June 14, 2004
The Reagan Mantle
Martin E. Marty
Friday at 4:44, four papers on our porch sometimes provide editorial-opinion texts for Sightings on deadline day. This past Friday (June 11), President Reagan's funeral gave a theme to several, but not all.
In the Chicago Tribune, Richard Norton Smith, former director of the Reagan Presidential Library, attributes Reagan's outlook on life to childhood. He "imbibed from his mother, Nelle, a fundamentalist [better: "conservative Protestant"] belief that everything happened according to God's plan... and a sense of personal destiny that, unleavened by humor, might easily be confused with messianism."
William P. Clark, a member of the Reagan cabinet, editorializes in the New York Times, contra Mrs. Reagan, against using stem cell research to fight Alzheimer's disease. When opposing abortion in 1983, the then President spoke of "the truth of human dignity under God" and "respect for the sacred value of human life." Clark believes that Reagan "would also have questioned picking the people's pocket to support commercial research." God was not quoted.
In The Wall Street Journal, Paul Kengor, author of God and Ronald Reagan, first explains why as President he almost never went to church in Washington: security reasons. "Reagan decided to quit going. A lack of faith had nothing to do with it." Religiously, he spoke of a "crusade" against the Soviet Union for its "official atheism." March, 1983: "There is sin and evil in the world, and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might." Reagan "was a devout Christian, a Protestant who felt a keen fellowship with Catholics and Jews." Bottom line, thanks to the Disciples of Christ preachers in his childhood, he would like "to have been eulogized as a man of God who exercised a form of practical Christianity."
Friendliness to the late President does not always extend to the current one who claims his mantle. In the Chicago Sun-Times, contrarian Bonnie Erbe watches the Bush campaign "recruiting people in 'friendly congregations'" to engage in politicking which, says a former IRS official, finds the president "encouraging churches to break federal tax laws" (which specifically prohibit nonprofit organizations from engaging in partisan political activity).
Finally, in the same paper, Father Andrew Greeley, an outspoken critic of the administration, tries to account for its dark side. "I would suggest that it is the mix of Calvinist religious righteousness and 'my-country-right-or-wrong' patriotism that dominated our treatment of blacks and American Indians," and, against Mexico and Spain, promoted "manifest destiny" for America "to do whatever it wanted to do, because it was strong and virtuous and chosen by God."
"Today many Americans celebrate "a 'strong' leader... who claims an infallibility that exceeds that of the pope... a leader with a firm 'Christian' faith in his own righteousness." The people who surround him -- Greeley names names -- "are practitioners of the Big Lie." Together they promote "an America-worshipping religion." So "it is time to return to [earlier American] generosity and grace."
And the American past remains up for grabs.