient, infectious optimism and to his inner freedom. It made him confident and evocative about freedom in America and around the world for all peoples.
We should all be so fortunate, if only, as persons and as a country we would, on bended knee, listen again for that still voice and follow Him, as Ronald Reagan did.
Reagan knew, as the hymnist wrote, ’Tis grace that sets you free.