“An Empire of Ideals”
The Chimeric Imagination
of Ronald Reagan
Justin D. Garrison
Garrison, Justin D.. An Empire of Ideals : The Chimeric Imagination of Ronald Reagan, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
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Permissions ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction: The Enduring Appeal and Importance
of Ronald Reagan’s Imagination 1
1 Ronald Reagan: A Biographical Sketch 12
2 The Imagination: A Philosophical Elucidation 33
3 “A Talent for Happiness”: Ronald Reagan, Optimism,
and Politics 45
4 “I Hear America Singing”: Ronald Reagan and the American
People 53
5 “The Mystic Chords of Memory”: Ronald Reagan and the
American Revolution 67
6 “Puzzle Palaces on the Potomac”: Ronald Reagan and
Contemporary American Government 84
7 “A Crusade for Freedom”: Ronald Reagan and America’s Role
in the World 100
8 “A Cathedral of Peace”: Ronald Reagan and Peace
among Nations 124
9 “The Land of Limitless Possibilities”: Ronald Reagan,
Progress, Technology, and America 139
Contents
Garrison, Justin D.. An Empire of Ideals : The Chimeric Imagination of Ronald Reagan, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
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viii Contents
10 “A Shining City upon a Hill”: Ronald Reagan, Religion,
and America 154
Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? The Chimeric
Imagination of Ronald Reagan 180
Notes 199
Selected Bibliography 229
Index 235
Garrison, Justin D.. An Empire of Ideals : The Chimeric Imagination of Ronald Reagan, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
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The greatness of Reagan was not that he was in America, but that
America was inside of him.1
—Lou Cannon
A solemn church bell rings out as rain gently falls upon the Washington
National Cathedral. On the morning of June 11, 2004, many people, including members of the U.S. government, former American presidents, and foreign dignitaries, start taking their seats inside. A chamber orchestra begins
to play a beautiful, mournful melody. Woodwinds fade away, and a lone
tenor’s voice fills the cathedral. He is singing Ave Maria. As the music continues, a hearse arrives outside bearing the body of an important man. With
solemnity and grace, eight soldiers remove a coffin draped with the American flag. They begin to carry it up to the cathedral entrance followed by the
family of the deceased. The procession stops in front of the Right Reverend
John Bryson Chane, bishop of Washington and dean of the cathedral. He
pauses for a moment, then says: “With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the
body of our brother Ronald for burial.”2
The national funeral for Ronald
Wilson Reagan begins.
Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney gives the second eulogy
at the service. As do many people inside the walls of the great cathedral, Mulroney feels fortunate to have counted Reagan as a friend. Reagan’s friends
have much to say about him as a political leader and human being. Mulroney describes him as a man who inspired America and “transformed the
world.”3
He praises Reagan for his determination to reinvigorate the West
with a sense of mission and confidence in the midst of Soviet aggression,
and he expresses appreciation for the former president’s efforts to promote
free trade between their two countries and within the Western hemisphere.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s declining health prevents her from giving her eulogy in person, but Reagan’s express desire that
she be at the funeral inclines her to provide prerecorded remarks that are
played during the service. She too praises Reagan for standing firmly against
the Soviet Union while leaving open genuine possibilities to discuss and make
peace. She locates the source of his political success in his personal qualities
Introduction
The Enduring Appeal and Importance
of Ronald Reagan’s Imagination
Garrison, Justin D.. An Empire of Ideals : The Chimeric Imagination of Ronald Reagan, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.
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2 “An Empire of Ideals”
including magnanimity, optimism, an unyielding belief in his core political
ideals, and an unashamed love of country. She explains that these traits are
evidence that Reagan embodied the American spirit. She says, “[He] carried
the American people with him in his great endeavours because there was
perfect sympathy between them. He and they loved America and what it
stands for—freedom and opportunity for ordinary people.”4
She continues
her remarks with one of the more memorable comments made about Reagan
that day: “We here still move in twilight. But we have one beacon to guide
us that Ronald Reagan never had. We have his example. Let us give thanks
today for a life that achieved so much for all of God’s children.”5
A few minutes later, President George W. Bush makes his way to the lectern. Like Mulroney and Thatcher, he praises Reagan for his steadfast determination and patience during the close of the Cold War. He links Reagan’s
political success to Reagan’s firm faith in a number of ideas. Bush states:
Along the way, certain convictions were formed and fixed in the
man. . . . He believed that people were basically good and had the right
to be free. He believed that bigotry and prejudice were the worst things
a person could be guilty of. He believed in the Golden Rule and in the
power of prayer. He believed that America was not just a place in the
world but the hope of the world.6
Bush reminds the mourners that Reagan came to the presidency in a time
of national uncertainty and growing despair. Like many other people, Bush
commends Reagan for imparting a genuine sense of hope in the midst of
such anxieties. He pays tribute to Reagan for seeing a light in the darkness,
for conveying his optimism to others, for working to free the American
economy from excessive regulation, for cutting taxes for all Americans, and
for reasserting American strength abroad. Bush expresses his hope that the
separation between Reagan and all the people who love him is temporary.
He says, “And we look to that fine day when we will see him again, all weariness gone, clear of mind, strong and sure and smiling again, and the sorrow
of this parting gone forever.”7
Bush has delivered the last eulogy.
The service continues. Prayers of benediction are read over the coffin that
holds the man many people at the funeral mourn and love. With the same
majesty as before, the body is taken away from the cathedral. The choir
sings “The Mansions of the Lord.” He is once again placed into the hearse.
Reagan is ready to make his last journey into the west.
No one should be surprised that Reagan’s funeral is a well-orchestrated
public event rich in imagery and symbolism. Throughout Reagan’s presidency, his thoughts on government, public policy, and America and its people
appealed not only to the reason of his audience but also to the imagination, to
their intuitive sense of the truth of his vision. The funeral is no different. It is
designed to appeal to the mind, but also to stir the imagination. Whatever else
may be said about him as a man or president, the funeral service makes one
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Introduction 3
thing very clear. The shadow of Ronald Reagan looms large over America. But
what kind of shadow does he cast? What is the vision that he imparted? That
is the question to be explored and answered throughout this work.
In each of the eulogies at the national funeral service, Ronald Reagan
was celebrated not only for his policy achievements but also for his success
in reorienting the way numerous people, especially Americans, understood
themselves and the world around them. His eulogizers attributed his success
in reinvigorating America and embuing its people with hope and confidence
to his deep sense of optimism and his fervent beliefs in freedom, progress,
democracy, and the goodness of America and its people. He shared these
sentiments often with the American people, and they responded very favorably. Claro Merced of Orlando, Florida, standing along the funeral procession route, said, “We came to tell him goodbye. We recognize how big he
was, how big the things he did were.”8
A teenage boy waiting in the U.S.
Capitol building to view Reagan’s casket remarked, “I wasn’t alive when
he was in office, but they call him the great communicator and I can see
what they mean from his speeches on TV.”9
Donna Glassman, a mourner
who paid her respects to Reagan in California, explained her feelings about
the former president: “When I think of him, I think of America. . . . What’s
that saying—American like Mom and apple pie? He should be in that, too.
Because he represented what this country is all about.”10
The source of Reagan’s enduring popularity in the United States transcends his concrete domestic and foreign policy achievements, as important
as such accomplishments might be to understanding him. More than most
American presidents, Reagan consciously appealed to the imagination of
his listeners, speaking in pictures and images. His vision, his intuitive sense
of the whole of reality and of America, proved both highly appealing and
convincing to most Americans.
A preliminary encounter with Reagan’s imagination can be had by
examining briefly his First Inaugural Address. On a cold January morning in 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the fortieth president of the
United States. His first inauguration, like his national funeral service over
twenty years later, was rich in imagery and symbolism. It was the first to
be held on the western front of the U.S. Capitol building—a fact of which
he reminded his audience. This location has been used by every president
since. The stage was decorated with banners and bunting of red, white, and
blue, and it looked out upon the vast expanse of monuments and memorials
that define the National Mall. Behind the stage on which he stood, Reagan
was flanked by two gigantic and awe-inspiring American flags. On his left
was an American flag with the original thirteen stars. On his right was the
current flag with fifty stars. Together, these flags symbolized Reagan’s sense
of the continuity between the American past and present. They also signified his inclination to view the present through the lens of the past, as he
understood it. With these powerful symbols at his sides, he began to speak
to the American people.
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4 “An Empire of Ideals”
Reagan immediately addressed the concern that was at the forefront of
most American minds—the economy. Throughout the speech, he established a stark contrast between the good American people and their wayward government. On the economy, he indicated that the United States was
experiencing a host of problems including high inflation, high taxes, high
unemployment, and excessive government spending. He claimed that various bureaucrats and other elites were to blame for the crisis because they had
accumulated vast amounts of power, centralized in the national government,
thereby stifling America’s economic potential. With a brevity and simplicity
that made many of his speeches appealing and effective, Reagan summarized
his view of the economic situation with the following statement: “In this
present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government
is the problem.”11 In his mind, the cause of America’s economic problems
was a government that had lost faith in its citizens and had betrayed the
American people.
And yet the seriousness of this situation did not lead Reagan to despair.
He stated, “We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what
we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”12 Reagan had faith in the American people and their capacity to overcome these
problems if given the opportunity. He told his audience that heroes were all
around them, in American factories, on the farm, and at the lunch counter,
the library, and the volunteer association. He knew they were simply waiting for the chance to be the good people they were destined to be. As far
as domestic policy was concerned, Reagan understood the mission of his
presidency as removing the various impediments to individual liberty and
economic prosperity erected by previous administrations. In so doing, he
would liberate Americans from the restraints of an omnipresent government. With this task accomplished, the United States would reclaim its position as “the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do
not now have freedom.”13 Once the power and goodness of the American
people was unleashed, America would again be a strong nation, faithful to
its allies, feared by its adversaries.
In Reagan’s vision, the United States was poised to fulfill its destiny and
to resume its mission as a herald of freedom and democracy for the world.
But what must Americans do to bring about this restoration? At the conclusion of this address, Reagan told the American people that the tasks before
them required nothing more than “our best effort and our willingness to
believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to
believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems
which now confront us. And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are
Americans.”14 Thoughts such as these about the United States, its people,
its history, its present, its future, and its place in the world have contributed
most to the widespread belief that Reagan personified the best of America
and its people.
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Introduction 5
As president, Reagan was somewhat reluctant to embrace the label “Great
Communicator.” He felt it was often a backhanded compliment praising the
style rather than the substance of his message. And yet Reagan understood
the importance of his speeches to his political success and to his rapport
with Americans. In his Farewell Address to the Nation, Reagan explained:
And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made
a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I
communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my
brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience,
our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two
centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but
for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of
our values and our common sense.15
Reagan’s belief in the existence of a special relationship between himself
and the American people preceded his election to the presidency. During
his 1980 presidential campaign, a reporter asked him what he thought was
the source of his broad appeal to the American people. Reagan responded,
“Would you laugh if I told you that I think, maybe, they see themselves, and
that I’m one of them? I’ve never been able to detach myself or think that I,
somehow, am apart from them.”16 Since the late 1940s, Reagan had crafted
and perfected a way of seeing the world that he directed toward “the guy
on the street,” the average American. He believed, after all, that it was such
people who elected him president.17
A comprehensive account of the motivations and origins of Reagan’s
imagination is beyond the scope of this study, but a few general remarks on
the topic may be helpful. During Reagan’s presidency, it was fashionable,
particularly among his detractors, to suggest that Reagan had little personal
connection to the imagery and ideas conveyed in his speeches. On this view,
Reagan was an “amiable dunce” enjoying his latest acting role as president
of the United States and the script with which it came. Scholarship over the
last decade has refuted this claim. Whatever one may think about Reagan’s
vision, it was not manufactured out of whole cloth by clever speechwriters.
Others find Reagan’s vision to be a genuine expression of his views, at least
up to a point. Especially among his admirers, it is not uncommon to hear praise
for some elements of Reagan’s imagination, while other parts of his vision—
especially its dreamy, or chimeric, aspects—are attributed to political necessity
or convenience. Given the context of the Cold War and the conventions in
American political rhetoric, some argue, Reagan might have felt compelled
to use sentimental or utopian imagery in order to inspire the public and to be
able to pursue foreign and domestic policy goals that were actually more realistic. He may not have cared much for this part of his own rhetoric, but rather
thought that only this kind of imagery would really appeal to Americans.
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6 “An Empire of Ideals”
Still others believe Reagan came to the relevant ideas rather early and on
his own and that he genuinely and deeply believed in them. This explanation
is the most plausible because it is so strongly supported by the existing scholarship and the evidence to be presented in this study. Reagan spent most of
his adult life developing and refining the vision he shared with Americans in
his numerous presidential speeches. During his presidency, it was when Reagan shared his very own outlook in his speeches that so many people felt as
if he embodied the American spirit. This does not have to mean that each of
his formulations perfectly expressed his innermost beliefs. Does any human
being fully know his own mind? And who can fully articulate what he does
believe? Nevertheless, a great deal can be learned about where Reagan really
stood from the pervasive and salient themes and frequently repeated ideas
and images in his spoken and written statements. Whatever its ultimate origins and motivations, his vision has an enduring appeal, and it urgently
needs to be better understood. It is time to listen to Reagan’s words with a
more attentive and also more critical ear.
Scholars, politicians, and journalists have observed that Reagan was a
highly imaginative president and that his vision was a fundamental source
of his popularity and political success. A number of general books have been
written about Reagan, his presidency, and his rhetoric.18 Other works have
focused on specific speeches, such as the one Reagan delivered to the British
Parliament in 1982, or on specific parts of Reagan’s prepresidential life, such
as his tenure at General Electric, or on specific events during his presidency,
such as his response to the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981.19 A number
of scholars have explored Reagan’s foreign and domestic policy ambitions
and achievements as well as some aspects of his vision within the broader
historical and cultural contexts of the United States in the 1980s.20
Scholars and journalists have also examined parts of Reagan’s imagination to determine his status as a conservative. Some have argued that
Reagan is an exemplary conservative. To support this claim, such writers
typically draw attention to Reagan’s anticommunism, claiming in a number
of cases that he won the Cold War or at least contributed mightily to the
downfall of the Soviet Union. They also cite as evidence of Reagan’s conservatism his love of and advocacy for liberty, free markets, and democracy
around the world; his abhorrence of big government and bureaucracies;
and his admiration for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution,
Thomas Jefferson, and other documents and figures commonly associated
with the American Founding. Other writers have examined Reagan’s understanding of liberty, democracy, human nature, limited government, and the
American Founding and concluded that Reagan is actually much more of
a progressive—expressing ideas similar to those of Thomas Paine, Ralph
Waldo Emerson, and Woodrow Wilson—than a conservative committed to
the ideas of George Washington, John Adams, Edmund Burke, and The
Federalist. Parts of Reagan’s vision have also been investigated to discover
the influence of religion and religious ideas upon his general worldview and
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Introduction 7
his presidency. Some argue that Reagan was a deeply pious man whose religious beliefs had a positive influence on his broader vision of politics and
his policy goals. Others claim that his religious ideas contributed to a rather
problematic understanding of politics in the United States.21 The meaning
and legacy of Reagan and his vision is a topic of growing interest. Although
writers from the political left and right disagree about the nature and accuracy of Reagan’s legacy, many of them agree that Reagan has shaped American political thinking and practice to such an extent that he and his legacy
must be acknowledged and taken very seriously.22
With varying degrees of success, many studies have helped call attention
to the primacy of imagination in Reagan’s presidential speeches and to the
importance of the intuition in shaping and motivating his political thought
and action. A number of works have also suggested that profound paradoxes and peculiarities exist within Reagan’s vision of reality and America.
