Reagan on Religious Tolerance

by Brad Nelson   2/11/14

Here’s an outstanding article by Paul Kengor at The American Spectator: Reagan on Religious Tolerance.

Amongst Reagan’s finer thoughts in a speech given on August 23, 1984, in Dallas at an ecumenical prayer breakfast are:

George Washington referred to religion’s profound and unsurpassed place in the heart of our nation quite directly in his Farewell Address in 1796. Seven years earlier, France had erected a government that was intended to be purely secular. This new government would be grounded on reason rather than the law of God. By 1796 the French Revolution had known the Reign of Terror.


Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we’re mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society.


The truth is, politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality’s foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related. We need religion as a guide. We need it because we are imperfect, and our government needs the church, because only those humble enough to admit they’re sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive.

That last quote struck me as particularly relevant. Anyone who has had contact with the Left understands the riotous zealousness and arrogance that is part and parcel of that movement. Yes, it’s a search for utopia (in part). But couldn’t the quest for utopia be even-keeled and moderate?

Apparently not. The postscript needed to Reagan’s speech is that Leftism is a religion (“liberal Democrat” has morphed to this over the years, just as it is cited in the article how Reagan had morphed rightward over the years). And Leftism is a fundamentalist religion at that (similar to Islam in this regard…neither brooks dissent).

And although it might seem impolite to disagree with The Gipper, surely he couldn’t have had Islam (or Leftism) in mind when he said, “If you practice a religion, whether you’re Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or guided by some other faith, then your private life will be influenced by a sense of moral obligation, and so, too, will your public life.”

Not all religions are the same just as not all ideas are the same. It would be foolish to say that “all engagement in politics is good” without making distinctions between, say, Nazism and the Whig Party. Nor does Reagan’s quote take into account the very real phenomenon of Christianity and Judaism, in large part (particularly with Judaism), having given themselves over to the religion of Leftism, as Dennis Prager notes. The stained glass and burning candles may remain, but the values underpinning many churches and synagogues are Leftist values, not the authentic religious ones.

Therefore, to simply be “religious” isn’t the answer. Nor obviously is the answer to be anti-religious which is the way of the Left  (which, although it is a sort of “secular” religion, Leftism is still a religion nonetheless, if disguised and unacknowledged…and by being “secular” — if only in conceit — it pits itself ultimately against all religious belief because all such beliefs are its direct competitors).

There has to be Goodness underpinning one’s religion. And humility is one of the attributes of Goodness. And I think Reagan’s point that “those humble enough to admit they’re sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive” is a great one. Who but a political or (Leftist) religious zealot could possible pine for Utopia with the naive and destructive gusto that many do if they had some appreciation for man’s limitations and inherent sinful nature?
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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21 Responses to Reagan on Religious Tolerance

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I suspect that most Americans, at least until recently, tended to think of “religion” as meaning Judaism and the various forms of Christianity, since those were all most people ever encountered. The transformation of liberalism into a fundamentalist political cult was only beginning in 1984, and few people were very familiar with the more wretched aspects of Islam (though one should also note that Islam does have a number of moral/ethical strictures for the believer; it’s just very unfortunate that one of them is jihad).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Good points, although it can be easily argued that Jihad is the central aspect of Islam. “Moderate” Islam is, in fact, a sort of semi-observance of Islam….the equivalent of a “Cafeteria Catholic” who picks and chooses what to believe.

      In the case of Catholics, this is generally detrimental (Christianity being a good religion). In the case of Muslims, this is generally a step up (Islam being a fascistic, war-like, totalitarian political-social-economic-religious project).

      Thus a Christian “true believer” is personified in St. Francis while a Muslim “true believer” is best personified in Osama bin Laden.

      • John Kirke John Kirke says:

        Yup: since their holy texts teach very different things, we shouldn’t be surprised that a devout Christian and a devout Muslim don’t resemble each other in every respect.

  2. John Kirke John Kirke says:

    Myself, I actually think fanaticism or zealotry isn’t always a bad thing, if it’s restricted to using moral means to advance moral ends, but that gets to the point you’re making, Brad: the closer one’s religion approaches what is actually good, moral, and true, the less likely it will poison civil society. In Christ’s words, we’re to be salt and light, preserving society from decay and repelling the darkness that blinds it.

    For that reason, yeah, Reagan’s statement there is problematic, but a statesman would have to be very careful in saying that the contents of one’s religion matters while avoiding the risk of using too much of the state’s power to influence a decision that is a matter of conscience.

