February 6th was the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Dr. Paul Kengor noted recently in Catholic Exchange Reagan’s very tight association with numerous Catholics. The piece got me to thinking.
Who was the most “catholic” (small-c) president – Reagan or JFK (of course, JFK was big-C Catholic, Reagan was not). If you look at what they did and the long term effect of those actions, I think an excellent case can be made for Reagan. Dr. Kengor’s article covers a number of very good points.
JFK on the other hand, most notably entrenched the conceptual (not constitutional) “doctrine” of separation of church and state. He asserted strongly that his faith was private and would not effect his decisions as president. Over time this has influenced many politicians (including those who profess to be Catholic) and the courts to do their best to remove any overt Christian influence in government. This is not what the founding fathers had in mind, as I had written about last March. That unfortunately, is JFK’s lasting legacy.
Reagan lived his Christian faith and wasn’t shy about it. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisors including many Catholics. His faith played a prominent part of his decision making. Reagan changed the world for the better.
Perhaps things would be different if JFK had the chance to complete his presidency. If the current crop of Democratic Catholic politicians are any indicator, then probably not.
It isn’t surprising that Reagan’s centennial is being marked by all sorts of organizations, with retrospectives that will touch upon every imaginable aspect of Reagan. I suspect, however, that the thing most integral to the man, and most consistent throughout his life – that is, his religious faith – will not be as front and center as it should.
A fascinating aspect of that faith was a Reagan warmly, remarkably ecumenical, especially toward Catholics. Reagan included several devout Catholics among his top foreign-policy advisers and intimates, from CIA director Bill Casey, to Ambassador Vernon Walters, to National Security Adviser Richard Allen, to Secretary of State Al Haig (whose brother was a Jesuit priest), just for starters.
Most significant among them was Bill Clark, also known as “The Judge.” A student of Aquinas, Fulton Sheen, and Thomas Merton, who spent time in an Augustinian novitiate contemplating the priesthood, Clark implemented the formal National Security Decision Directives crucial to confronting and undermining the Soviet empire. Clark and Reagan prayed together, particularly the Prayer of Saint Francis.
And then there were the Catholic speechwriters to “the Great Communicator:” Peggy Noonan, chief speechwriter Tony Dolan, and Peter Robinson, who wrote the “Tear Down This Wall” speech.
Finally, Reagan spent some very special moments with the likes of Mother Teresa, Terence Cardinal Cooke, and, of course, Pope John Paul II, with whom he took down an Evil Empire – peacefully.
The centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth will generate all kinds of thoughts and reflections on the man, from his position on taxes to the Soviets to unborn human life. The 40th president’s close relationship with Catholics is likewise worthy of reflection.
Dr. Kengor has written extensively on this topic in his book God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life.