Such studies have nevertheless neglected a number of important questions
or answered them only in a tentative manner. Despite their popularity, many
of the journalistic works on Reagan are driven primarily by narrow ideological concerns. Such works are more interested in effusively celebrating
or demonizing Reagan than in providing rigorous and impartial scholarly
analysis. The author is fully aware of the serious limitations of such texts,
and this study draws upon them only insofar as they illustrate prominent
views of Reagan and his vision. The essays and books written by scholars
are sometimes of a higher quality than their journalistic counterparts, but
even these works tend only to skim the surface of a topic that is widely recognized as important. Existing studies do not provide a systematic examination of Reagan’s vision and its major components. A number of works
make connections between Reagan and various figures from the American
and Western past, but this is usually done in passing or without careful
development of and reflection upon how such relationships shed light on
the former president’s imagination. No existing studies offer a definition
of the imagination, nor do they indicate just how the imagination shapes
political thought and action. In general, the scholarship on Reagan’s vision
is incomplete. At times, it even lacks intellectual seriousness. A study of
Reagan’s imagination is needed that defines imagination or intuition—terms
here used synonymously—more carefully and rigorously and explains its
role in politics more fully.
It is clear that there is a pressing need to examine and assess the fundamental quality and significance of Reagan’s imagination, including its historical
resonance in American and Western political thought. This work meets this
need by studying Reagan’s imagination as it was expressed chiefly in his
presidential speeches. Though these are important elements to understanding Reagan and his presidency, this study will not attempt an exhaustive
account of his life, public persona, policies, political ideas, or even a comprehensive inventory of every dimension of his imagination. It is understood,
and will be explicitly recognized, that his imagination contains more than
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8 “An Empire of Ideals”
one strain. This study will concentrate on the general character and components of what is the strongest, most pervasive constituent of his imagination: what will be called its “chimeric” dimension. The meaning of the word
“chimeric” will be more fully explained in this chapter and throughout this
work. Drawing out Reagan’s chimeric imagination will require a systematic
presentation and analysis of its most important symbols. In his presidential
speeches, Reagan spoke often about religion, democracy, freedom, technology, conservatism, progress, the American people, the American Founding,
and peace. These are the fundamental ideas and images that together express
his vision of the whole of reality and of America’s place in it.
This work draws upon a number of primary and secondary sources. The
primary source material is Reagan’s presidential speeches as supplemented
by his published presidential papers, personal correspondence, prepresidential speeches, diary entries, and autobiographical writings. The secondary
source material includes works on Reagan’s life, presidency, ideas, and imagination as well as relevant works of American and Western political and religious thought. For reasons that will become clear later, particular attention
is paid to the political writings of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John
Adams, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Edmund Burke. Attention
is also paid to documents and texts such as the Declaration of Independence,
the U.S. Constitution, and The Federalist.
In chapter one, a biographical sketch of Reagan is provided, paying particular attention to events important for the formation of his imagination up
until the mid-1960s when “The Speech” for which he became famous took
final shape. Chapter two offers a philosophical discussion of the concept
of imagination and how intuition contributes to the formation of knowledge about reality and politics. It is expected that the preceding survey of
Reagan’s way of imagining the world will assist this elucidation by offering
concrete illustrations of what is philosophically defined and clarified in the
chapter. Chapters three through ten address and analyze Reagan’s optimism
and his visions of the American people, the American Founding, contemporary American government, America’s role in the world, peace among
nations, technology and progress, and Christianity and religion. The conclusion to the study offers a final assessment of the chimeric strain of Reagan’s
vision. By defining the latter, identifying and analyzing its important symbols, and locating its resonance with the American past and contemporary
politics, this work provides a key to understanding the fortieth president
and the implications of his kind of imagination for how political problems
in America and the world are approached.
A work such as this presents a number of difficulties and challenges for
both author and reader. One such difficulty is structural. Insofar as this
study is a systematic account of Reagan’s imagination, there is a sense in
which all the chapters presuppose all the others. Approaching the subject as
if it were comprised of so many discrete blocks of thought to be addressed
once and then filed away would be counterproductive. This work can be
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Introduction 9
seen rather as exploring and analyzing the distinct but tightly woven threads
of the tapestry that is Reagan’s imagination. Thus, although each chapter
deals with a specific dimension of Reagan’s vision, it should be kept in mind
that Reagan’s understanding of various important ideas and images will
come into clearer view as the study progresses.
Another structural challenge is related to the nature of Reagan’s speeches.
About his approach to public speaking, Reagan writes:
In fact, that’s one of my theories about political speechmaking. You
have to keep pounding away with your message, year after year, because
that’s the only way it will sink into the collective consciousness. I’m a
big believer in stump speeches—speeches you can give over and over
again with slight variations. Because if you have something you believe
in deeply, it’s worth repeating time and again until you achieve it.23
For this reason, this study will not be able to avoid repetition. In order to
elucidate both the general shape and the nuances of Reagan’s vision, it will
be necessary to refer on more than one occasion to particular aspects of
important speeches and to look at them in different contexts.
Other challenges facing this work are methodological. Simply stated, a
study similar to “An Empire of Ideals” has not previously been done. It is
truly an original work of scholarship and thus might be misunderstood on
a few fronts. The following comments are offered at the outset to eliminate
as much potential confusion as possible. First, although this work addresses
the imagination of an American president, it should not be interpreted as
belonging to the specialized subfield of American presidential studies as currently conceived. While this study may breathe new life into treatments of
American presidents, its methodology is at home in the humanities tradition
and draws upon aesthetic and philosophical concepts as well as historical
comparisons to conduct its analysis. Second, the need to delve deeply into
the American and Western past may raise questions about the discussion of
certain political, philosophical, and religious thinkers and texts. The invocation of certain political theorists or American political figures, including
those mentioned in this introduction, is not an attempt to praise or condemn
Reagan by association. Neither is it intended to suggest that Reagan was
deeply familiar with each theorist’s or political figure’s ideas. Indeed, some
of these figures may have been only vaguely familiar to him. This study is
not suggesting that Reagan was a political theorist, that he should be treated
as a political theorist, or that his ideas are problematic simply because he did
not express them with theoretical sophistication. In some instances, reference to thinkers with whom Reagan was not familiar will provide greater
clarity about his vision by increasing the awareness of what it is and what
it is not. Political theorists and texts from the Western and American traditions will be considered insofar as they can help shed light upon the quality of Reagan’s imagination. Some of them will be used to determine the
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10 “An Empire of Ideals”
meaning(s) of the word “conservative” and the extent to which this word
accurately describes Reagan and his vision.
The greatest challenge is philosophical. The study characterizes Reagan’s
imagination as predominantly “chimeric”—that is, as having prominent elements of optimism, naiveté, and, some would say, illusion. Too often, the
word “imagination” has been used casually in scholarly writing about Reagan or other topics in political theory. Even scholars with a special interest in
the imagination and with substantive intellectual reputations have not gone
very far explaining just what they mean by this word. Russell Kirk, a prominent twentieth-century conservative intellectual, greatly admired both Burke
and Reagan. He celebrated the powerful imaginations of these statesmen. In
various works, Kirk stressed the importance of the imagination and its role in
constituting ordered politics, but he never gave a precise, in-depth definition
of imagination and its relationship to politics. Still, Kirk went further in this
regard than those who have written extensively on Reagan. This study tries
to remedy this problem. At this time, only a few comments about the imagination and its relationship to politics are necessary to provide the reader with
a preliminary understanding of this difficult philosophical concept and this
relationship and of how they will be viewed throughout this study.
For centuries the imagination was thought of in the Western world as
a passive mental faculty absorbing and rearranging external wholes and
images received through the senses. From the romantic period to the present,
however, its role has been reconsidered. Aestheticians and poets, in particular, have accentuated the creative role of the imagination. In many articles
and books, Claes G. Ryn has stressed this revised conception of the power
of intuition and its importance for understanding politics, while denying any
necessary connection between it and romantic emotionalism and dreaming.
The imagination constitutes preintellectual, purely intuitive wholes, Ryn
argues. Most basically it gives us a general but concrete sense of the nature
of existence. Intellectual reflection on reality is oriented by that intuition.
Ryn writes, the imagination “is an active, visionary power, giving a fundamental, if non-ideational, coherence to life. Most generally, the imagination
constitutes an overall sense, concrete and experiential, of what life is like.
Such intuition precedes thought in the sense of systematic reflection, ideas
and definitions.”24 People of strong, captivating imagination in the arts and
elsewhere pull many others into their view of existence, but their vision can
be illusory, even fly in the face of everything hitherto known about human
nature, Ryn contends. Whether there is a strong bond between a person’s
intuition of life and the “real world” depends on the type of imagination.25
Often, highly appealing imagination flagrantly distorts the terms of actual
human existence and can have disastrous consequences. This preliminary
definition of the imagination will be expanded later.
Whether Reagan’s imagination was adequately grounded in reality, or
contained an appealing but ultimately dangerous conceit, remains to be
seen. Whatever the case, it is clear that his vision has left an enduring mark
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Introduction 11
on American politics. It has been described as providing the ideological
foundation of the Republican Party’s Contract with America in 1994, the
year in which they became the majority party in the House for the first time
in a generation. Comparisons between Reagan and George W. Bush began
during the 2000 presidential campaign and were made repeatedly during
the latter’s presidency. Countless Republicans have run for political office
claiming to be Reagan Republicans or even to be the next Ronald Reagan.
Many of the 2008 and 2012 Republican presidential candidates praised
Reagan for his optimism and his commitments to strong national defense,
to an assertive foreign policy, and to lower taxes and lower spending. They
praised him for what they saw as his conservatism.
Reagan’s vision certainly has been a source of inspiration and unity among
ostensible conservatives in American politics, but it would be a mistake to
think that the influence and appeal of Reagan’s formidable imaginative
legacy are confined to a particular political movement or moment in time.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, certainly has some political ideas
very different from those of Reagan, but he has expressed a view of America
that appears surprisingly similar to Reagan’s in its underlying imaginative
quality. Furthermore, like Reagan, Obama has referred to the United States
as a “shining beacon on a hill” and as “the last, best hope of Earth.”26 In
the 2008 presidential campaign, then candidate Obama earned the scorn
of some Democrats when he appeared to compliment Reagan during an
interview. Obama said, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of
America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton
did not. . . . I think people, he just tapped into what people were already
feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return
to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”27
Comparisons between Obama and Reagan, on both the political right and
left, continue to be made. As president, Obama himself seems to have taken
a deeper interest in understanding Reagan and his presidency.
Whether Reagan’s vision of and for America is embraced or ridiculed by
politicians, journalists, and scholars, it is clear that his particular imagination,
which celebrates freedom, democracy, individualism, average Americans, natural human goodness, and unlimited material progress, still resonates with
many Americans, political figures, and intellectual activists of seemingly different ideological backgrounds. His vision continues to influence the making of
American domestic and foreign policy. Deepening and sharpening the awareness of the nature of Reagan’s imagination will help explain how millions of
Americans envision the possibilities of politics, not merely clarify who Reagan
was. The first step in moving toward a better understanding of Reagan’s vision
and what it says about America will be to explore important moments in Reagan’s life that contributed to the development of his imagination.
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In a world wracked by hatred, economic crisis, and political tension,
America remains mankind’s best hope. The eyes of mankind are on
us, counting on us to protect the peace, promote new prosperity, and
provide for them a better world.2
—Ronald Reagan
Reagan’s vision of U.S. foreign policy consisted of a complex mixture of
ideas that was not without paradoxes and internal tensions. In some of his
presidential speeches, he invoked important U.S. strategic, economic, and
national security concerns in support of specific goals in Asia, the Middle
East, Latin America, and elsewhere. Despite the existence of serious disagreements with other nations, he sometimes stressed that a successful U.S.
policy would need to include restraint, flexibility, realism, and openness to
dialogue—especially with the Soviet Union. Thoughts like these suggested
that he viewed politics and foreign policy as the art of the possible, not as
an attempt to realize some great ideal.
But there was another and more prominent aspect of Reagan’s foreign
policy thinking that pointed in a much different, far more “idealistic” and
ambitious direction. This part of his vision of America’s role stemmed from
his belief that human beings were basically good and entitled to individual
liberty and democratic government. He felt that the United States had a
unique, moral responsibility to bestow these rights on people around the
world, thereby advancing the global growth of democracy and freedom.
Although Reagan’s foreign policy imagination contained a rich assortment
of images, not all of which pointed in the same direction, it is this latter,
more optimistic and “idealistic” vision that clearly predominated. It suffused
virtually all of his major comments on America’s role in the world.
When explicating his vision, Reagan gave the impression that he was
drawing on deeply held ideas from the American past, extending all the way
back to the Founding. Whether or not they are writing specifically about
Reagan, a number of scholars support Reagan’s claims that visions like his
represent a long-standing and widespread tradition of American foreign
policy thought. The works of other scholars suggest that Reagan’s primary
“A Crusade for Freedom”1
Ronald Reagan and America’s Role
in the World
7
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 101
way of understanding America and its role has much more in common with
the foreign policy ideas of American progressives, especially Woodrow Wilson, than with the views expressed by leading figures in the early American
republic. Thus it may be the case that Reagan’s perception of America’s
past was flawed in fundamental ways. This dimension of Reagan’s imagination may also contain dubious elements and perhaps even serious dangers
of which he seemed unaware and which his devotees have not questioned.
Before all such possibilities can be contemplated, a deeper awareness of
Reagan’s foreign policy vision must be obtained.
REAGAN’S FOREIGN POLICY VISION: AMERICA AS
CRUSADER FOR LIBERTY AND DEMOCRACY
In January of 1984, Reagan gave an address to the nation on the relationship
between the United States and the Soviet Union. He claimed that underneath
the various differences between the two countries was a stronger bond of
common humanity. He said, “Just suppose with me for a moment that an
Ivan and an Anya could find themselves, oh, say, in a waiting room, or sharing a shelter from the rain or a storm with a Jim and Sally, and there was
no language barrier to keep them from getting acquainted. Would they then
debate the differences between their respective governments? Or would they
find themselves comparing notes about their children and what each other
[sic] did for a living?”3
As far as Reagan was concerned, they would do the
latter. The imagined amicable relationship between these two couples was
one of his many ways of conveying his sense that all human beings were
good and friendly; they all shared the same nature, hopes, and dreams.4
Since all human beings were more or less the same—that is, they were
more or less American in spirit—Reagan believed that all people desired and
deserved to live under liberty and democracy. Various governments around
the world, however, were undermining global aspirations for freedom and
democratic government by ignoring the will and rights of their peoples. As
far as he was concerned, this tension was at the heart of the civil strife and
foreign conflicts around the world. On several occasions Reagan claimed
that such violence occurred because oppressive governments “got in the
way of the dreams of the people.”5
On others he claimed, “People do not
make wars; governments do. . . . A people free to choose will always choose
peace.”6
This dichotomy between good people, such as Jim, Sally, Ivan, and
Anya, and bad government, such as the Soviet Union, was similar to the one
he established between the American people and contemporary American
government.
