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How Right Was Reagan?

The 40th president gave America hope—but that’s not enough.

A few weeks ago, my mailman delivered an invitation to my 30th high school reunion. I’m not sure the shock made me feel any older, but the landmark has led me to think about what was going on in America and the world in the summer of 1979.

It’s hard to be nostalgic. Jimmy Carter was president. Inflation was high. The energy crisis had become a part of daily life. By the end of the year, Iranian revolutionaries had taken 52 Americans hostage and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. On July 15, a few weeks after my graduation, President Carter delivered a nationally televised speech in which he spoke of “a fundamental threat to American democracy.” That threat took the form not of international Communism or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Rather, he sensed a debilitating “crisis of confidence” about the nation’s future, a spiritual emptiness brought about by a culture of “self-indulgence and consumption” and an erosion of faith in our institutions. Quickly dubbed the “malaise speech,” his sermon may well have cost him re-election in 1980. Sackcloth and ashes just weren’t America’s style. Sunny Ronald Reagan, Hollywood actor turned California governor, racked up a stunning 489 electoral votes to Carter’s dismal 49.

Three decades have passed since Reagan’s campaign for the White House. This past January marked the 20th anniversary of his farewell from the Oval Office. And this June will be the fifth anniversary of his death at the age of 93 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. This cluster of anniversaries provides occasion to reflect on Reagan’s legacy.

Pundits and scholars from Left and Right haven’t hesitated to jump into the debate. For some, the 40th president did no right; for others, he did no wrong. Liberal critics like to remind us of Iran-Contra, the Savings and Loan scandal, the “Decade of Greed,” and the gun-slinging jingoism that allegedly brought us to the brink of war with the Soviets. Conservatives would rather reminisce about tax cuts, supply-side economics, low inflation, and the end of the Evil Empire.

Surely somewhere between efforts to deconstruct the Reagan “myth” and campaigns to add his likeness to Mt. Rushmore there lies room for thoughtful reconsideration of Reagan’s leadership and his stature in American conservatism.

Understandably, many Republicans, still reeling from their embarrassing electoral defeats in 2008, would rather protect their most valuable asset. Calling Reagan’s conservatism into question at this moment seems in poor taste, willfully perverse, or even treasonous. What good can possibly come of scrutinizing one of the Republican Party’s few remaining inspirations and sources of unity? The old Cold War coalition has little else going for it. For those whose highest goal is Republican victories in 2010 and 2012, the Reagan we think we know is just too valuable to direct-mail fundraising to risk tampering with. But conservatives whose imaginations encompass more than politics ought to be willing to submit their movement to any diagnostic tests necessary. If American conservatism is fundamentally healthy and just a little down on its luck, then we need only to figure out how to recapture the magic. But if it is unhealthy, then we need more than another round of “morning in America.”

When Reagan assumed office in 1981, anything seemed possible, especially to young conservatives who, like me, were just becoming politically aware, eager to read the right books, think the right thoughts, and join the right organizations. Reagan’s Inaugural Address brought an abrupt end to Carter’s “crisis of confidence.” In a moment, optimism muscled aside malaise. The new president told America that government was the problem, not the solution. The whole edifice of the New Deal and the Great Society seemed to quiver. Surely the secretaries of education and energy would soon be standing on the unemployment line. And the immediate release of the Iranian hostages, held for 444 days, proved that the world was watching and once again respected American military might and resolve. In short, liberalism’s stranglehold on domestic and foreign policy was over. Conservatism’s 30-year effort to take back America had triumphed.

Or so it seemed. Russell Kirk wrote in the foreword to the 1986 edition of The Conservative Mind, “by 1980, both American liberalism and British socialism lay in the sere and yellow leaf.” His claim sounded true back then. Reagan and Margaret Thatcher appeared to have won the battle of ideas. The conservative movement looked like it had indeed “supplant[ed] in power America’s latter-day liberalism.”