    I’m a huge, huge fan of Reagan, but one of most serious problems with him was his invoking Biblical imagery to describe America as, e.g., the shining city on the hill. It risked turning the optimism of a happy warrior into a kind of utopianism, and I think we Christians could be more easily reconciled to our (often growing) concerns with our country’s moral compass if we saw that, at its best, the U.S. can be a modern version of the civilizing Roman republic, NOT a redemptive Israel.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Myself, I actually think fanaticism or zealotry isn’t always a bad thing

      ‘Round these parts we call it “principled passion with a large dollop of stick-to-it-iveness.” It is a passion that is not blind but seeks to enlighten. And that means it contains a component of self-doubt and humility (but neither are made into a fetish or the central and only aspect, as many milquetoast Christians have done). The fumes of complete self-assurance tend to produce a zealotry that becomes transfixed by one’s own sense of righteousness. And that state of mind tends to brook no dissent nor is it capable of self-correction.

      I like to see myself as a defender of the faith. But I do it from the outside and from a slightly heretical point of view. But “heresy” is definitely relative. It’s arguable that 80% of Jews and a large portion of Christians are not Jews or Christians in any real sense of the word. They, instead, worship Leftism.

      There’s no way God could not be a forgiving God because people are rarely going to go through the narrow gate, let alone even find the country in which lies the village that harbors that narrow gate.

      So I don’t personally stress too much any more about whether I am a Christian or not. Since that idea means so little to those who profess to be that, I figure there is something more important than just words. And given how the Left regularly redefines and bastardizes existing words, it tends to become a habit (or should be) of conservatives to get to the meaning of the thing rather than simply stop at the outer veneer or ornaments…including words.

      Something that is super-hilarious and ironic, now that I think of it, is how those foolhardy David Brooks “no-labels” types use this “no-labels” designation as just another deceptive label…in this case for a milquetoast, unanchored, fuzzy-wuzzy, feel-good, self-centered quasi-liberalism.

      And I realize Reagan was talking from the typical American perspective and ideal of religious tolerance — an ideal that could very easily, and without any risk or consequences, say “We tolerate all religions.” And in the context of mostly Jews and Christians, this made sense. But it makes little sense in my opinion to tolerate the fascistic political-social-economic-religious totalitarian movement of Islam which is in no way simply a religion, let alone just another religion.

      That is, it’s easy to be magnanimous when there are no consequences to that magnanimity. It’s like me saying, “We believe the earth should tolerate all species.” And then an armada of flying saucers from the super-warlike race from Beta Maxima arrives. Mark Steyn’s “America Alone” is testament to what this foolish and blinded non-judgmental “multiculturalism” leads to. In this case, the death of Europe.

      It’s funny that you, a true Christian, would not like Reagan’s use of biblical imagery. I think the idea of “the shinning city on the hill” is apt, and one that even libertarians can love. It means that we set an example by being the freest and most moral country on earth. And we have been a tremendous passive influence in this regards since our inception.

      And it’s no use blaming a fear of utopia for not using this imagery. I think in the context of Reagan’s life, his writings, his speeches, and his politics, it was obvious that he was talking about the inspiration of being good rather than the pursuit of perfection. And conservatives should be very very amenable to the idea of the influence of the good, of having a worthy and good idea of what life and one’s civilization are all about.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        This sounds good. We should be firm and determined, but always realizing that (however unlikely it seems) we could always be wrong — and thus should never behave viciously for the Cause. But we also must fight back hard (and occasionally viciously) against those who DO fight viciously for their Cause (even if we theoretically somewhat agree with it, as is the case with some of the militias or the Westboro group).

      • Pokey Possum says:

        “There’s no way God could not be a forgiving God because people are rarely going to go through the narrow gate, let alone even find the country in which lies the village that harbors that narrow gate.”

        Your comment would lead me to think that you believe God forgives everybody just because it is our nature to be evil and we can’t help ourselves.  
        If God has a blanket forgiveness policy and allows everyone into heaven, both those who have been converted and regenerated (the narrow gate), and those who have not (the wide gate), wouldn’t it be just like our current life on earth? If that were so, then God would choose to live somewhere else, because God is good.  And what does good have in common with evil?
        Because of His love for us, God made a way, through Jesus, for us to spend eternity together with Him and restore the fellowship He had with man in the beginning.