With this dichotomy between noble people and tyrannical government
in mind, Reagan dedicated himself to promoting freedom and democracy
around the world. Perhaps most famously, in his Address to the British Parliament, he called for a global “campaign for democracy” and declared,
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102 “An Empire of Ideals”
“Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best—a crusade for freedom
that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation.”7
Beyond
such general demands, he wanted to advance a number of institutions,
including “the system of a free press, unions, political parties, [and] universities,” which, in his mind, enabled “a people to choose their own way to
develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”8
Because this campaign was meant to secure for the peoples
of the world that to which they were naturally entitled, he argued that it
was not a manifestation of “cultural imperialism.” Those who thought differently were simply exhibiting “cultural condescension, or worse.”9
More
than displaying cultural arrogance, opponents of his vision were rejecting
one of the noblest parts of America’s past.10
Reagan often expressed his belief that the United States had a unique and
long-standing moral responsibility to undertake this foreign policy. In An
American Life, he explains, “It was our policy that this great democracy
of ours had a special obligation to help bring freedom to other peoples,”
and “I’d always felt that from our deeds it must be clear to anyone that
Americans were a moral people who starting at the birth of our nation had
always used our power only as a force of good in the world.”11 He also
warned others about the consequences of abandoning this American mission. In his Address to the Nation on the upcoming Summit in Geneva with
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he argued, “Should the day come when
we Americans remain silent in the face of armed aggression, then the cause
of America, the cause of freedom, will have been lost and the great heart of
this country will have been broken.”12 America’s was not the only heart that
he feared could break.
Reagan believed the rest of the world was counting on the United States.
In remarks given on July 4, 1984, he explained, “You know, throughout
the world the persecuted hear the word ‘America,’ and in that sound they
can hear the sunrise, hear the rivers push, hear the cold, swift air at the top
of the peak. Yes, you can hear freedom.”13 During a Christmas Day Radio
Address to the Nation, Reagan read a letter he had recently received from an
American sailor on tour in the Pacific. The letter told of an encounter with
a sinking boat full of refugees fleeing Vietnam. As the American ship drew
closer to the raft, the refugees began to shout, “‘Hello America [sic] sailor!
Hello Freedom man!”14 The refugees were rescued. Reagan explained that
this was simply the latest confirmation of how oppressed people around the
world saw the United States. He felt that America was morally responsible
for their liberty and welfare.
This vision of American leadership shaped Reagan’s understanding of his
foreign policy practice. It was the primary motivation behind his mission
to “transcend communism” and to leave the Soviet Union and “MarxismLeninism on the ash heap of history.”15 About the message he brought to
Europe in the summer of 1982 on how best to deal with the Soviet Union, he
writes, “The democracies, I suggested, like the Communists, should adopt
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 103
a policy of expansionism: We should try to help the new countries of Africa
and elsewhere embrace democracy and become evangelists worldwide for
freedom, individual liberty, representative government, freedom of the press,
self-expression, and the rule of law.”16 Reagan followed his own advice. In
an Address to the Nation on the concluded U.S.-Soviet Summit in Iceland, he
explained, “We declared the principal objective of American foreign policy
to be not just the prevention of war, but the extension of freedom. And
we stressed our commitment to the growth of democratic government and
democratic institutions around the world.”17 He made such comments on
U.S.-Soviet relations repeatedly during his presidency.
This sense of America’s mission also formed Reagan’s understanding of
the American role in Latin America and the Middle East. In April of 1983,
Reagan told a joint session of Congress a story he had heard from congressional observers of elections in El Salvador. They told him that El Salvador’s
hold on democracy was tenuous and that many El Salvadorans had been
threatened with violence and death if they voted in upcoming elections. But,
they explained to him, one elderly woman told those who would threaten
her life because she wanted to be free, “You can kill me, you can kill my
family, you can kill my neighbors. You can’t kill us all.” Commenting on
this noble defiance, Reagan argued that the United States was bound both
by interest and morality to come to the aid of such brave human beings.18
A few months later, Reagan gave a televised address to the nation about
recent events in Lebanon and Grenada. The Marine barracks in Beirut had
suffered a terrorist attack killing over two hundred American soldiers. He
acknowledged that many Americans were now questioning the American
presence in Lebanon. He said that America’s purpose was to help bring
peace to that nation, and he warned against a military withdrawal because
“if America were to walk away from Lebanon, what chance would there be
for a negotiated settlement, producing a unified democratic Lebanon?”19 He
then related the following story as a way of emphasizing the moral justification for America’s presence: “Why are we there? Well, a Lebanese mother
told one of our Ambassadors that her little girl had only attended school 2
of the last 8 years. Now, because of our presence there, she said her daughter
could live a normal life.”20 Reagan acknowledged that a peaceful Middle
East was something that no one then living could recall, but, with resolve
and patience, the United States could play a crucial role in creating just such
an environment.
Reagan then turned to the events in Grenada. He explained that the small
Caribbean island was under martial law imposed by communist insurgents
and that a “24-hour shoot-to-kill curfew” was in effect.21 Not only was
the freedom of all native Grenadians in jeopardy, but, of equal importance,
nearly one thousand American citizens—mostly young medical students—
were trapped on the island. He explained that surrounding countries simply
did not have the capacity to restore liberty to Grenada, and thus the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States along with other nations appealed to
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104 “An Empire of Ideals”
the United States for military assistance. He argued, “These small, peaceful
nations needed our help. Three of them don’t have armies at all, and the
others have very limited forces. The legitimacy of their request, plus my
own concern for our citizens, dictated my decision.”22 By most measures,
the intervention in Grenada was a success. Nineteen U.S. soldiers lost their
lives, but the American medical students were rescued, and the island was
brought back into the fold of free, democratic nations.23
Explaining his decision to send armed forces to Grenada as well as the
broader significance of the victory on Grenada, Reagan said, “We only
did our duty, as a responsible neighbor and a lover of peace, the day we
went in and returned the government to the people and rescued our own
students. We restored that island to liberty. Yes, it’s only a small island, but
that’s what the world is made of—small islands yearning for freedom.”24
Elsewhere he explains, “The people of Grenada greeted our soldiers much
as the people of France and Italy welcomed our GIs after they liberated
them from Nazism at the end of World War II. . . . There were no YANKEE
GO HOME signs on Grenada, just an outpouring of love and appreciation
from tens of thousands of people—most of its population—and banners
proclaiming GOD BLESS AMERICA.”25 Grenada was for him another link in
the chain of American foreign policy successes that reinforced his belief in
America’s global mission.
During his presidency Reagan also spoke often about the moral necessity
of supporting Nicaraguan freedom fighters, or Contras, in their conflict
against the Sandinista government. In his 1985 CPAC speech, he placed his
desire for continued assistance to the Contras in the following context: “I’ve
spoken recently of the freedom fighters of Nicaragua. You know the truth
about them. You know who they’re fighting and why. They are the moral
equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French
Resistance. We cannot turn away from them, for the struggle here is not
right versus left; it is right versus wrong.”26 Reagan himself rather than his
speechwriters created this analogy between the Contras and the Continental
Army of the American Revolution. It shaped his understanding of the
American obligation to support freedom in Nicaragua and strengthened his
commitment.27
Reagan held this vision with intensity, and he believed it to be an expression of the most noble, longest-standing American foreign policy tradition.
Not everyone agreed with him. Although Reagan’s cheerful demeanor prevented him from becoming angry with his foreign and domestic political
opponents on all but the rarest of occasions, his sense of America’s mission
and moral obligations abroad made dissenters from his foreign policy difficult for him to understand. He was often flexible about the means of implementing his policies, but he could not accept the possibility of legitimate
differences over his foreign policy ends. If America really was a righteous
force obligated to extend freedom and democracy abroad, what legitimate
opposition could there be?
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 105
Reagan believed that some of the opposition to his foreign policy vision
was rooted in genuine ignorance of America’s mission and history. To
remedy this situation, Reagan believed that America and the West needed
to overcome their shyness about declaring the moral superiority of their
politics and way of life. If some misunderstood America out of genuine
ignorance, others understood America and its mission and consciously
rejected it. Many such people were “isolationists.” During his speech at
Point du Hoc, in Normandy, France, Reagan explained that one of the
lessons of World War II was that “isolationism never was and never will
be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.”28 When imagining the role of America in the world, Reagan
believed the United States faced a stark choice between his vision of promoting freedom and democracy on the one hand, and the “isolationist”
desire to bury the head of America in the sand regardless of international
circumstances on the other. For Reagan, no middle ground existed between
these views.
Reagan argued that the moral support and other assistance that America
offered the world began to pay dividends during his presidency. In public
speeches and private writings, he marveled at the sheer quantity of new democratic governments that emerged during the 1980s. In his 1987 Address to
the U.N. General Assembly, he explained that democracy and freedom were
growing in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Philippines, South Korea, and
elsewhere. As important to him as the quantity of emerging democracies
was the view that the “simple, ordinary people” of the world were leading
this “worldwide movement to democracy.”29 With American help, the Ivans
and Anyas of the world were taking action and claiming the rights to which
they were entitled.
About the importance of these ordinary people to the global campaign for
liberty and self-government Reagan remarked:
These simple people are the giants of the Earth, the true builders of the
world and shapers of the centuries to come. And if indeed they triumph,
as I believe they will, we will at last know a world of peace and freedom,
opportunity and hope, and, yes, of democracy—a world in which the
spirit of mankind at last conquers the old, familiar enemies of famine,
disease, tyranny, and war.30
For those in the audience representing governments that stood in the way of
the realization of such a world, he had the following advice: “Isn’t it better
to listen to the people’s hopes now rather than their curses later?”31 He concluded his remarks by saying that for all the differences among the nations
present, “there is one common hope that brought us all to make this common pilgrimage: the hope that mankind will one day beat its swords into
plowshares, the hope of peace.”32 The terms upon which a peaceful world
could be realized formed the core of Reagan’s foreign policy vision.
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106 “An Empire of Ideals”
As these comments suggest, Reagan was strongly prone to sweeping,
sentimental, even naïve-looking images and ideas when expressing his intuitive sense of America’s role in the world. But in his presidential speeches,
he sometimes also stressed specific national security concerns, strategic
interests, and openness to negotiation with other nations. In the previously
mentioned Address to Congress on Central America, for example, he stated
that the prospect of political instability in countries such as El Salvador
and Nicaragua, closer to the United States than many Americans perhaps
realized, was a serious security concern. He also warned of the effects upon
U.S. foreign trade and military deployment capabilities should American
access to the Panama Canal be compromised.33 Especially during his second presidential term, he made substantial progress in negotiations with the
Soviet Union toward nuclear arms reduction—despite the deep ideological
differences between it and the United States. Yet, although considerations of
this practical, limited type were sometimes on his mind and were sometimes
publicly articulated, they tended to recede behind and be subordinated to
the kind of imagination that has been described earlier: the vision of a free,
democratic world made possible by American leadership and help.
REAGAN’S FOREIGN POLICY VISION
IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
A clearer understanding of this part of Reagan’s imagination can be reached
by exploring his claim that his vision represented a long-standing American foreign policy tradition. In his presidential speeches, Reagan repeatedly
invoked various figures from the American past—especially Jefferson and
Paine—to elaborate his vision of America’s moral commitment to global
freedom and democracy. Reagan often quoted the following passage from
Paine’s Common Sense: “We have it within our power to begin the world
over again.”34 In the foreign policy context, Reagan used this quotation to
encourage and inspire his audience with a sense of America’s power and
opportunity to promote freedom and democracy and transform the world.
Reagan referred even more frequently to Jefferson when expressing this
part of his vision. In the Declaration of Independence, which he attributed
primarily to Jefferson’s mind, he saw both the supreme exposition of America’s revolutionary cause and the definitive articulation of the universal rights
of all humanity. In a speech Reagan argued, “A great future is ours and the
world’s if we but remember the power of those words Mr. Jefferson penned
not just for Americans but for all humanity: ‘that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that
among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ ”35 He often
quoted from this passage in the Declaration—particularly the human equality clause—when explaining the universality of American ideals and the
moral imperative behind his vision of America’s mission abroad.
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 107
Reagan also quoted from John Quincy Adams on several occasions. In
his speech on the Iceland Summit, he quoted from Adams’s 1821 Fourth
of July Address and explained, “ ‘Whenever the standard of freedom and
independence has been . . . unfurled, there will be America’s heart, her
benedictions, and her prayers,’ John Quincy Adams once said. He spoke
well of our destiny as a nation. My fellow Americans, we’re honored by
history, entrusted by destiny with the oldest dream of humanity—the dream
of lasting peace and human freedom.”36 He used these and other quotations
to convey to Americans his sense of how deeply ingrained his vision was
in their history.
In his efforts to establish a strong historical continuity between his ideas
and the American past, Reagan dwelled often upon the American role in
World War II. At Point du Hoc in 1984, with veterans before him in the
audience, he explained the reasons behind America’s sacrifice in the war.
He said, “You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country
is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most
deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved
liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of
your countries were behind you.”37 As he explained it here and elsewhere,
Americans died in World War II while liberating oppressed peoples, establishing freedom and democracy, and destroying tyrannical governments. In
imagining the war this way, he drained it of much of its historical texture,
suggesting instead that it symbolized the victory of one set of abstract political ideas over others. But America’s moral commitment to the progress of
humanity did not end when armed conflict ceased. In 1985, Reagan gave
a radio address to the nation and, via the Voice of America, to the Soviet
Union. He explained to Russians listening to his remarks, “Yet after that victory [in World War II], Americans gave generously to help rebuild war-torn
countries, even to former enemies, because we had made war on a vicious
ideology, not on a people.”38 In the aftermath of the war, when victory over
a “vicious ideology” was complete, the United States simply acted according to its natural, moral inclinations. America resumed its selfless, peaceful
efforts to bring democracy, free markets, and liberty to peoples and nations
around the world.
In Reagan’s mind, Americans still acted this way on the international
stage. At Kansas State University he explained, “Across the world, Americans are bringing light where there was darkness, heat where there was
once only cold, and medicines where there was sickness and disease, food
where there was hunger, wealth where humanity was living in squalor, and
peace where there was only death and bloodshed.”39 The natural virtues
and talents of the American people echoed around the world. In Reagan’s
imagination, the golden cord running through the American foreign policy
tradition, from the Founding, through the nineteenth century, through two
world wars, and to the present, was the image of the United States as the
dispenser of liberty, champion of democracy, and protector of the world.