Which conservative in the mid-1980s could have imagined the Age of Obama? Who could have predicted that statist liberalism would come roaring back to life with such persuasive power? Kirk, a friend of Reagan’s and an honored guest at the White House, wrote glowingly in his memoirs of Reagan’s achievement: “To the American people, Ronald Reagan had become the Western hero of romance—audacious, faithful, cheerful, honest, and skilled at shooting from the hip.” He had reformed education, had reduced taxes, inflation, and unemployment, and had stood up to Libya and the Soviet Union, Kirk recalled.

Such an endorsement from one of the greatest inspirations of the post-World War II conservative renaissance carries considerable authority with the movement. And rightly so. It should give pause to anyone reckless enough to challenge Reagan’s legacy. But that legacy itself raises nagging questions. The federal payroll was larger in 1989 than it had been in 1981. Reagan’s tax cuts, whatever their merits as short-term fiscal policy, left large and growing budget deficits when combined with increased spending, and added to the national debt. His tax increases were among the largest proportionate ones in U.S. history. And more than one historian has called Reagan’s foreign policy “Wilsonian.” In short, it is hard in 2009 to point to any concrete evidence that the Reagan Revolution fundamentally altered the nation’s trajectory toward bloated, centralized, interventionist government. Conservatism in the 1980s made its peace with much of liberalism—if not with all of its legislative agenda, then at least with its means to power. Republicans and Democrats now argue over how big the bailouts should be or how long the troops should remain deployed, rarely about first principles.

This is not to say that if Reagan were alive he would endorse America’s current domestic and foreign policy—or even that he would endorse the Republican alternatives. In light of what has happened at home and abroad since he left office, his actions as president seem restrained. In contrast to George W. Bush, he looks like a reluctant warrior and anything but a militarist. Whatever his achievements, and they were many and deserve our respect, it is worth asking whether Reagan’s optimistic rhetoric and vision for America helped perpetuate the liberal agenda rather than preserve or recover anything resembling, say, Burkean conservatism or the Founders’ philosophy of limited government.

Reagan’s speeches abounded with themes that were anything but conservative. He aligned the Republican crusader more closely with America’s expansive liberal temperament. In particular, his brand of evangelical Christianity, combined with fragments of Puritanism, enlightenment optimism, and romantic liberalism, set Reagan apart in key ways from historic conservatism.

Reagan grew up in the 1920s in Dixon, Illinois in the pietistic, revivalist world of the Disciples of Christ—a world known to many millions of American evangelicals then and since. Biographer Edmund Morris’s Dutch (1999) and Paul Kengor’s God and Ronald Reagan (2004) make much of the “practical Christianity” espoused by Reagan’s mother, the local pastor and congregation, and such religious best-sellers as That Printer of Udell’s. This activist faith shared important assumptions with the social gospel’s “applied Christianity.” Both set out to remake the City of Man through the power of the church’s moral influence. Reagan’s spirituality was shaped by a “Jesus-only” populist Christianity that emphasized the conversion experience and an activist faith suspicious of creeds, rituals, ecclesiastical bodies, and denominational boundaries.

Reagan never turned away from this transformationist Christianity. It became a fundamental part of his civil religion. Historian John Patrick Diggins, in Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History (2007), goes as far as to say that the president’s theology “seemed to offer a Christianity without Christ and the crucifixion, a religion without reference to sin, evil, suffering, or sacrifice.” Diggins’s implicit question, “Why couldn’t Reagan have been more like Reinhold Niebuhr?” may not be exactly the right one. Why should we expect our presidents to do theology at all, even neo-orthodox theology? But his point is well taken. Reagan’s optimistic Christianity seemed ready made for an America disinclined to hear talk of limits to power and wealth. The historic Christian message can sound downright un-American.

To this outward-directed, meliorist evangelicalism, Reagan added the Puritan New Englanders’ sense of divine calling. His use of the Puritan tradition was selective at best. Rarely do we glimpse in Reagan the early settlers’ sober doctrines of original sin, the weight of personal and national guilt before a holy God, or impending divine judgment. Instead, for at least 30 years, Reagan quoted, with little variation, just a few fragments from Gov. John Winthrop’s 1630 discourse, “A Modell of Christian Charity.” Speaking before the first CPAC convention in 1974, then Governor Reagan quoted a line from Winthrop that has since become inseparable from Reagan’s identity: “we will be as a city upon a hill.” To be sure, he continued the quotation’s warning that “the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.” Though he returned to these words often, Reagan never accused America of dealing falsely with God, and so God kept His part of the covenantal bargain. Adding the word “shining” to Winthrop’s city, Reagan would appeal to the city on a hill so often that the words became his signature phrase, eclipsing all memory that Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had also applied Winthrop’s words to the United States.