        Or am I misunderstanding what you wrote because we have no font for sarcasm?

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Your comment would lead me to think that you believe God forgives everybody just because it is our nature to be evil and we can’t help ourselves.

          My comment should be taken as a quip, or at the very least a metaphor that references the metaphor used by Jesus. No mystery there since Jesus often spoke in parables.

          And I tend to make my points using quips. I’m not sure why you’d feel advised to take it as official doctrine.

          My point was that the narrow gate is actually indeed a narrow gate.

          Whether god forgives everyone, I couldn’t possibly know that. But surely he has a sense of humor, thinks in terms of metaphors, and is not a complete literalists. After all, we are gifted with a mind, creativity, the arts, and the ability to think for ourselves. This is perhaps why I wouldn’t make a good Christian. I tend to philosophize, to draw outside the lines, to wonder, and even to quip.

          Considering that god created slugs, ants, rats, measles, viruses, and (as I often say) anal cavities, he certainly is not the dour old pedantic man many make him out to be.

          And I don’t take the attitude that God can be contained in any one religion. Therefore it’s not in my DNA to say “I’m going to heaven and you’re not.” To me, that’s an arrogant attitude. These things I couldn’t possibly know.

          As for the problem of evil, well, that’s a difficult subject. And I have another quip to address this. Although it sucks to have to endure pain, failure, disease, old age, hunger, and all the things that humans are subject to, we see from the example of the various Communists (Leftists, socialists, “Progressives,” liberals) how mankind is turned into a spineless, amoral lump of lifeless flesh when the State becomes a stand-in god and men’s worst proclivities are not just left unrestrained but are actually incentivized. (And/or when we all become perfectly safe bubble-boys comforted and protected by the all-knowing, all-caring nanny state.)

          That is, it is better to suffer a little and gain by that suffering than to avoid all suffering and turn into the kind of vapid vegetable that is typical of those who stay at the level of the animal or at the level of the always-safe bubble-boy (or Pajama Boy, if you will).

          • Pokey Possum says:

            …….quip away!

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I should note that the notion of predestination in terms of who gets in and who doesn’t is a Calvinist concept, not a Catholic or High-Church Protestant or Orthodox one. The catechism books we were given at the Catholic school I attended in Greece referred to the sins of presumption and despair (though without discussing Calvinism).

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Recently, as I’m sure you remember, I read and reviewed the book, “Albion’s Seed.” There were many references in it to Calvinism, particularly because the Puritans were of that mind.

              From what I understood — although I think it’s a bizarre belief — it didn’t seem to do the Pilgrims much harm. It appeared that it was an incentive to work at being godly in hope of fulfilling the idea that one was indeed one of the elect. That is my general impression from that book.

              Their Calvinism didn’t seem to drive the Pilgrims to despair wherein they just threw up there hands and said “eff it” and then all started drinking and whoring, forgetting about church entirely—which would be the natural and understandable reaction to Calvinism. If you can’t change anything, then why bother?

              But as a philosophical construct, such an idea is not only aesthetically and spiritually displeasing, it doesn’t match what we know about the known universe. Although one might not be able to look inside the brain to find where it is, we do have a certain amount of free will. And aside from that point, a large portion of the universe is contingent by design (noting quantum physics, for example). This is by no means a clockwork universe.

              My own philosophy regarding Christianity is to get beyond the Jesus magic (which, in the worst cases, might mean a legalistic late death-bed conversion to cleanse oneself despite living life of evil). I’m reminded that when a young man asked Jesus what he still lacked, Jesus said, “If you desire to be perfect….come, follow me.” That is, follow my example. Be who I am to the best of your ability. This idea is far different from what is often the typical hierarchical (master/servant) view of God. One may partake.

              There is a long-running argument regarding faith vs. works. But it seems to me, if one truly gets the message of Jesus, the works will naturally follow…unless, of course, one takes a more superficial and legalistic point of view and, for all intents and purposes, it becomes “Jesus magic” wherein one’s religion isn’t a conversion of the heart, mind, and character as much as it is a subtle way to try to manipulate and control god for one’s own benefit.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Predestination can be a very dangerous philosophy. The Antinomians were said to have taken it to the extreme that since anything that happened was by the will of God, it followed that it didn’t matter how you behaved. The Muenster Anabaptists in the 16th Century were accused of this, and the results weren’t pretty — though we don’t know how much of that is just hostile propaganda.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The Antinomians were said to have taken it to the extreme that since anything that happened was by the will of God, it followed that it didn’t matter how you behaved.