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108 “An Empire of Ideals”
A number of scholars have defended Reagan’s intuitive sense of America’s
role in the world by celebrating its moral orientation, identifying what are
perceived to be the concrete successes of his diplomatic pursuits, and by
pointing out how deeply ingrained such a vision is in the American mind. In
Ronald Reagan, Dinesh D’Souza argues that Reagan “understood the moral
power of the American ideal and saw how it could be realized most effectively in his time.”40 Reflecting upon what he sees as the deep moral foundation of Reagan’s concrete diplomatic successes, D’Souza writes, “ ‘The
world,’ Woodrow Wilson told a special session of Congress on April 2,
1917, ‘must be made safe for democracy.’ It was Reagan who finally made
it so.”41 Without going too deeply into the issue, D’Souza suggests that
Reagan imbibed through lived experience a long-standing view of America
in the world.
Paul Kengor argues a number of similar points. In God and Ronald
Reagan, he suggests that those who criticize Reagan’s vision of America’s
role in the world overlook how deeply such a notion is embedded into the
American tradition. He explains that the founder of the Disciples of Christ,
Alexander Campbell, viewed the United States as a nation destined to defeat
false religion and “autocracy” wherever they existed. America would herald
in an era in which the Christian Gospel and democracy reigned over the
world, Campbell believed. Kengor speculates that Reagan, an active Disciple
as a young man, likely came into contact with such views through his pastor, Ben Cleaver.42 Kengor also cites John Winthrop, George Washington,
Thomas Paine, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt as figures representing the long-standing tradition of imagining America the way Reagan
did. Kengor writes, “Ronald Reagan, then, was not alone in viewing America as specially chosen, as a nation with a divine mandate. He was alone in
the single-minded passion with which he harnessed and implemented that
view in the Cold War.”43
In an article titled “Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776,” Robert
Kagan argues for the existence of a strong degree of continuity between
a neoconservative foreign policy vision and that of the broader American
tradition. He explains that as it relates to American foreign policy the term
“neoconservatism” signifies “a potent moralism and idealism in world
affairs,” and “a belief in America’s exceptional role as a promoter of the
principles of liberty and democracy.”44 According to Kagan, these ideas have
always been appealing to Americans because they are revolutionary and
universal. They have the potential to liberate humanity from the constraints
of history and tradition, what he calls the “Burkean accretions of the centuries.”45 He invokes the foreign policy thought of a number of Americans
to support his argument that individuals from different intellectual and ideological backgrounds have expressed variations of this vision throughout
American history. Although the article does not dwell primarily on Reagan,
Kagan clearly identifies Reagan’s foreign policy vision as existing squarely
within this tradition.
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 109
Reagan, D’Souza, Kengor, and Kagan all indentify an important dimension of foreign policy thought and imagination in American history. It is
certainly true that one can find comments similar to Reagan’s on America’s
role in the world not only in the writings of Jefferson and Paine, but in those
of Washington, both Adams, Hamilton, and a number of other Americans
who believed strongly in America’s future greatness and believed that their
nation was special—perhaps even chosen to do or to be something extraordinary in human history. These acknowledgments notwithstanding, it seems
as if these scholars, and, above all, Reagan, might not be fully aware of the
extent to which their understandings of the American foreign policy past
are incomplete and even misleading. To paraphrase the twentieth-century
historian John Lukacs, while their claims of historical continuity appear to
be true, they are perhaps not true enough.46 Reagan and these scholars do
not seem very sensitive to what another historian, Herbert Butterfield, terms
the “unlikenesses” of history.47 To compare Reagan’s foreign policy vision
to the views held by leading early Americans is to notice major dissonances.
AN ALTERNATIVE VIEW OF AMERICA’S ROLE IN THE WORLD
It is here helpful to return for a moment to John Quincy Adams and his 1821
Fourth of July Address. In many ways, this address embodies the tensions in
American foreign policy thought and action during the early decades of the
republic. Reagan correctly quoted Adams as claiming that the United States
hoped for the global spread of liberty and democracy and that it would
rejoice at each nation’s movement in that direction. Further, in a manner
similar to Reagan’s, Adams described the Declaration of Independence as
“the first solemn declaration by a nation of the only legitimate foundation
of civil government. It was the cornerstone of a new fabric, destined to cover
the surface of the globe.”48 Such comments lend credence to Reagan’s claims
of historical continuity.
But there is another important part to this speech that Reagan does not
mention. Immediately following the comments Reagan quoted, Adams stated:
But [America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the
well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion
and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the
countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She
well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were
they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself
beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of
individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp
the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would
insensibly change from liberty to force. . . . She might become the dictatress
of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.49
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110 “An Empire of Ideals”
Here Adams appears to be rejecting just the type of foreign policy mission
that Reagan suggested was quintessentially American during this period of
history. Adams also seems to be doing so not upon grounds of logistical difficulty or practical inexpediency, but out of deep moral-political concerns. In
this instance he argued that an interventionist type of foreign policy should
be avoided because it would come at the cost of America’s republican soul.
Another American thinker who voiced concerns about America’s role in
the world similar to those of Adams is Orestes Brownson. In The American
Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny, he argues that American promotion of liberty and democracy around the world will actually
produce great disorder in foreign lands unprepared for such institutions.
This view is based upon his belief that each nation has what he calls written
and unwritten constitutions. In the United States, for example, the unwritten
constitution is the complex web of historically and organically developed
legal precedents and rights, religious and political practices and ideas, and
other cultural habits and mores inherited from Britain and the larger Western tradition. According to Brownson, this unwritten constitution is what
gives the United States its national identity and makes it a truly sovereign
entity. The written constitution is an expression of this preexisting sovereign will in which the people give themselves a government. Examples of
America’s written constitutions are the Articles of Confederation and the
U.S. Constitution.
Brownson holds that America’s written constitution has been successful
because it is in agreement with the nation’s unwritten constitution. But, he
claims, it would lead to disaster if other nations, with different unwritten
constitutions, tried to adopt it as their own. Brownson writes:
The constitution of the government must grow out of the constitution of
the state, and accord with the genius, the character, the habits, customs,
and wants of the people, or it will not work well, or tend to secure the
legitimate ends of government. . . . You must take the state as it is, and
develop your governmental constitution from it, and harmonize it with
it. Where there is a discrepancy between the two constitutions, the government has no support in the state, in the organic people, or nation,
and can sustain itself only by corruption or physical force.50
There is another side to Brownson’s political thought that bears a closer
resemblance to Reagan’s main beliefs about America’s historical significance, but his important, practically very significant view of the relationship
between written and unwritten constitutions, which is held intuitively also
by the Framers, is absent from Reagan’s conception of what U.S. foreign
policy and human societies ought to be.
The substantive differences between Reagan’s foreign policy vision and
those expressed by Adams, Brownson, and other American Framers can be
brought into greater clarity with reference to the scholarship of Richard
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 111
Gamble and Walter McDougall. In various writings, Gamble explores and
analyzes the history of the American belief that the United States is a special,
or exceptional, nation. In an article titled “Savior Nation: Woodrow Wilson
and the Gospel of Service,” he argues that for all the historical, intellectual,
and imaginative differences among individuals and epochs in American history, there are essentially two competing visions of American uniqueness.
One Gamble calls “New Eden” or “New Israel,” and the other he calls
“Christ-Nation.”51 Those who believe that the United States is a New Israel
tend to view America as a nation chosen by God or Providence “for special
blessing.”52 In this view, America is charged with maintaining a particular
way of life, one that includes a specific set of political, social, and religious
traditions. This vision of the United States informs early American foreign
policy thought and practice. Although many Americans hoped that other
nations would freely choose to adopt American-style political institutions
and principles, they generally practiced what Gamble describes as a “nonideological, non-interventionist foreign policy to suit this conception of its
place in the world.”53
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Gamble continues, the idea of
America as a New Israel has been supplanted by the vision of the United
States as a Christ-Nation. In this view, the United States is not only selected
by God for a special blessing, but it is morally responsible for extending that
blessing to others around the world.54 Typically in diplomacy, Gamble writes,
such “an ‘expansive’ mission is predatory, universalist, and even revolutionary.”55 The vision of America as a Christ-Nation charged with redeeming the
world from evil was felt deeply by one of its most powerful presidential exponents, Woodrow Wilson. Gamble writes that Wilson continuously “developed the idea that America had been born to perfect and universalize ideals
of freedom, democracy, self-government, and love of neighbor.”56 Wilson
envisioned the United States as the servant of the world, selflessly sacrificing
its own material interests and the lives of its own people for the progress of
humanity. This impulse to serve mankind is evident in Wilson’s justifications
for American intervention in Mexico and in World War I.
According to Gamble, Wilson justified his departure from older views of
America’s symbolic meaning by reinterpreting American history, especially
the Founding and the Civil War, as chapters in a story of the progressive
unfolding of liberty and democracy both in the United States and the world.
Gamble argues, “Wilson’s interpretation of the meaning of the American
founding helped transform the United States into a permanently revolutionary nation, dedicated to the fulfillment of universalized abstractions on
behalf of others, whatever the cost in blood and wealth.”57 The Civil War, in
Wilson’s view, was the final test of America’s commitment to realizing these
ideals within its own borders. Union victory purified the United States and
prepared America to emerge as a righteous force in international politics
during Wilson’s presidency. In holding such ideas about America, history,
progress, and world service, Wilson was not alone.
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112 “An Empire of Ideals”
In The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christians, the Great War, and
the Rise of the Messianic Nation, Gamble explains that this Christ-Nation
vision of the United States was widely embraced by members of America’s
progressive Christian clergy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. Gamble argues that this vision was at the heart of the American
justification for entering into the Spanish-American War in 1898. Many
Americans wanted to fight the war, not for national security or territorial
ambitions, but because it provided an opportunity to practice “an internationalism guided by abstract notions of universal democracy and permanent
peace, a world order benevolently led and dominated by America.”58 As far
as progressive American Christians were concerned, the United States was
not protecting its own selfish interests in this war. It was working to extend
freedom, democracy, progress, and peace to lands suffering under Spanish
domination.
The intensity with which Americans believed their nation to be a righteous
redeemer state increased by the time World War I began. As a representative example, Gamble cites an article written by Harold Bell Wright, the
author of That Printer of Udell’s, in which Wright compares the salvation
of humanity accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to
the American mission in Europe during the war. Wright argues, “A man may
give his life for humanity in a bloody trench as truly as upon a bloody cross.
The world may be saved somewhere in France as truly as in Palestine.”59
Gamble observes that with such a notion, “all distinction between the
church and the world, the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane
had been overwhelmed. Metaphors had finally broken down; they had been
transformed into reality, and reality had vanished into illusion.”60 Under
such a view, the harshness and violence of World War I came into a different light. If America is a force for righteousness, then its opponents must be
evil. While lamentable, the carnage of the war was believed to be a necessary
payment for a world in which peace and justice were at last secured.
Gamble’s scholarship on America’s understanding of its mission to the
world is both extensive and thoughtful. If he is correct, then the notion that
American foreign policy is grounded in a moral obligation to extend freedom and democracy abroad is much more a progressive era departure from
an older understanding of America’s role in the world than it is the essence
of the American diplomatic tradition. If Gamble is right, then at least in foreign policy, Reagan seems to be carrying forward, or conserving, progressive
political ideas rather than those of the Founders.
In Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the
World since 1776, Walter McDougall argues that the American encounter
with the world can be subsumed under two general categories. He calls the
prevailing ways in which Americans thought about and pursued foreign
policy from the end of the eighteenth century until the end of the nineteenth
century America’s “Old Testament.” He argues that during this period
most Americans, most of the time, were committed to “Liberty at home,
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 113
Unilateralism abroad, an American system of states, and Expansion.”61
McDougall notes that the four traditions comprising the Old Testament
envisioned the United States as a “promised land,” set aside by God, to be
a model of liberty for the world’s admiration and emulation. In explaining
the essence of this Old Testament of American foreign policy, he writes,
“These first four traditions were all about Being and Becoming, and were
designed by the Founding Fathers to deny the outside world the chance to
shape America’s future.”62
McDougall claims that a “New Testament” has dominated American
foreign policy thought and practice since the 1890s. This New Testament is
“about Doing and Relating, and [was] designed to give America the chance
to shape the outside world’s future,” and it consists of the “doctrines of
Progressive Imperialism, Wilsonianism, Containment, and Global Meliorism, or the belief that America has a responsibility to nurture democracy
and economic growth around the world.”63 Whereas the Old Testament
traditions are coherent and mutually reinforcing, McDougall claims that the
New Testament traditions, whatever they may have borrowed from the Old,
are much more contradictory and have brought much greater discordance
to American diplomacy. McDougall use the image of a crusader state to
symbolize the New Testament America.
One component of America’s Old Testament foreign policy tradition is
“Liberty, or Exceptionalism (so called).” McDougall argues that America’s
geographical location, political experience, and religious history all contributed to the common belief that the United States was a unique land populated by a chosen people. America was different from the Old World and
perhaps superior to it as well. Such notions about America notwithstanding,
McDougall argues, “[To] the generation that founded the United States,
designed its government, and laid down its policies, the exceptional calling
of the American people was not to do anything special in foreign affairs,
but to be a light to enlighten the world.”64 He argues, for example, that
none of the Founders seriously invested the American Revolution with the
pretensions of an activist global democratic revolution. McDougall claims
that Jefferson, even with all his effusive comments on liberty and republican
government, falls within the Old Testament tradition of preserving liberty
at home. Figures such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton are even more
closely connected to this understanding of American exceptionalism than
Jefferson.
Another element of McDougall’s Old Testament is “Unilateralism, or
Isolationism (so called).” Reagan tended to dismiss many of those who
did not subscribe to his vision as “isolationists,” although he never quite
explained what that term meant. According to McDougall, no one else
has made much more of an effort at defining this term. He argues that
the term “isolationist” has never accurately described any American foreign
policy. The word itself did not come into popular use in America until the
1930s, McDougall explains.65 He claims that the term first emerged when
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114 “An Empire of Ideals”
proponents of a robust, imperial American foreign policy in the late nineteenth century began to label their anti-imperialist opponents as cranks and
cowards. McDougall writes, “So, our vaunted tradition of ‘isolationism’ is
no tradition at all, but a dirty word that interventionists, especially since
Pearl Harbor, hurl at anyone who questions their policies.”66 Rather than
use this term to describe American foreign policy during the late eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, McDougall employs the word “unilateralism.”
McDougall explains that the American desire to protect liberty at home
rested upon its ability to act with a free hand—i.e., unilaterally. In practice,
he claims, this meant implementing the foreign policy principles expressed
in Washington’s Farewell Address. In this address, Washington stated, “The
Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending
our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection
as possible. . . . ’Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances,
with any portion of the foreign world.”67 McDougall shows that the United
States was deeply involved in the world prior to the end of the nineteenth
century, and he cites technology transfers, commerce, labor, and tourism
between Europe and North America as some of the more obvious examples.