In Reagan’s rhetoric, America’s identity as the “city on a hill” Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount became a generic affirmation of optimism, material prosperity, and providential destiny. Nothing remained of the hilltop city as a metaphor for the church’s teaching ministry, no place, that is, for the normative interpretation of these words from Matthew’s gospel among Christians for centuries until they were co-opted by American politicians and their speechwriters.

Reagan gave the fullest explanation of his use of the “shining city on a hill” near the end of his Farewell Address in 1989. Reagan’s city had become a metaphor for a secure America with a bustling economy and open borders. “In my mind,” he explained, “it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.” One can only wonder what Governor Winthrop would have made of this thoroughly modern transmutation of his meditation on the demands of sacrificial love within the body of Christ.

Paul Kengor defends Reagan’s appropriation of biblical language by noting, correctly, that many presidents, including liberal Democrats, have done the same thing. But pointing out the similarities between Reagan and Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy, while it may slow down critics on the Left, is hardly likely to reassure conservatives about Reagan’s credentials. America’s identity as a chosen nation has indeed found advocates from across the political spectrum, but that fact merely shows how deeply the habit is embedded in America’s self-understanding. Whether that understanding is healthy is another matter. There is nothing inherently conservative about believing that America is God’s promised land for a new epoch. Because it sounds so patriotic to elevate America among God’s elect, however, many conservatives dig in their heels and resist any challenge to America’s redeemer myth.

Oddly, Reagan wedded his take on the Puritan sense of mission to the radical Enlightenment’s secular redemptive impulse. He quoted the revolutionary ideologue Tom Paine about as often as he quoted Winthrop. Reagan found one line from Paine’s Common Sense irresistible: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Paine looked for some nation to be the new Adam of a new race. He compared the world in the 1770s to the days of Noah. A great deluge would soon liberate humanity from its bondage to the past. No wonder Paine got on Burke’s nerves. Drawing out the implications of Reagan’s fondness for Paine, Diggins concludes that the president’s political philosophy had more in common with Paine’s promise of emancipation from authority than with the anti-utopian realism of the Federalist Papers.

Reagan’s frequent use of Winthrop and Paine may be chalked up to a conventional sort of patriotism that draws easily from any number of bits and pieces of America’s past to fashion a common identity—the sort of thing that has been commonplace in July 4th orations for 200 years. But Diggins has noticed a further dimension of Reagan’s temperament and philosophy overlooked by most other historians and biographers. Not only did Reagan routinely cite Winthrop and Paine, he also quoted from the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. He used Emerson, Diggins argues, to preach self-reliance, individual autonomy, a preoccupation with the future, and freedom from sin and guilt and the weight of experience. Diggins’s best evidence comes from Reagan’s 1992 speech before the Republican National Convention: “Emerson was right,” Reagan said. “We are the country of tomorrow. Our revolution did not end at Yorktown. More than two centuries later, America remains on a voyage of discovery, a land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.”

Reagan’s attraction to an America in pursuit of an unfinished revolution and “always in the act of becoming” is hard to square with conservative principles. “Far from being a conservative,” Diggins writes, “Reagan was the great liberating spirit of modern American history, a political romantic impatient with the status quo.” In short, he was “our Emersonian president.”

