Political and religious leaders remembered former President Ronald Reagan as a formidable political force whose “revolution” transformed the Republican Party and enabled ascendancy of the religious right.
Reagan, 93, died Saturday after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The actor-turned-politician was one of the most popular presidents in the 20th century. His eight-year presidency is remembered for the fall of communism, defense buildups, limiting the size of government through tax cuts and transformation of the Republican Party.
Current President George W. Bush described Reagan’s passing as “a sad hour in the life of America.”
Former President Jimmy Carter, who lost to Reagan in 1980, told his Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., that he admired Reagan and shared the country’s grief over his death.
“It was a very sobering day for the country to lose a former president,” Carter said, according to the Associated Press. “I want to express my admiration for him and his wife and associate myself with the grief that America feels.”
Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, issued a statement praising Reagan.
“Hillary and I will always remember President Ronald Reagan for the way he personified the indomitable optimism of the American people, and for keeping America at the forefront of the fight for freedom for people everywhere,” their statement said, according to CNN.
Evangelist Billy Graham described Reagan as “one of my closest personal friends” with a religious faith “deeper than most people ever knew.”
Pope John Paul II paid tribute to Reagan by recalling his efforts to bring down communism, which “changed the lives of millions of people,” according to the Associated Press.
Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell called Reagan “my Christian hero” in a 2002 column reprinted Saturday on Beliefnet. Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., credited Reagan with opening doors at the White House to conservative Christians who had been shut out by previous administrations. Falwell claimed to have brought millions of new voters to the polls in 1980 and reactivated millions of discouraged voters by supporting Reagan.
Religious broadcaster and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson described Reagan as “a towering figure, a man of strength and faith.”
James Dobson of Focus on the Family said Reagan’s values “were often rooted in the timeless truths of Scripture.”
Gary Bauer, a former Reagan adviser and president of American Values, credited Reagan with transforming the Republican Party into “a voice for the values of hearth and home.”
Not everyone mourned the loss, however.
“We all know Reagan’s legacy, from the Iran-Contra affair to the funding of the Nicaraguan military in which over 200,000 people died,” actor Danny Glover said at an anti-war rally in Los Angeles. “The groundwork for the move steadily to the right happened with the Reagan administration. People want to elevate him to some mythic level; they have their own reason for doing that.”
Reagan, a non-denominational Protestant who seldom attended church, won the 1980 presidential election over Jimmy Carter, one of the most devout presidents in the 20th century, largely by appealing to conservative Christians.
He delivered his famous “evil empire” speech in a meeting with religious broadcasters, and emboldened the religious right at a National Affairs Briefing in 1980 in Dallas by declaring, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.”
A recent book on Reagan by Grove City College political scientist Paul Kengor says Reagan succeeded in appealing to many Christian voters by couching his anti-communist views in spiritual terms as a war between good and evil.
Reagan’s religious critics accused him of violating the separation of church and state and of economic policies benefiting the rich and hurting the poor. James Dunn, former head of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, once accused Reagan of “despicable demagoguery” over remarks supporting prayer in public schools.
George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, viewed Reagan as a paradoxical figure who could “demonize opposing ideas while humanizing opponents who held them.”
“Whether Democrats or Communists, he seemed to make his positions clear and yet kept an open hand out to people who disagreed with him,” Mason said.
Mason also contrasted the former president’s policies as “foreign policy based upon a cynicism of human nature and domestic policy on optimism.”
“We could not trust the intentions of others internationally, and so had to fight for peace through strength, so to speak,” Mason said. “But we could trust the innate goodness of our own people, who would turn their own prosperity into benefits for the weak.”
Reagan will receive a full state funeral in Washington on Friday. It will be the first state funeral for a former president in more than 30 years.
“The death of a president represents the loss of an American symbol,” said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “Some mourn deeply for President Reagan because he symbolized for them the exemplary Christian statesman, despite his origins in Hollywood, divorce and scant evidence of churchmanship. Others resent silently the enhancement of his persona because he epitomized for them political cynicism, despite his optimism about human potential, clarity of position and many statements about traditional values.
“The biblical witness tells us that human beings are neither morally perfect nor completely devoid of the divine image. Thus, we must always temper our praise and dampen our criticism. While some use President Reagan’s death to advance their ideological agenda, Christian faith teaches us to pray for those who mourn.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.