Excerpted from "God and Ronald Reagan" by Paul Kengor with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

"[Americans] must seek Divine guidance in the policies of their government and the promulgation of their laws." --Ronald Reagan

For Reagan, spiritual faith was not something to hang in the closet upon taking political office. As governor he had often relied on prayer for guidance, and after entering the White House he felt he needed prayer as much as ever. And politics, he held, needed faith. He frequently invoked George Washington's aphorism that religion and morality were "indispensable supports" to political prosperity.

He also felt that America and Americans needed the Bible. The Bible, argued Reagan, held all the answers. "I'm accused of being simplistic at times," he said more than once. "But within that single Book are all the answers to all the problems that face us." As Ben Elliott remembers, it was a line that many found over-the-top, some White House staff among them. Nonetheless, Reagan believed it devoutly. When the president shared the thought before the National Religious Broadcasters convention, Elliott recalled, it "brought the house down." The audience responded with a standing ovation, and Reagan was delighted.

He saw God as the preeminent source of wisdom and moral guidance, the fount "from whom all knowledge springs." "When we open ourselves to Him," the president told a group of students in December 1983, "we gain not only moral courage but also intellectual strength." It was a line he had used for years.

And his faith in spiritual guidance had a geopolitical dimension. Reagan was earnestly afraid of what might happen to free, democratic societies if they scrapped religious faith. "At its full flowering, freedom is the first principle of society; this society, Western society," he told a crowd at Georgetown University on its bicentennial. "And yet freedom cannot exist alone. And that's why the theme for your bicentennial is so very apt: learning, faith, and freedom. Each reinforces the others, each makes the others possible. For what are they without each other?"

Reagan instructed his audience that day to pray that America be guided by learning, faith, and freedom. He cited the author of Democracy in America: "Tocqueville said it in 1835, and it's as true today as it was then: 'Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is more needed in democratic societies than in any other.'"' With a sly nod to his academic audience, he warned, "Learning is a good thing, but unless it's tempered by faith and a love of freedom, it can be very dangerous indeed. The names of many intellectuals are recorded on the rolls of infamy, from Robespierre to Lenin to Ho Chi Minh to Pol Pot."

In particular, Reagan believed that biblical wisdom was indispensable in devising intelligent law. One thing that "must never change" in America, he contended, is that men and women must "seek Divine guidance in the policies of their government and the promulgation of their laws." They must, he urged, "make our laws and government not only a model to mankind, but a testament to the wisdom and mercy of God. "'

A belief in the power of prayer, and an inclination to extend the lessons of religion to the challenges of policy: in these and other ways Ronald Reagan's spirituality shaped his presidency.

Prayer and the Presidency

Throughout the 1980s, Reagan often seized the opportunity to preach the power of prayer. Twice during the presidential debates with Walter Mondale, he said he couldn't imagine how someone could carry out the "awesome responsibilities" of the presidency without prayer. To think otherwise struck him as "absurd." He didn't think he could carry on without trust in a higher authority. ' He expressed this sentiment repeatedly in private letters throughout his presidency, frequently invoking the image of Lincoln on his knees.

One of the best chances of getting a letter or phone call from the president was to let him know that he was in the correspondent's prayers. A letter from Father Robert J. Baffa, informing Reagan that the Catholic Student Association at the University of Vermont and Norwich University was planning a twenty-four-hour interfaith prayer vigil to coincide with the Washington summit, prompted a personal telephone call from Reagan.

On one occasion, Secretary Margaret Heckler of Health and Human Services suggested that Reagan's cabinet meetings should open with a prayer. It was an unorthodox proposal; only Dwight Eisenhower is on record as opening such meetings with prayer on a regular basis. To Heckler's suggestion, Reagan simply replied "I do." That is, he was already in the habit of praying, alone and to himself, before each meeting. Don Hodel, then secretary of energy and now president of Focus on the Family ministries, witnessed the exchange. "He both responded to the suggestion and closed the subject," said Hodel. "There was no debate. No controversy. That was it. He prayed himself."

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