Doubting the depths of Reagan’s conservatism sounds akin to doubting FDR’s liberalism. We are so accustomed to thinking of Reagan as the pre-eminent conservative statesman of our time that any shadow on that reputation seems nonsensical. But some conservative dissidents have recently blamed Reagan for giving his benediction to the most culturally corrosive tendencies in the American character. In his recent bestseller, The Limits of Power (2008), Andrew Bacevich harshly criticizes Reagan for just this failing. Bacevich notes the irony of Carter’s seemingly more conservative plea for limits juxtaposed against Reagan’s boundless optimism. “Reagan portrayed himself as conservative,” Bacevich writes of the campaign underway in 1979. “He was, in fact, the modern prophet of profligacy, the politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption. Beguiling his fellow citizens with his talk of ‘morning in America,’ the faux-conservative Reagan added to America’s civic religion two crucial beliefs: Credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due.” Bacevich charges the “faux-conservative” Reagan with nothing less than undermining America’s moral constitution, its adherence to such timeless “folk wisdom” as “save for a rainy day.”

Dissent about Reagan among conservative intellectuals goes back surprisingly far, back even to Reagan’s first term. Historian John Lukacs, writing in Outgrowing Democracy (published in 1984 and later reissued under the title A New Republic), found it necessary to put Reagan’s “conservatism” in quotation marks, calling it “lamentably shortsighted and shallow.” He conceded that much of Reagan’s rhetoric was conservative and that it spoke to certain durable conservative instincts in the American people. But overall, Reagan preached yet another version of sinless, progressive America that had more in common with Tom Paine and Woodrow Wilson than with Edmund Burke. In a chapter added in 2004, Lukacs attributed the record budget deficits of the 1980s in part to Reagan’s populist message that demanded no self-sacrifice or hard choices from the American public. They could have it all. He also credited the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Russian people’s own loss of faith in Communism and to the political skills of Mikhail Gorbachev, not to Reagan’s military build up.

In a further criticism, Lukacs traced the “militarization of the image of the presidency” to Reagan. It was Reagan, after all, who began the practice of returning the salutes of the military—a precedent followed by every president since. While doing so may seem to honor the military, it in fact erodes the public’s understanding of the presidency as a civilian office, Lukacs argued. Indeed, Fox News bears out Lukacs’s warning. The cable news giant got into the habit during the Bush II administration of referring to the president as commander in chief no matter what story they were reporting, seemingly unaware that the nation’s executive is the commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the Untied States and not commander in chief of the American people at large. If the president visits a city ravaged by a hurricane, he is emphatically not there in his role as commander in chief. If every American thinks of the president—of whatever political party—as my commander in chief and not narrowly as the Army or Navy’s commander in chief, then we have taken another decisive step from republic to empire. If every American expects the president to be the commander in chief of the economy, then we can’t be surprised by nationalized banks and corporations.

If these historians are right, then there is sufficient reason to debate Reagan’s status as the conservative’s ideal executive. Conservatives ought to have enough confidence in their own principles to examine Reagan’s ambiguous legacy in light of those very tenets. The history of his presidency ought to lead us through a process, however painful, of self-examination. Reagan as conservative icon must not become a way to shut down debate within the conservative movement. Tag lines from his speeches must not serve as shortcuts to credibility for rising stars eager to become Reagan’s heir. The late president’s words doubtless conjure up optimism and help audiences feel good about being right-thinking conservatives. But a slogan like “city on a hill,” repeated on cue with mind-numbing predictability, is unlikely to help the conservative movement, let alone the American people as a whole, to engage in the kind of hard thinking demanded by our economic troubles, precarious national security, and cultural meltdown. Maybe a boost of Reaganesque optimism is exactly what we don’t need as a nation in the 21st century. Maybe the Reagan we think we remember is the very thing most likely to distract us from painful self-examination and serious reckoning with who we are as a people and how we got this way.

But now I sound too much like Jimmy Carter back in 1979. Nevertheless, 30 years later, in an America where the government and the media report a higher rate of personal savings and lower consumer credit-card debt as bad news, where patriotism has become defined in terms of getting and spending, where populist ideology threatens to wipe out property rights, and where Wilsonianism endures as the prevailing orthodoxy in foreign policy, we need to think beyond both Carter and Reagan. We need to ask perhaps the most conservative question of all: What kind of America will we leave to our children? What will they say about us at their 30th high school reunions?

Richard Gamble is author of The War for Righteousness and is at work on a book about how America became the “city on a hill.”

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