The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 16, 2018

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Ronald Reagan and the Moral Imagination
T. Kenneth Cribb - 02/04/11

On February 6, 2011, ISI President T. Kenneth Cribb, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs in the Reagan Administration, will join ISI Trustees Edwin Meese (75th U.S. Attorney General under President Reagan) and Richard V. Allen (National Security Advisor in the Reagan Administration) at ceremonies in California commemorating the 100th Anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s birth.

On the occasion of the centennial of his birth, I am going to make three assertions about Ronald Reagan that will be considered novel in some quarters. I’m going to argue:

  • Ronald Reagan was an intellectual in the only important sense of that word.
  • Ronald Reagan was a man of orthodox Christian faith.
  • The victory over Soviet Communism was made possible by Ronald Reagan’s power of moral imagination.

First, Reagan the intellectual. An intellectual is not an academic specialist who retires to the library to learn more and more about less and less. No, an intellectual is someone who acquires the knowledge, experience, and perspective to understand the world in terms of fundamental ideas. And if you think about it, this was Ronald Reagan. As a daily matter, he lived in the world of ideas, his mind engaged most actively at the level of the premise.

Ken Cribb with Ronald Reagan

This is why he had the reputation of being inattentive to the details of particular policies. Of course, he had a first-rate team of policy experts led by Ed Meese to handle those details. But it was Ronald Reagan that pointed us in his direction. He supplied the premise; the agenda; the idea. In the end, this is precisely a practical approach to geo-politics—because ideas move the world.

And what were the fundamental ideas around which Ronald Reagan organized his worldview, his vision of governance? I would suggest three:

  1. Freedom is the natural condition of man as ordained by the Creator.
  2. Freedom must be protected at home by limiting the intrusiveness of government in our daily lives.
  3. Freedom must be protected against foreign threats by building the military strength to defeat those threats.

All of Ronald Reagan’s hundreds of policies can be explained by one or more of these three principles, as he never tired of doing.

Now, Reagan as the man of orthodox faith. Ronald Reagan is often pictured as having a mystical faith in a special American destiny, or as making a civil religion out of American optimism. These are half truths. Ronald Reagan’s belief in America as a beacon of freedom, as a shining city on a hill, came from his orthodox faith in divine providence. And Ronald Reagan’s optimism was based in his orthodox faith that, in the long run, God’s truth sets men free. What was the source of this orthodoxy?

Ronald Reagan began his life learning from the Bible at his mother’s knee. At his death, he still owned that Bible, with its well-marked passages in her hand and his. He said once that his mother gave him a great deal, but nothing more important than the special gift of his life¬long practice of intercessory prayer. And he spoke of the happiness and solace to be gained by talking to the Lord.

After he was gravely wounded by the attempt on his life in the first year of his presidency, he put his faith this way:

I’ve always believed that we were, each of us, put here for a reason, that there is a plan, somehow a divine plan for all of us. I know now that whatever days are left to me belong to Him.

Although I was never personally present, there were times when President Reagan got down on his knees in the Oval Office to pray with clergy and others who came to visit. When asked whom he admired most, he would always reply, “The man from Galilee.”

Reagan’s creed found expression in the bully pulpit of the presidency. Historian Paul Kengor points out that, of 2,000 speeches delivered during his eight years in office, almost ten percent were focused on religion—a highly unusual percentage. These are Reagan’s words:

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. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.

Ronald Reagan with Russell Kirk and Ken Cribb

Finally, Reagan and the moral imagination. In 1977 Reagan told Dick Allen, his long-time foreign policy advisor: “My idea about the Cold War is that we win and they lose.”

It is almost impossible to convey to you today what an unthinkable thought that was in 1977, or in 1980, or even in 1985. Many of Reagan’s own advisors interpreted his rhetoric as mere rhetoric; even the most hawkish among them could not really imagine the possibility of completely eradicating the Soviet Union. This was unthinkable even as late as 1989 and 1990, a period during which the first President Bush’s administration went to heroic diplomatic lengths to try to keep the Soviet Union intact. But in the end, Ronald Reagan was right and the experts were wrong. And as a result, tens of millions of people throughout Eastern Europe are among the world’s most fervent Reaganites. In the pro-American, enthusiastically democratic crowds of competent and confident young Eastern Europeans, we see the human faces of those millions who were so blandly relegated to political slavery by the pacifist and détentist intellectual elites of the West.

How could this have been so? How could Reagan, a mere “actor,” have been so right where so many experts were so wrong. The moral imagination is a theme originated by the political philosopher Edmund Burke, developed by the poet T. S. Eliot, and elaborated by the historian of ideas Russell Kirk. It simply means the capacity to form an image of a more perfect moral order as a precondition for achieving that moral order.

Unlike the experts, Ronald Reagan could envision a world without the Evil Empire. Indeed, he believed it was his moral responsibility to imagine a world without this evil. And then, he acted. Reagan’s actions had a real effect in the world, but perhaps the key impact of Reagan’s vision was that he made it possible for those oppressed by Soviet tyranny also to imagine their own freedom, to breathe the spirit of liberty, and so to act as free men. Such is the power of the moral imagination.

Let me illustrate with Reagan’s own words. We all know the quote “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.” In this speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Reagan continues,

As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag,…I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner. “This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.” Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.

Do you hear his words? “Beliefs become reality.” How will the Berlin Wall fall? Not to bombs or bulldozers. It will fall before faith, before truth, before freedom.

And that is how it happened. Not a shot was fired. That is the transforming power of the moral imagination at work.

Now let me leave you with a moral image to stoke the moral imagination. We hear that Ronald Reagan was unusually self possessed, unusually self-controlled, and therefore unusually self-sufficient. I don’t think this last—the self-sufficiency—is true. No one who believes in the power of intercessory prayer thinks he is self-sufficient.

Yes, there are many photographs of President Reagan making decisions in the Oval Office, often seemingly alone. But, as he guided our country and the free world, he was never truly alone. For he believed with all his heart the promise of the Lord God to the Children of Israel:

“Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.”

Additional ISI Resources on Ronald Reagan

Read the Ronald Reagan entry from ISI’s American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books).

Read Craig Shirley’s masterful account of the 1980 presidential campaign in Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America (ISI Books).

Listen to ISI Trustee M. Stanton Evans in this 1983 lecture, “Conservatism and the Reagan Administration.”

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