It was only in the context of protecting its neutrality in foreign affairs—i.e.,
reserving for itself the right to decide under what circumstances it would go
to war or use armed forces—that America can be considered to have an “isolationist” history. In this context, American unilateralism was not rooted in
the cowardice or stupidity often implied in the term “isolationism.” Rather,
it meant that America was intent on avoiding disadvantageous political and
military alliances.
Some might argue that the Founders likely adhered to these Old Testament
positions merely for practical reasons. The argument might be made that as
times changed and American power grew, the United States gradually gained
the ability to act upon the much grander diplomatic ideas it had held for a
long time. It cannot be denied that there was a strong element of practical
consideration in what McDougall calls the Old Testament vision of American foreign policy. But the Founders also had deeply felt moral reasons for
maintaining their modest vision of America’s role in the world. If McDougall’s scholarship is correct, then it appears that the early American tradition
of foreign policy was rather different from the one Reagan—and, for that
matter, D’Souza, Kengor, and Kagan—describe. Although Reagan was much
more inclined to quote from and refer to figures from the Old Testament
tradition in American diplomacy, many of his most important ideas and
images resonate with what McDougall calls the New Testament tradition.
McDougall describes one part of the New Testament tradition as
“Progressive Imperialism.” He cites a number of examples that represent the
changes in American foreign policy thought signified by this term, including
one from remarks given by Senator John C. Spooner. In a speech explaining America’s reasons for entering into the Spanish-American War, Spooner
argued, “We intervene not for conquest . . . not for aggrandizement, not
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 115
because of the Monroe Doctrine; we intervene for humanity’s sake . . . to
aid a people who have suffered every form of tyranny and who have made a
desperate struggle to be free.”68 About the significance of such a justification
for the Spanish-American War, McDougall writes, “Imagine: the American
people and government allowed themselves to be swept by a hurricane of
militant righteousness into a revolutionary foreign war, determined to slay a
dragon and free a damsel in distress.”69 This comment from McDougall captures the intuitive essence of the new direction in which American foreign
policy was beginning to travel.
The next tradition in McDougall’s New Testament is “Wilsonianism, or
Liberal Internationalism (so called).” McDougall holds that Wilsonianism
symbolizes the abandonment of many older American foreign policy ideas—
largely on the grounds that such notions were immoral. In a 1913 speech
given in Mobile, Alabama, Wilson argued, “It is a very perilous thing to
determine the foreign policy of a nation in terms of material interest. It not
only is unfair to those with whom you are dealing, but it is degrading as
regards your own actions.”70 In Wilson’s vision, the United States could no
longer interact with the world on the basis of defending its own liberty and
material interests. Rather, as both Gamble and McDougall claim, Wilson
believed America needed to respond to a higher calling of service to humanity by bringing freedom and democracy to the world. In part because of the
importance these scholars place upon Wilson, his foreign policy vision needs
to be examined in greater detail.
REAGAN, WILSON, AND AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
Stability in Mexico was of serious concern to Wilson until the United States
entered World War I. In a 1913 address to Congress, he explained, “The
peace, prosperity, and contentment of Mexico mean more, much more, to us
than merely an enlarged field for our commerce and enterprise.”71 In other
words, Wilson was not interested in encouraging stability in Mexico merely
to protect American business or other material interests. On the contrary,
he wanted to help Mexico achieve peace and prosperity so that “the field of
self-government” would be enlarged and “the hopes and rights of a nation”
would be realized. Expressing the antithesis of the American foreign policy
Old Testament, Wilson continued, “We shall yet prove to the Mexican people that we know how to serve them without first thinking of how we shall
serve ourselves.”72 As far as Wilson was concerned, the degree to which
the United States ignored or sacrificed its interests in the pursuit of selfless
humanitarian service to other nations was the degree to which it possessed
a moral foreign policy.
Initially, Wilson did not conceive of using military force in his mission of
service to Mexico. In 1913, he thought it likely that America’s shining example of goodness would be enough to shame Mexico into better behavior. But
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116 “An Empire of Ideals”
less than a year later, Wilson’s patience with Mexico expired. McDougall
explains that Wilson received intelligence in the spring of 1914 that “a German merchant ship was en route to Mexico with machine guns for [Mexican
president] Huerta.”73 Acting on this information in May 1914, the United
States sent eight hundred soldiers into Vera Cruz, Mexico. Nineteen Americans and hundreds of Mexicans died as a result of the intervention.74 In an
effort to justify America’s military actions on this occasion, Wilson stated
the following in a speech at the Brooklyn Navy Yard:
We have gone down to Mexico to serve mankind if we can find out the
way. We do not want to fight the Mexicans. We want to serve the Mexicans if we can, because we know how we would like to be free, and how
we would like to be served if there were friends standing by in such a
case ready to serve us. A war of aggression is not a war in which it is a
proud thing to die, but a war of service is a thing in which it is a proud
thing to die.75
In conceptualizing his foreign policy activities in this manner, Wilson further
departed from the older vision of the United States as a model of liberty
defending its own interests, replacing it with an image of America as a selfless, righteous, global apostle and pedagogue of freedom and democracy.
This crusading spirit of service on behalf of mankind was also manifest in
Wilson’s vision of America’s role in World War I.
As was the case with Mexico, the war in Europe threatened a number of
American interests. Nevertheless, under Wilson’s leadership, the United States
stayed out of the war until 1917. Why? McDougall writes that although the
damage caused by the war to American commerce was serious, it did not
seem to matter all that much to Wilson.76 He was not going to enter into
the largest conflict in a century merely to protect what he considered to be
selfish American interests. Wilson made clear the conditions upon which
the United States would enter World War I. During his 1916 Gridiron Dinner Address, he stated, “America ought to keep out of this war. She ought
to keep out of this war at the sacrifice of everything except this single thing
upon which her character and history are founded, her sense of humanity
and justice.”77 The only basis upon which America would fight was when it
perceived its honor, which consisted of commitments to ahistorical notions
of justice and sentimental notions of humanity, to be under attack. Wilson
concluded these remarks by telling the audience that their restraint would
be rewarded. After explaining the meaning of valor in a manner similar to
St. Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13, Wilson declared, “Valor
withholds itself from all small implications and entanglements and waits for
the great opportunity when the sword will flash as if it carried the light of
heaven upon its blade.”78 The United States would be using righteous force
if only it could wait for its “great opportunity.” In Wilson’s mind, the sword
of America was the sword of God.
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 117
As late as January 1917, Wilson was committed to maintaining American
neutrality so as to prepare for its role as the mediator of the world. But
events in February and early March of that year, especially the discovery of
the Zimmermann telegram and Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, finally convinced Wilson that war with Germany was the
only way in which he could defend America’s sense of justice and humanity.
On April 2, 1917, he addressed the U.S. Congress and asked them formally
to declare war. He argued that Germany was the aggressor forcing war upon
a reluctant and neutral United States. He also explained that the United
States was going to war, not to avenge the losses of life and treasure from
the previous months or years, but for that constant purpose of service to
humanity.
Wilson stressed that America was not going to war against the German
people, for whom the United States felt nothing but respect and sympathy, but against the autocratic government in Germany that had embroiled
Europe in a selfish war without consulting the will of its own people. He
argued that in the future only democratic nations could maintain a “concert
for peace”; it was only free people who could act upon the interests of the
nation and humanity rather than selfish interest.79 For global peace, freedom, and democracy to succeed, the regime in Germany and all others like
it needed to be changed. As the speech drew to a close, Wilson raised the
true object of the war to higher level and proclaimed:
We are glad . . . to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and
for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the
rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to
choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe
for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations
of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material
compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of
the champions of the rights of mankind.80
Paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, Wilson explained that to this
mission, “we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are
and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day
has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for
the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has
treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.”81
After the United States entered the war, Wilson’s bellicosity increased,
and his vision of the possibilities for world renewal that would result from
the conflict expanded. A year to the day after the United States declared war
on Germany, he urged, “Force, Force to the utmost, Force without stint or
limit, the righteous and triumphant Force which shall make Right the law
of the world, and cast every selfish dominion down in the dust.”82 In the
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118 “An Empire of Ideals”
summer of 1918, he declared that peace could not be obtained without “the
destruction of every arbitrary power anywhere.”83 He demanded guarantees that all political, social, and economic questions be resolved freely by
the people involved, that nations abide by the same code of honor as individuals, and that a league of nations be established to enforce the postwar
peace. According to Gamble, America the Good was at this point imagined
as fighting in a Manichean type struggle against Evil Germany.84 As far as
Wilson was concerned, Germany could choose to submit to his vision or to
perish. After a number of military reversals in the autumn of 1918, Germany
made its choice. On the morning of November 11, 1918, Germany signed an
armistice. The war was over. Under American guidance, Wilson hoped the
principles of freedom and democracy would finally have the opportunity to
make the world a better place.
These extended comments on Wilson have served an important purpose
insofar as they have brought greater clarity to the shape of Reagan’s foreign
policy vision as well as its historical resonance. A number of similarities
between the foreign policy visions of Wilson and Reagan are immediately
apparent. Both men believed that the United States had been founded upon
abstract, universal political ideas, including freedom and democracy. Both
believed that America was charged with a special mission to spread its political ideas and institutions abroad. They both reinterpreted American history and historical documents in ways that suggested U.S. foreign policy
had always sought to realize these ideas. They held that governments, not
people, started wars. Hence, America should never wage war against the
people of another nation. If the United States had to fight, they believed that
it should do so only to liberate people around the world from oppressive and
tyrannical governments. Those that opposed their visions were “selfish” or
“isolationists.” That an interventionist impulse was a salient feature of their
foreign policy visions is clear.
Was Reagan, then, a mere carbon copy of Wilson? In one sense, the
answer is obviously no. Among other things, they had rather different personalities. McDougall quotes British prime minister David Lloyd George as
once saying about Wilson: “he ‘believed in mankind . . . but distrusted all
men.’ ”85 Whatever one may think of Reagan and his ideas, his personal
comportment never sanctioned such a remark. There is also a noticeable
difference between them concerning the emphasis they place upon America’s
global mission to extend democracy and freedom. For Wilson, the idea of
service was the most important American obligation in foreign policy practice. As far as he was concerned, pursuing other interests was ultimately
degrading to the United States and its people. For Reagan, the obligation
to spread freedom and democracy was the predominant part of a vision
that included more room than did Wilson’s for other strategic and national
security concerns.
Reagan did not avidly read Wilson’s presidential speeches. No claim has
been made or implied here that Reagan imbibed Wilson’s ideas and vision
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 119
through rigorous study of primary sources, or that he became a disciple of
Wilson’s foreign policy thought as an adult. But the notion that it is only
under such limited circumstances that visionary similarities can be posited is
indicative of an inadequate understanding of the creation of human knowledge. Such an argument could be made only by those with little understanding of the relationship between imagination and life experience as it has been
explained in this study.
Gamble’s scholarship has shown that Wilson’s vision was an especially
powerful and persuasive expression of widespread ideas within the larger
Protestant progressive Christian world in which Reagan grew up. Reagan
was raised as a Disciple of Christ. As Kengor notes, the founder of this sect
prophesied America’s destiny as world savior in the early 1830s. Kengor also
explains that Reagan’s mother, Nelle, was highly invested in and publicly
promoted prominent progressive ideas about America’s role in the world.
That Harold Bell Wright, author of the book that persuaded Reagan to
become a Disciple, viewed America as a messianic nation literally saving the
world in the way Jesus Christ did on the cross is another example of the diffusion of these ideas in the United States. Wilson embodied and expressed a
way of seeing and relating to the world that emerged out of this complex set
of religious and political ideas. It is with this broader cultural and historical
context in mind that Reagan’s vision has been compared to Wilson’s and can
be described accurately as having prominent “Wilsonian” elements.
Both McDougall and Gamble see the legacy of Wilson’s vision of America,
and the foreign policy ideas it tends to inspire, as problematic on a number
of fronts. McDougall argues that although Wilson failed to realize his vision
of world peace, democracy, and freedom during World War I and its aftermath, Wilsonianism has remained highly popular in America. He claims
that it has informed to varying degrees the foreign policy visions of all of
Wilson’s presidential successors. About Wilson and his vision, McDougall
concludes, “As a blueprint for world order, Wilsonianism has always been a
chimera, but as an ideological weapon against ‘every arbitrary power everywhere,’ it has proved mighty indeed. And that, in the end, is how Wilson
did truly imitate Jesus. He brought not peace but a sword.”86 Gamble also
ponders the long-term implications of this type of vision for politics. He suggests that the degree to which a foreign policy vision like Wilson’s prevails
in America is the degree to which war will be total both in its means and
ends.87 Insofar as Reagan’s foreign policy imagination has so much in common with Wilson’s, Reagan’s vision may contain similar potential dangers.
REAGAN AND THE IMAGE OF DEMOCRACY
For Reagan, the image of democracy permeates many important components
of his imagination. It symbolizes a number of things including liberty, representative government, elections, unions, free speech and press, universities,
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120 “An Empire of Ideals”
and rule of law grounded in a written constitution. In his vision, once these
institutions are in place, the spirit of a people will be unleashed and the
problems commonly associated with politics will either be greatly diminished or even eliminated over time. Now that the main contexts in which
Reagan invokes this image in his speeches have been identified and analyzed,
some words directly addressing his understanding of democracy can now
be offered.
Reagan’s vision of democracy appears to be the political counterpart of
his understanding of human nature. In his imagination, the individual is
both good and free by nature. Democracy, which is also naturally good, is
the only environment in which human freedom and goodness can fully exist
and thrive. It seems as if a type of philosophical anthropology is at work in
Reagan’s vision. If this is true, then Reagan is part of a larger group of statesmen and philosophers who have contemplated the relationship between
human nature and politics in anthropological terms.
Plato is one of the earliest Western philosophers to construct a philosophical anthropology that could be applied to the evaluation of political
order and disorder, and his insights are worth examining. In a number
of his political dialogues, Plato argues that the order of the soul and the
order of the polis, or society, are reflected in one another. In the Republic,
Socrates explains, “ ‘You realize, I suppose,’ I went on, ‘that there must be
as many types of individual as of society? Societies aren’t made of sticks
and stones, but of men whose individual characters, by turning the scale
one way or another, determine the direction of the whole.’ ”88 By identifying
the representative personality type of a particular society, Socrates argues
that one can discern the moral qualities of its political order. For Plato, the
philosopher embodies the highest degree of order an individual can realize within his or her soul. In the Republic, therefore, the city in speech, or
kallipolis, has the highest degree of order because it is ruled directly by the
philosopher.
In contrast to philosophical rule, Plato claims that democracy is one of
the worst forms of government. It s nearly devoid of virtue and moderation.
This did not surprise Plato insofar as democracy is the democratic man writ
large. About democratic man Plato writes:
“In fact,” I said, “he lives from day to day, indulging the pleasure of
the moment. One day it’s wine, women and song, the next water to
drink and a strict diet; one day it’s hard physical training, the next
indolence and careless ease, and then a period of philosophic study.