    That’s a bit of history I’d never run into, Timothy. That’s interesting.

    The general Christian idea, as I understand it, is to put one into accord with God’s will. This is a different understanding than Muslims have wherein whatever shit happens is just written off as “god’s will.” There’s a type of fatalism in that. It’s at least a light repudiation of making moral choices as well as the reality that consequences inherently proceed from those choices.

    In the Christian sphere, this “god’s will” idea is much more complicated and rich and requires more than just reading text and quoting scripture. It requires the development of wisdom, self-awareness, and a moral faculty. The point is to discern, taking a plethora of factors into account, what is the best thing to do in any given circumstance.

    Blind fatalism is not allowed (which is not to say that obedience or suffering with grace is not). Nor is life simple. One must also not make the mistake of the naturalistic fallacy saying that because something naturally happened in the world that therefore this is a sign of god’s will — a method and thought process that the Romans had a very strong affinity for and used it as an excuse to do whatever was their will (the Gods being a sort of laundering operation for this).

    But if lightning strikes and kills someone, it’s more of a primitive idea to lay that at the door of “god’s will,” just as it is as bizarre to do so if you are the one person who survives an airplane crash, for example. Along with needing to separating out the naturalistic fallacy, one must account for being in a world constructed by god that allows choice and thus is a highly contingent world. (Bad shit can, and often does, happen to good people.)

    Thus in the Christian view, one must often discern (or try to discern) deeper methods, modes, values, etc., beyond face value and beyond narrow self interest. This is not a road for ideologues, religious zealots, or those looking for a shortcut. It’s a different way of thinking and being.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I don’t claim to be an expert on these things, but my high school European history text (which I also used in college, as it happens) discussed the various Christian groups of the 16h century in reasonably good detail, including the antinomian Anabaptists of Muenster as well as Calvinism. We also covered some of this in one of my high school English classes.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        “my high school European history text”

        Would that per chance be “A Survey of European Civilization” by Wallace K. Ferguson and Geoffrey Bruun, fourth edition? This what the text we used in twelfth grade.

        • LibertyMark says:

          Good Lord! That text must have left an impression for you to recall that detail, Mr. Zu. All I remember of 12th grade was my Physics teacher’s name, because he was evil and definitely left an impression.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            Unfortunately, I must admit I still have this text in my library, thus the detail. Since the book was for an AP course and was not part of the regular curriculum, I had to buy it. As it is an excellent overview of European history, I have kept it for these forty-three years.

            Although I have loved history since I was about eight, I think this might be the book which helped push me to the conclusion that “The Occident is no accident.” There are very specific historical reasons the West developed the way it did and why the world has pretty much followed. Christianity and Greco-Roman rationalism are not the least of the reasons.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I remember two of the authors as Crane and Brinton (I may be a bit off on the names after over 40 years). It started in the 15th Century, one of the earliest discussions being of Louis XI (the Spider King or Universal Spider). They also covered science, religion, and culture extensively, including reformers such as the philosophes of the 18th Century Enlightenment. This was where I first read about the Spanish fascist slogan (I later learned that this was actually from the Spanish Foreign Legion, which puts a different light on it), “Down with intelligence. Long live death.

          The high-school texts could be sold back to the school for half-price at the end of the year (I could also do this with texts at Purdue), but I often kept them, and this was one of them — which is why I was able to use it in college (I had noticed the text being used for the course in checking out the nearest bookstore). But it was falling apart, and I no longer have it (though I still have a few other high-school texts, including my 11th and 12the grade English volumes).

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            Mine started in ancient times and went up to around 1968. I find it an excellent text as being about 1,000 pages long and in pretty small print, it has the space to include some beautiful color plates as well as black and white photos and diagrams and drawings. These can have a way of helping the text come alive.

            Till this day, many of these illustrations come to mind when I think or read about a certain subject. Additionally, there is something special about seeing the original of a photo which you saw in a book as a student, at least there is for me. To see and feel the Pieta in St. Peter’s or walk in the Tower of London after studying about them are great experiences.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Mine certainly had its share of illustrations, including a few Adolf Hitler artworks — and, relevantly to the subject of antinomianism, a picture (obviously propaganda) attacking the Muenster Anabaptists. I don’t recall how far it went, but I took the high school course in the 1967-8 school year, so it couldn’t have been quite as far as yours.

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