Often he takes to politics and keeps jumping to his feet and saying
or doing whatever comes into his head. Sometimes all his ambitions
and efforts are military, sometimes they are all directed to success in
business. There’s no order or restraint in his life, and he reckons his
way of living is pleasant, free and happy, and sticks to it through thick
and thin.”89
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 121
In Plato’s view, democratic man suffers from a deeply disordered soul.
Democratic man’s spiritual wounds are self-inflicted. Injustice in a democracy cannot be attributed to poorly arranged political institutions or the
insufficient diffusion of democratic principles, such as liberty and popular
elections. On the contrary, the ultimate source of disorder in such a society
is the ethical immaturity of its symbolic representative. Democratic disorder
is a spiritual and existential disease rather than a procedural or institutional
problem, as far as Plato is concerned.
If Plato is correct, then the order of a particular society or nation depends
most deeply upon the ethical maturity of its individual citizens. There are
no institutional shortcuts on the road to a just and ordered society. For
Plato, the moral maturity of a people is an issue with which all political
thinkers and leaders must deal. As he explains in the Republic and other
dialogues such as Gorgias, order in the soul is achieved only after an individual engages in prolonged efforts to tame his passions and establish a life
of moderation through the use of reason. This makes politics a much more
difficult enterprise than proclaiming freedom or writing the word “democracy” on paper. That there may be serious problems with aspects of Plato’s
vision of philosophic-political order is acknowledged. That the remedy for
political disorder he proposes in the Republic might have significant flaws
does not diminish his insights into the relationship between the order of the
soul and the order of society and into the existential sources of disorder in
certain types of democracy.
That democracy can degenerate into the disordered society described by
Plato is always a possibility in politics. Irving Babbitt and Claes G. Ryn are
two scholars who have accepted some of Plato’s insights into democratic
disorder, but they have also articulated conditions within which a just
and ordered democratic government can exist. In Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt argues that his understanding of human ethical dualism
has a governmental analogue in what he calls “constitutional democracy.”
In contrast to what Babbitt terms “direct democracy,” which strives to
implement immediately the unfiltered, momentary desires of the numerical
majority, constitutional democracy is a form of government that restrains
the lower impulses of the people while allowing expressions of the higher
ethical will of the political community to become manifest in legislation
and governance. Constitutional democracy takes into account the higher
and lower inclinations of individuals and societies in ways that direct
democracy does not.
For Babbitt, a fundamental difference exists between these forms of
democracy. He writes, “There is an opposition of first principles between
those who maintain that the popular will should prevail, but only after it
has been purified of what is merely impulsive and ephemeral, and those
who maintain that this will should prevail immediately and unrestrictedly.”90 As far as Babbitt is concerned, the only type of democracy that can
establish a just order, protect liberty, and work toward the common good
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122 “An Empire of Ideals”
is the constitutional variety. Genuine constitutional democracy is extremely
difficult to achieve and maintain because it can function properly only when
a sufficient number of ethically mature people exist within a particular society and actively participate in political life. Although it may claim to be
dedicated to realizing the same goals as constitutional democracy, direct
democracy inevitably fails to provide liberty, justice, and order. In large part,
this is because of its reliance on an incomplete understanding of human
nature. It presupposes little or no ethical preparation on the part of citizens
for the responsible practice of self-government. Consequently, it is ruled
by immature and immoderate democratic souls, such as those whom Plato
criticizes in the Republic.
In Democracy and the Ethical Life, Claes G. Ryn uses a philosophical
anthropology similar in some respects to those of Plato and Babbitt to
explore the relationship between varieties of democracy and the demands
of the ethical life. He writes, “Government derives its shape, strength, and
direction from the aspirations of the people it serves. It will reflect and promote the ultimate goals for life that are held by that people and its leaders,”
and, “Political institutions are indistinguishable from the cultural ethos of
a people.”91 Ryn uses these insights to develop a dichotomy between what
he calls constitutional democracy and plebiscitary democracy. About the
former he argues, “It will be contended here that the idea of democracy,
viewed as a realistic statement of human potentiality, is at the same time
the idea of constitutional democracy, that is, of popular rule under legal
restraints not easily changed. This is so because of the nature of man’s moral
predicament.”92
Ryn explains that constitutional democracy includes “a distrust of
unhampered action and spontaneous decision.”93 This distrust is equivalent
to the practice of individual ethical self-restraint insofar as it includes a
similar reluctance to act upon the unchecked impulse of the moment. Ryn
claims, “Just as an individual may resolve on the basis of experience of his
own moral weakness not to give free rein to his impulses in the future, but
to make room for moral scrutiny of his motives before acting, so a people
may recognize the need for putting brakes on its own momentary will in the
interest of the common good.”94 Ryn believes that constitutional democracy
is the most ethically demanding form of government. It requires a great deal
of moral maturity on the part of citizens and leaders as well as a culture that
nurtures traditions and habits that orient people toward the common ethical
purposes of politics.
Ryn contrasts constitutional democracy with what he calls plebiscitary
democracy. Whereas a clear understanding of human ethical dualism shapes
the idea of constitutional democracy, plebiscitary democracy is based on a
belief in the natural goodness of human beings. Ryn claims that Rousseau
is one of the earliest and most persuasive expositors of this other form of
democracy in the modern era. Ryn argues, “In his effort to reconcile ethics
and politics Rousseau becomes the champion of a form of popular rule which
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“A Crusade for Freedom” 123
may be termed ‘plebiscitary democracy,’ one which gives maximum freedom
and power to the momentary majority of the people by placing no strongly
resistant legal obstacles in the way of emerging popular wishes.”95 For
Rousseau, constitutional democracy places unnecessary and even immoral
restraints upon the naturally good people. Despite their being based on questionable assumptions about politics and human nature, Ryn argues that plebiscitary visions of democracy continue to be immensely popular because
they flatter individuals who want to avoid the painful and protracted process
of cultivating the ethical maturity demanded by constitutional democracy.
CONCLUSION
These ideas from Plato, Babbitt, and Ryn are deeper philosophical explications of notions expressed by leading American figures such as John
Adams, John Quincy Adams, Publius, and Brownson, as well as by Burke. All
of these thinkers claim the entire human condition, the moral and immoral
inclinations of the human will, must be taken into account when reflecting
upon the theoretical conditions for political order and the ethical qualities
of an existing regime. For these thinkers, a just order of politics is intimately
related to the existence and leadership of ethically mature individuals. They
stress the importance of an ethically oriented cultural or civilizational ethos
to the existence of any type of responsible government, including democracy. These thinkers are especially skeptical of varieties of democratic selfgovernment that ignore the whole truth about politics and human nature.
If the political anthropologies of these thinkers make their respective assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy deeply insightful and
more or less correct, then Reagan’s vision of democracy, human nature,
and the relationship between them may very well contain some profound
inadequacies.
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If you take away the belief in a greater future, you cannot explain
America—that we’re a people who believed there was a promised land;
we were a people who believed we were chosen by God to create a
greater world.2
—Ronald Reagan
In Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt writes, “When studied with
any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run
into the political problem, the political problem in turn into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be almost indissolubly
bound up at last with the religious problem.”3
Even a cursory examination
makes clear that Reagan’s presidential speeches are replete with references
to God, Jesus (or “the man from Galilee”), religion, prayer, the Ten Commandments, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Talents, and the
Bible. Religion and religious ideas—especially those Reagan associates with
Christianity—are of great importance to Reagan and are therefore vital to
understanding his imagination. This point has not always been well understood, but recent scholarship has begun to draw serious attention to the
centrality of religion to Reagan’s mind.4
Although Reagan’s vision has a strong religious dimension, at least in
some sense of that word, its connection to the broader American and Western
Christian tradition he often invokes is more complex and tenuous than he
realizes. In some instances, he seems to suggest that the relationship between
politics and religion is one of fruitful tension. In this view, religion and politics
are seen as needing the other to thrive, but they remain distinct entities serving different, though not incompatible, ends. Much more frequently, Reagan
appears to blur the distinctions between these realms, and he even expresses
a longing for the abolition of the tension between them. This latter strain of
his imagination includes Reagan’s view that God has chosen the United States
and its people to complete a mission suffused with eschatological importance
and millennial expectation. This far more prominent side of Reagan’s religious
sensibilities, which will be the focus of this chapter, finds its most powerful
and seductive expression in the image of America as a shining city upon a hill.
“A Shining City upon a Hill”1
Ronald Reagan, Religion, and America
10
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 155
The central part of Reagan’s religious vision has deep roots in American
and Western political and religious thought. Elaborating this crucial dimension of his imagination requires that it be placed within wider historical,
theological, and philosophical contexts. Insights from Claes G. Ryn, Irving
Babbitt, and Richard Gamble will elucidate the implications of such a vision
for politics. Ideas from Eric Voegelin will shed further light upon the existential motivation and attraction of Reagan’s primary way of imagining the
relationship between religion and politics and between God and America.
Voegelin’s scholarship will also draw attention to the type of appeal Reagan
makes when he expresses the predominant side of his religious imagination.
Given the difficult nature of the following explication and analysis, a few
words must be said about the conceptual framework of this chapter.
THE THINGS OF GOD AND CAESAR: A BRIEF NOTE
ON CHRISTIANITY AND POLITICAL THOUGHT
At a conference on religious liberty, Reagan argued, “One of the great shared
characteristics of all religions is the distinction they draw between the temporal world and the spiritual world.”5
He then claimed, “All religions, in effect,
echo the words of the Gospel of St. Matthew: ‘Render, therefore, unto Caesar
the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’ ”6
Reagan held that this admonition, spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, taught that
there was an “almost mysterious” realm of being that transcended the political and which could not be subjected entirely to political control. Furthermore, he explained, “Only in an intellectual climate which distinguishes
between the city of God and the city of man and which explicitly affirms the
independence of God’s realm and forbids any infringement by the state on its
prerogatives, only in such a climate could the idea of individual human rights
take root, grow, and eventually flourish.”7
In making such comments about
the relationship and tension between politics and religion—that is, between
the things of God and the things of Caesar—Reagan identified one of the
most important contributions of Christianity to political thought.
Among other things, Jesus’s words about rendering unto Caesar and
God the things they were owed expressed his view that no inherent conflict
existed between the responsibilities of citizenship and membership in the
fledgling Christian community. In the same spirit, St. Paul later commanded
Christians to obey both the spiritual and secular authorities because “there
is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”8
Several
centuries later, Pope Gelasius I explained the government and the church
have different though not conflicting responsibilities to minister to the temporal and spiritual needs of people.9
This understanding of the relationship
between politics and religion, one in which church and state need each other
to survive and thrive, has been affirmed by of other Christian figures, including St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
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156 “An Empire of Ideals”
In the speech quoted earlier, Reagan also referred to the “city of God” and
“city of man.” These symbols are most closely associated with St. Augustine, and they are related to the God and Caesar distinction in Christian
political thought. In The City of God, St. Augustine argues that despite the
multiplicity of civilizations and nations, there exist only two cities throughout history, the City of God and the earthly city. Citizenship in either city is
determined by the quality of love in each member’s heart. Members of the
city of God are animated by the amor Dei, or love of God. Those belonging
to the earthly city, in contrast, are driven by the amor sui, or love of self.
The two cities symbolize a permanent division between two types of human
beings and communities; they have no earthly analogues, but rather serve
as eschatological symbols encompassing the full range of human historical
existence.
In St. Augustine’s mind, the two cities are related to two types of history,
sacred and profane. Sacred history is the story of the City of God. It is the
tale of humanity’s separation from and reconciliation to God. It began with
the Fall, continued with the Israelite exodus from Egypt, and culminated in
the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Sacred history is the source of
knowledge about human nature, God, existence, and salvation. In contrast,
profane history is a catalog of mundane historical events, beads on a string
marking the rise and fall of civilizations, devoid of meaning, signifying nothing. Further, although sacred history remains relevant until the end of time,
the major events comprising it have already occurred. Since the Resurrection
of Jesus, in St. Augustine’s view, humanity has lived in the last stage of history, in the millennial period. Since the Resurrection, Christians have been
waiting patiently for the Second Coming of Christ. Life on earth, in other
words, will remain more or less the same until the Last Judgment.
St. Augustine seems to push Christian indifference to politics and profane
history to an extreme. From his writings, one could get the impression that
politics is so corrupting, so “dirty,” that it is almost impossible to be both a
good Christian and a just and competent political leader. This should not be
surprising, given that he believed that politics is not natural; it is only a consequence of the Fall. Political authority, in his view, serves no greater purpose than to restrain human depravity. His views seem to suggest that God
and Caesar really do not have a meaningful relationship. These are common
criticisms of St. Augustine’s understanding of politics and history. Although
some scholars exaggerate these tendencies in St. Augustine’s writings, such
assessments have some merit.
Thomas Aquinas, a theologian whose importance to the development
of Western Christianity matches St. Augustine’s, affirms the distinction
between God and Caesar. But he has a different view than St. Augustine
on the possibilities of politics. In the Summa Theologicæ, Aquinas argues
noncoercive political society would have emerged in the state of innocence
and that this could not happen “unless someone is in authority to look after
the common good” as well as the good of each individual.10 Even though
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 157
politics is later compelled to use coercion as a means for achieving its ends,
it has an important, secondary role in promoting virtue.11 Political life cannot provide the ultimate in human happiness, Aquinas maintains, but it can
make a substantive contribution toward this end.
These comments indicate that traditional Christianity does not see the
relationship between God and Caesar as inherently acrimonious. Jesus, St.
Paul, Gelasius I, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas each give wide latitude
to the political realm. Christianity is compatible with a number of regime
types and political structures because politics is of secondary importance in
the Christian tradition here represented. These thinkers are not overly concerned with articulating systematic theories of politics, or with prescribing
specific political policies. This should not be surprising. Christianity is a religious movement, not a political philosophy. It seeks to shed light upon the
relationship between God and humanity, not to promote an ideology that
seeks a transformation of the world through political action. After all, in St.
John’s Gospel, “My Kingdom is not of this world,” was Jesus’s response to
Pontius Pilate’s question about the nature of his kingship.12 That Christianity ought to shape the spirit in which politics is conducted is a notion these
figures affirmed. That it is a political religion is something they rejected.
This foray into Christian political thought has served the important purpose of establishing a conceptual framework for analyzing Reagan’s religious vision. It must be noted that one need not be a Christian to affirm
(or reject) the philosophical importance of the distinction between God and
Caesar. In “The Things of Caesar: Toward the Delimitation of Politics,”
Claes G. Ryn writes, “I am intimating that an adequate theory of politics
may have to incorporate in some form a grasp of the divine. This is not to
suggest that the politician must become a theologian or embrace a particular religious creed, but that he be willing to examine on its own ground the
general quality of life which has given rise to such concepts as ‘the holy,’ ‘the
sacred,’ or ‘the divine.’ ”13 In this chapter, the distinction between God and
Caesar, and the relationship it recommends between religion and politics,
will be dealt with as a philosophical rather than religious concept. The purpose is to determine with the help of theoretical rather than dogmatic tools
the extent to which Reagan appears to embrace or reject this distinction and
what this might indicate about his chimeric imagination. The argument to
be advanced is not that certain portions of Reagan’s vision are problematic
because they are not sufficiently “Christian.”
REAGAN, AMERICA, AND THE SHINING CITY ON A HILL
The city on the hill image originally comes from the Sermon on the Mount.
Reagan appropriated the image from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A
Modell of Christian Charity.” He started using it as early as the late 1960s—
adding the word “shining” to Winthrop’s language—and he often referred
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158 “An Empire of Ideals”
to it in his presidential speeches. In his imagination, the shining city stood as
an overarching symbol for a complex mixture of ideas about politics, God,
human history, America, its people, and its mission or calling. In a 1986
speech, Reagan argued that Winthrop’s sermon served to remind the Puritans
that “they must keep faith with their God, that the eyes of all the world were
upon them, and that they must not forsake the mission that God had sent
them on, and they must be a light unto the nations of all the world—a shining
city upon a hill.”14 For Reagan, Winthrop’s sermon was still relevant. The
United States both was and was still becoming the shining city.
Whatever the historical epoch, it was clear to Reagan that America’s glory
and success were attributable to God’s will and blessing and to the holiness
of the American people. In his 1982 proclamation establishing the National
Day of Prayer, he explained, “Through the storms of Revolution, Civil War,
and the great World Wars, as well as during times of disillusionment and disarray, the nation has turned to God in prayer for deliverance. We thank Him
for answering our call, for, surely, He has. As a nation, we have been richly
blessed with His love and generosity.”15 In a 1983 proclamation on the same
topic, he stated, “From General Washington’s struggle at Valley Forge to the
present, this Nation has fervently sought and received diving guidance as it
pursued the course of history.”16 God uniquely favored Americans, in part,
because they called upon him often for help and guidance.
To Reagan, it was no coincidence that Americans were both pious and
strongly influenced by the Christian Bible and its teachings. They were destined to be a people who would worship God and practice his preferred
political ideas, thereby serving as a spiritual and political model for the rest
of the world. At Kansas State University, Reagan argued:
I said that we were a nation under God. I’ve always believed that this
blessed land was set apart in a special way, that some divine plan placed
this great continent here between the oceans to be found by people from
every corner of the Earth who had a special love for freedom and the
courage to uproot themselves, leave homeland and friends to come to
a strange land, and where, coming here, they have created something
new in all the history of mankind—a land where man is not beholden
to government; government is beholden to man.17
Reagan frequently expressed such ideas about God’s plan for the United
States. He offered this thought in nearly identical language on numerous
occasions before and during his presidency.
Did Reagan then think that America and its people were perfect? Or, to
put the question in religious terms, did he think that Americans were granted
a special reprieve from the human inclination to sin, or that America, somehow, was immune to the tendencies of politics to degenerate into disorder?
Answering these questions about Reagan’s vision is not easy. On the one
hand, the obvious response Reagan would have given to this question was
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 159
that no, Americans were not incapable of sinning or acting immorally. In his
1983 Address to the National Association of Evangelicals, he even stated:
“[We] must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect
man. We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil, or, as theologians would put
it, the doctrine of sin.”18 In some speeches he identified slavery as a particularly awful scar on the American soul. In others he cited a number of social
problems, ranging from abortion, to high divorce rates, to drug usage, as
evidence that the United States and its people were not perfect.
More frequently, Reagan suggested that America and its people, although
they were not perfect, were still different from and perhaps morally superior
to the peoples of the rest of the world. In a 1982 speech, he acknowledged,
“Hatred, envy, and bigotry are as old as the human race itself, as too many
tragic passages in the history of the world bear witness.”19 But, immediately
following this comment on the chronic weaknesses of human beings, he
argued:
What is new and daring and encouraging about the American experiment
is that from the beginning, men and women strove mightily to undo these
evils and to overcome the prejudice and injustice of the old world in the
virgin soil of the new. . . . Nowhere does history offer a parallel to this
vast undertaking. With all its flaws, America remains a unique achievement for human dignity on a scale unequaled anywhere in the world.20
Reagan then stated, “America has already succeeded where so many other
historic attempts at freedom have failed. Already, we’ve made this cherished
land the last best hope of mankind.”21 Thus, although the United States was
not without failings, its special status as a place set aside by God to be populated by a chosen people allowed America to come the closest to perfection
out of all nations in history. This tension between acknowledging that Americans, like all other human beings, acted upon their lower impulses, and the
desire to downplay the pervasiveness or even existence of these tendencies in
the United States, was present in many of his presidential speeches.
Reagan’s sense of America as a shining city contributed to his belief that
the American president was obligated to play an active role in cultivating
and maintaining the spiritual health of the American people.22 In an interview he explained, “There is a great hunger for a kind of spiritual revival
in this country, for people to believe again in things that they once believed
in—basic truths and all.”23 Furthermore, he argued that as president he
felt personally responsible for using, “as Teddy Roosevelt called it, ‘a bully
pulpit’ ” to facilitate and encourage such revival. He also felt a sense of
urgency about undertaking this mission because “if you look back at the fall
of any empire, any great civilization, it has been preceded by their forsaking
their gods. . . . I don’t want us to be another great civilization that began
its decline by forsaking its God.”24 Reagan seemed to believe Americans
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160 “An Empire of Ideals”
were capable of forfeiting their inheritance as a chosen people. He even
considered the possibility that the nascent stages of this type of decline might
already have begun. In his mind, the ultimate survival of the United States
was tied to the continuation and expansion of a religious awakening for
which he, the president of the United States, bore the primary responsibility.
The shining city could not be rejuvenated if the American people were not
worthy of citizenship.
The shining city image informed to a great extent Reagan’s vision of
America’s mission to promote progress and reform in the United States and
around the world. Referring to his first presidential victory at the 1988
Republican National Convention, Reagan explained that in 1980, “it was
our dream that together we could rescue America and make a new beginning, to create anew that shining city on a hill.”25 On domestic politics, he
stated in a different speech that the United States had been “blessed with a
sacred opportunity and a sacred quest.”26 He argued in yet another speech
that to fulfill America’s “higher mission,” Americans must “build together
a society of opportunity, a society that rewards excellence, bound by a body
of laws nourished with the spirit of faith, equity, responsibility, and compassion.”27 If the United States succeeded in its quest, what would the country
look like? He explained, “The streets of America would not be paved with
gold; they would be paved with opportunity.” Reform was the only way
to preserve the American dream, which was a gift from God and not an
American creation.28 It was the only way to revitalize the shining city. And
yet a number of economic, social, and political problems stood in the way.
Reagan believed that the excessive growth of the national government
had stifled American freedom and creativity. High taxes and the expansion
of federal bureaucracy and regulation had nearly strangled the U.S. economy to death. As president, Reagan wanted to lower taxes, reduce the size
of government, and reestablish the constitutional distinctions between the
national government and the various state governments. Ideas of this type
are some of the most widely recognized as expressions of Reagan’s political
thought. Less well known is the degree to which these views were shaped by
Reagan’s religious ideas, including his understanding of the Bible and certain
Christian parables.
Reagan referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan in many of his
presidential speeches. In the parable, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do
to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies by asking, “What is written in the law?
how readest thou?” The lawyer says that he is to love God and neighbor as
self. “Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live,” Jesus answers.
But the lawyer then asks him who is his neighbor. By way of answering,
Jesus tells the story of a man on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. The
traveler is set upon by thieves and beaten. A priest and a Levite pass by this
man while he lies in the road “half dead,” but they do not help him. Then
a Samaritan passes by this injured man, and he has compassion upon him.
The Samaritan tends to the traveler’s wounds and takes him to an inn where
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 161
he pays the innkeeper to administer further care. The Samaritan then leaves
the inn, but he promises the innkeeper that he will pay for any additional
costs upon his return. Upon concluding the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer,
“Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell
among the thieves?” The lawyer answers that it was the Samaritan. “Go,
and do thou likewise,” is the command that Jesus gave to the lawyer.29
In the standard Christian interpretation of this parable, the Samaritan
symbolizes Jesus, the beaten man is humanity, and the inn is the church.
Among other things, the parable indicates that human beings truly love their
neighbors, and thus themselves and God, only insofar as they demonstrate
it through concrete moral action. This emphasis on actions as evidence of
virtue permeates the Christian scriptures. In the Epistle of James it is written, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own
selves.”30 About telling the difference between true and false prophets, Jesus
says, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”31 But the parable of
the Good Samaritan also suggests that individuals are permanently morally
flawed. All people are lying “half dead” on the road, so to speak. Further, the possibilities for alleviating the self-inflicted physical and spiritual
wounds of human beings are limited. In the Christian view here represented,
humanity must await the return of the Samaritan in order to receive a complete cure, to be made whole again. As it is told in the Bible, the parable has
no direct reference to government. The views expressed may have important
contributions to make to the sound practice of politics, but such effects are
ultimately indirect and secondary.
In Reagan’s imagination, the parable of the Good Samaritan was given
a rather different interpretation and emphasis. On occasion he explained:
And I’ve always believed that the meaning and the importance of that
parable is not so much the good that was done to the beaten pilgrim, it
was to the Samaritan who crossed the road, who knelt down and bound
up the wounds of the beaten traveler, and then carried him into the nearest town. He didn’t take a look and hurry on by into that town and then
find a caseworker and say, “There’s somebody out there on the road I
think needs help.”32
In a different speech, Reagan argued, “In recent years, too many of us have
tended to forget that government can’t properly substitute for the helping
hand of neighbor to neighbor. And in trying to do so, government has, to a
great extent, brought on the economic distress that mires us down in recession.”33 As interpreted by Reagan, the parable’s injunction to love one’s
neighbor demands protection against the meddling of government, which
is capable only of hindering each individual’s ability to act upon Samaritan
impulses. For him the parable of the Good Samaritan is as much a political
lesson about the dangers of big government as it is a lesson about the obligations of human beings to love and care for each other.
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162 “An Empire of Ideals”
Reagan also referred to the parable of the talents on many occasions. In
it, Jesus says, “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man traveling into a far
country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.”
The man portions out talents, which was a measure of considerable wealth,
to three of his servants “according to his several ability.” The man then
leaves his estate and returns after a long absence. A servant to whom he
had given five talents used them to make another five talents, giving ten
talents back to his master. A servant to whom he had given two talents
likewise made another two talents, giving four talents back when the master returned. In each case, the master saw what the industry of these two
servants had accomplished and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant;
thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many
things: Enter into the joy of thy lord.” But the last servant did not increase
the one talent his master had given him. Thinking his master a “hard man,”
this servant simply hid his talent in the ground in order to give it back.
This servant was rebuked as “wicked and slothful” because he chose not to
increase that which he was given. This single talent was then given to the
good servant who already had ten. The “unprofitable servant” was cast into
“the outer darkness.”34
In the traditional Christian interpretation, the talents symbolize gifts given
by Jesus to his disciples that will help them work toward their salvation
and spread his message. What are these gifts? In 1 Corinthians St. Paul provides examples and writes, “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same
Spirit. . . . For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the
word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to
another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit.”35 In this view, one Spirit pursues and accomplishes its will by acting through a diverse body of individuals,
giving to each member the virtues or graces he or she can bear and multiply.
The parable of the talents thus conveys the Christian sense of a unity of spirit
and purpose realized through a diversity of members and faculties. It describes
an active life of love and virtue inspired by a vision of and a longing for the
kingdom of heaven, which, as Jesus points out, is not of this world. The use of
monetary imagery is symbolic and incidental to the main point of the parable.
The parable has no explicitly political or economic message.
Reagan interpreted the parable of the talents as a story primarily concerned with extolling the virtues of entrepreneurship. It was a reminder
of the necessity of freedom for human happiness and progress, and it was
another warning about the dangers of excessive governmental taxation
and economic regulation. In a national radio address on small business, he
argued that entrepreneurs did not fit the stereotypes commonly associated
with greed and selfishness. Rather, they were “men and women who had the
spirit to dream impossible dreams, take great risks, and work long hours to
make their dreams come true,” and “owners of that store down the street,
the faithfuls [sic] who support our churches, schools, and communities, the
brave people everywhere who produce our goods, feed a hungry world, and
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 163
keep our homes and families warm while they invest in the future to build a
better America.”36 These heroes were proof that free markets were as much
about making great personal sacrifices for the happiness of others as they
were about accumulating private wealth.
According to Reagan, this understanding of wealth and responsibility
was based on the Christian scriptures. In this radio address, he explained,
“In the Parable of the Talents, the man who invests and multiplies his money
is praised. But the rich who horde their wealth are rebuked in scripture.”37
In Reagan’s mind, multiplying talents meant that Americans were able
to invent new technologies and start new businesses, which led to corresponding increases in manufacturing and agricultural production as well as
increases in wealth and progress for all people. But Americans could not use
their talents efficiently if government hindered them. They needed tax and
regulatory relief in order to use their talents for their own benefit and the
benefit of others.
The shining city symbol also had implications for the world and for peace
among nations. Reagan often spoke in religious terms about the obligation of the United States to spread freedom throughout the world. In his
1982 speech to the British Parliament, he announced a crusade for freedom.
Elsewhere, he encouraged America and the West to become evangelists for
liberty. In a 1984 speech, he informed the audience: “We stand for freedom
in the world. . . . We’re blessed by God with the right to say of our country: This is where freedom is.”38 In his Second Inaugural Address, Reagan
concluded with a reflection on what he called “the American sound.” This
sound was “hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair.”39 It
resounded through American history, and it would guide the United States
as it charted a path to the future. He said, “We raise our voices to the
God who is the Author of this most tender music. And may He continue to
hold us close as we fill the world with our sound—in unity, affection, and
love—one people under God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He
has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a
waiting and hopeful world.”40
Reagan also invoked religious imagery when promoting global democracy.
During a speech given on the Fourth of July, he argued, “Democracy is just
a political reading of the Bible.”41 In his mind, the divine preference for
democracy was another reason it should be embraced by the world and
advanced by God’s new chosen people. In the same speech in which Reagan
described the Constitution as a covenant with mankind, he reflected upon
George Washington’s First Inaugural Address and claimed, “But [Washington] knew . . . that the guiding hand of providence did not create this new
nation of America for ourselves alone, but for a higher cause: the preservation and extension of the sacred fire of human liberty. This is America’s solemn duty.”42 In Reagan’s imagination, a strong connection existed between
God’s preferences for politics and the American obligation as a shining city
to spread freedom and democracy abroad.
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164 “An Empire of Ideals”
Beyond the general demand to export these political institutions, Reagan
believed that as a shining city the United States was bound by God and
morality to share its abundance with the world. At Kansas State University
Reagan borrowed from Winthrop and said, “The eyes of mankind are on us,
counting on us to protect the peace, promote new prosperity, and provide
for them a better world.”43 In his view, Americans were fulfilling this mission: “Bringing light where there was darkness, heat where there was once
only cold, and medicines where there was sickness and disease, food where
there was hunger, wealth where humanity was living in squalor, and peace
where there was only death and bloodshed.”44
A few months before these comments, in a speech given during a visit to
the Vatican to meet Pope John Paul II, Reagan remarked, “We know that
God has blessed America with the freedom and abundance many of our less
fortunate brothers and sisters around the world have been denied. Since the
end of World War II, we have done our best to provide assistance to them,
assistance amounting to billions of dollars worth of food, medicine, and
materials.”45 He went on to explain that his administration would be committed to continuing this general program of global benevolence because
“Americans have always believed that in the words of the Scripture, ‘Unto
whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.’ ”46 To paraphrase a comment from Richard Gamble about Woodrow Wilson, this
line of thought suggests that Reagan’s vision of America as a shining city
included the image of the United States as a Good Samaritan with the entire
world as its neighbor.
The notion that America had been chosen to bring about the universal realization of certain political institutions also contributed to Reagan’s
broader understanding of the Soviet Union. In his mind, the USSR was an
evil empire primarily because it stood in direct and prideful opposition to
God and his will for politics. This was also the reason it was doomed to
inevitable failure. In his 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan argued, “I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre
chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written. I
believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual.”47 Reagan believed that the United States
and its citizens needed to “reassert our commitment as a nation to a law
higher than our own, to renew our spiritual strength” in order to “leave
Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.”48 In this way, his desire
for spiritual revival in America was directly related to the prospects for the
growth of liberty, democracy, and religious freedom around the world.49
Reagan expressed many aspects of his religious vision during his 1988
trip to the Soviet Union. In remarks he made at a recently reopened Russian
Orthodox monastery, he celebrated Russian Christians such as Alexander
Solzhenitsyn who came to know God and worshiped him even in the midst
of suffering the horrors of the gulag. He also praised the Russian people
for the fact that despite constant persecution, religion had survived and was
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 165
beginning to grow again in the late 1980s. They were proof that freedom
and faith could not be extinguished by any government.50 He also spoke to a
group of Soviet dissidents at the Spaso House in Moscow. He told his listeners that as “a head of government,” he was committed to promoting a robust
agenda with the Soviet Union that included “freedom of religion,” “freedom
of speech,” “freedom of travel,” and “institutional changes to make progress permanent.”51 But he also wanted to speak to them “as a man,” and he
explained his vision of the future in the Soviet Union and around the world in
the following terms: “I want to give you one thought from my heart. Coming
here, being with you, looking into your faces, I have to believe that the history of this troubled century will indeed be redeemed in the eyes of God and
man, and that freedom will truly come to all.”52 Reagan’s shining city had
been given a unique role to play in this redemptive drama.
When Reagan described his sense of a peaceful world, he often quoted
parts of the following passage from the Prophet Isaiah: “And he shall judge
among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their
swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not
lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”53 Repeatedly during his presidency, Reagan associated the ultimate goal of America’s
role in the world with this particular image as well as with others of a similar
nature. These types of religious images led Reagan to imagine the possibility
of “a world of peace and freedom, opportunity and hope, and, yes, of democracy—a world in which the spirit of mankind at last conquers the old, familiar
enemies of famine, disease, tyranny, and war.”54 Reagan believed deeply in the
power of a pious United States to transform the world. This was another reason why spiritual renewal in America was important. In general, his thinking
about the shining city’s role in securing world democracy, liberty, and peace
contained a high dose of apocalyptic expectation.
Throughout his presidency, Reagan cited empirical evidence as proof that
his general vision was a realistic description of the world and its possibilities.
He often pointed to quantitative economic data, including declines in unemployment, taxation, regulation, and interest rates and increases in production
and technological development, as evidence of the soundness of his vision. In
foreign policy, he frequently cited the increase in the quantities of democracies and free markets in Asia, Europe, and Latin America as evidence that he
understood the world and the direction in which the tide of history flowed.
Reagan also cited evidence of what he perceived as a profound spiritual
revival in the United States during his presidency. In remarks to the Student
Congress on Evangelism in 1988, for example, he claimed, “An overwhelming 9 out of 10 Americans pray. Audiences for religious books are growing.
The modern communications media are being used for evangelism.”55 In a
different speech, he gave further evidence of America’s resurgent piety. He
explained, “Americans are turning back to God. Church attendance is up. . . .
On college campuses, students have stopped shunning religion and started
going to church.”56 On the basis of many different measures, Reagan believed
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166 “An Empire of Ideals”
he had succeeded in bringing about the spiritual revival that was critical to
revitalizing the shining city and changing the world. In his mind, this spiritual
awakening in the United States contributed greatly to the various political,
economic, and international achievements of his presidency.
REAGAN’S SHINING CITY IN AMERICAN
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Reagan’s intuitive belief in America as a shining city on a hill has deep
historical roots. But before taking up an historical analysis, a few words of
caution are in order. There are different conceptions of America as a chosen nation within the American tradition of political and religious thought.
Some are politically passive and some are politically activist. Some are religiously grounded and others are mainly secular. No claims are here being
made that the long-standing tradition of thinking about America as a special or exceptional nation is uniform, or that Reagan’s interpretation of the
shining city is the inexorable product of past thought. Further, the ways in
which these images might influence the practice of politics is not the same
for all individuals or historical periods. No two people or historical epochs
are identical. Figures who might appear to share intuitive visions of America as a chosen nation would not necessarily have the same policy ideas.
Even where common ground exists between Reagan and the American past
regarding the religious underpinnings of America’s destiny, it should not
be assumed that Reagan’s policies would have met with the unequivocal
approval of the various figures to be discussed here.
Despite their having different views on a number of topics, many of the
Founders believed that the United States had a special status in history and
a special mission to the world. One obvious example from the Founding
period is the world-transforming zeal in the comment from Thomas Paine’s
Common Sense about beginning the world over again. Thomas Jefferson
held a similar view about America and its destiny. In his First Inaugural
Address, Jefferson referred to the United States as “the world’s best hope”
and “a chosen country.”57 Even John Adams was not entirely immune to the
appeal of the vision of a chosen America. In an early version of his “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” he explained, “I always consider
the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a
grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant,
and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”58
Adams’s comment has a stronger, traditionally religious tone than those
expressed by either Paine or Jefferson, but all three figures invested America
with eschatological hope.
George Washington also saw the hand of Providence in the events of the
revolutionary and Framing periods. The special status granted to the United
States by Providence came with a responsibility that Americans owed to
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 167
themselves and the rest of the world. Washington argued, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of
Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on
the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”59 In these
comments, Washington seems to see America as possibly the last, best hope
of mankind.
The idea that America was destined to play a crucial role in the unfolding of a divine plan for all of humanity was also expressed during the
colonial period. Jonathan Edwards, perhaps colonial New England’s most
insightful religious thinker, believed that America was a providential land.
He wrote that it was probable that the regeneration of the world would
begin in the British North America of the mid-eighteenth century. With
the Great Awakening in mind, he argued, “It is not unlikely that this
work of God’s spirit, so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning,
or at least a prelude of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in
scripture, which, in the progress and issue of it, shall renew the world
of mankind.”60 Edwards was one among many who felt this way about
America’s divine destiny. As did many others, he devoted a substantial
amount of time interpreting the apocalyptic symbolism of the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation, with reference to recent political and religious events in order to determine when the Christian Eschaton, or end
times, might begin.
These similarities notwithstanding, important differences exist between
Reagan’s religious sensibilities and those of the colonial and Framing periods. For John Winthrop, the city on a hill image meant something different
than it did to Reagan. In the original sermon, Winthrop said, “For wee must
Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are
uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee
have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us,
wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire
prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us.”61 In this context, being a city
on the hill seems to impart as much anxiety about failure as it does hope for
success. On occasion, Reagan quoted or paraphrased some of these admonishments. Much more frequently, Reagan assumed that the United States
was good by nature and thus ultimately incapable of failing to live up to the
responsibility of being a city on a hill.
Jonathan Edwards was also deeply concerned about the possibility and
consequences of America’s failure to live up to this image. In a sermon titled
“A City on a Hill,” he explained that God indeed raised nations and peoples
up as cities upon hills for the observation of others. But, he reminded his
parishioners, such election was “a very great obligation upon them to honor
religion in their practice.”
62 He said:
As they are thus set up on an hill, so they are under advantage to do
either more good or more hurt than any people in the world, that are
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168 “An Empire of Ideals”
not set on an hill as they are. If they carry themselves unsuitably, and
unchristianly, and contrary to their profession, their carriage will do
vastly more hurt than the like ill carriages of other people.63
Edwards delivered this sermon precisely because he felt that New England
had been chosen as a city upon a hill. The rest of the world was watching,
waiting to see how New England would fair under this burden. Edwards felt
that the outcome was by no means certain. With Winthrop and Edwards in
mind, it appears that Reagan’s shining city was a different place than the
Puritan ideal he invoked.
When compared with Reagan, it seems that many early American
thinkers and leaders, especially Washington, Adams, and Edwards, were
relatively cautious when contemplating and describing America’s providential identity and millennial role. Unlike the fortieth president, many
colonial and early republican political and religious leaders expressed
much more anxiety about the ability of the United States to live up to this
responsibility. Sin was for them a serious and permanent problem. They
tended to place much stronger emphases on the need to maintain high
levels of individual and public virtue and piety. To use Walter McDougall’s terms, they tended to view America as a “promised land,” looking
to perfect liberty, Christianity, and self-government at home, rather than
as a “crusader state” exporting these ideas and institutions abroad. These
differences notwithstanding, these representative examples show that, as
Richard Gamble writes in The War for Righteousness, “With surprising
consistency, though to varying degrees over time and with shifting emphases, Americans have been habitually drawn to language that is redemptive,
apocalyptic, and expansive.”64
In Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role, Ernest Lee
Tuveson explores the historical American and European roots of many of
the ideas about religion and politics that were expressed by Reagan. He
writes: “To the belief that history, under divine guidance, will bring about
the triumph of Christian principles, and that a holy utopia will come into
being, I have assigned the name ‘millennialist.’ ”65 He continues, “It has
not been generally realized that some version of the ‘millennialist’ doctrine
has probably been predominant among English-speaking Protestants since
the later seventeenth century.”66 Tuveson claims American religious thinkers
such as Jonathan Edwards and Timothy Dwight and British religious thinkers such as Thomas Goodwin and Daniel Whitby belong to this millennialist
category. Tuveson explains that millennialist religious thought rejects various ideas and concepts derived from traditional Christian theology including the allegorical interpretation of the Christian millennium, the difference
between sacred and profane history, and the division between the City of
God and the earthly city.
About the appeal of millennialism, Tuveson writes, “Christians need no
longer lead the furtive existence of Augustine’s City of God; militant action
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 169
against the remaining wrongs had now a great promise of success.”67 For
people persuaded by these ideas, Tuveson continues, “The Reformation
became the assurance that the long era of superstition, injustice, and poverty
was ending and that light was breaking over the world.”68 No longer would
Christians be forced to wait for a Last Judgment that would come like a thief
in the night. Now they could work incrementally towards the redemption of
the world in time. Millennialist ideas encouraged speculation about which
nation or nations had been chosen to carry out God’s will on earth. Tuveson argues that Englishmen and other Europeans carried various types of
millennialism to the New World during the colonization of North America.
It was not long thereafter that America became viewed as the chosen
land. It is out of this historical religious context, one in which the distinction
between God and Caesar became increasingly difficult to discern, that many
of the claims about America’s status as a chosen nation emerged. Many of
Reagan’s ideas about America as a shining city were rooted in a particular
strain of thought in the Western political and religious past that is strongly
at odds with the mainstream of Christianity, whether Eastern Orthodox,
Catholic (Roman or Anglican), or Protestant. But the tendency to interpret
history, American or otherwise, in this manner is not simply an American,
English, or Protestant phenomenon. It is a possibility that extends back into
the earliest history of the Christian church.
REAGAN’S SHINING CITY AND EARLY CHRISTIANITY
Jesus gave his Apostles a general account of the events that would culminate
in end of the world and his Second Coming. After telling them about the end
times, he said, “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even
unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.”69 The unpredictability of this event was reaffirmed by St. Peter, who writes, “But the
day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night.”70 He reminded his readers
that this was because “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a
thousand years as one day.”71 Even the Book of Revelation, which offers a
vivid account of the “events” of the Christian apocalypse, was mainly interpreted as an allegory since at least the time of St. Augustine. Thus, although
Christians were taught that history someday would end, they were not supposed to spend their lives attempting to decipher the date of Jesus’s return
by interpreting pragmatic events through a millennial filter.
These traditional ideas about the end of history did not go unchallenged.
During the first and second centuries, some Christians interpreted historical events, especially the various persecutions they suffered at the hands of
the Roman Empire, as signs of the looming apocalypse. St. Augustine, who
perhaps went further than any other early Christian theologian in separating Christianity and its transcendent eschatology from the events of the
mundane world, was prompted to protect sacred history and the City of
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170 “An Empire of Ideals”
God from profane history and the earthly city in part because this type of
confusion was not uncommon during his lifetime.
As Christianity gained acceptance in the Roman Empire, a number of
Christians, including political rulers and clergy, began to describe the empire
as having a unique relationship to God and a special role in the unfolding of
his providence in history. In “A Speech on the Dedication of the Holy Sepulchure Church,” Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop and early church historian,
argued that it was not a coincidence that the Incarnation of Christ, heralding
the one true religion for all of humanity, occurred at approximately the same
time as the declaration of the Pax Romana, a proclamation made possible
by Rome’s dominion over the known world. Prior to these events, Eusebius
argued, the world was primarily a place of suffering in which tyranny, war,
injustice, and the worship of false gods were common. In his view, Christianity was the spiritual liberator of humanity. It allowed all people to worship
the one true God. The empire too, especially after it established Christianity as its official religion, was destined to accomplish great and holy things
on earth. Through its enormous power, Rome would put an end to human
suffering and establish order and peace throughout the world.72 Working
together, the church and the empire, God and Caesar, would bring about
a dramatic improvement in the living conditions of humanity that would
eventually amount to a transfiguration of reality itself. In Eusebius’s view,
the empire is an equal partner with the church in bringing about this divinely
willed change in human existence.
In The City of God, St. Augustine devotes much time and care to exploding
what he perceived as an impermissible assertion of human knowledge about
the movements of Providence in human history contained in views like the one
expressed by Eusebius. He reminds his contemporaries that the Roman Empire
served God’s will both when it established Christianity as its official religion
and when it persecuted Christians. He also argues that God admits only the
righteous into the City of God, but, “Earthly kingdoms, however, He gives to
the godly and the ungodly alike, as it may please Him, whose pleasure is never
unjust.”73 Thus, for reasons known only to him, God gave an empire not only
to the Romans, but also to the Persians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and
others. Speculation about the meaning of the events in profane history is not a
Christian concern, according to St. Augustine. He explains, “The New Testament clearly reveals what is veiled in the Old: that the one true God is to be
worshipped not for the sake of those earthly and temporal goods which divine
providence grants to good and evil men alike, but for the sake of eternal life
and everlasting rewards, and the fellowship of the supernal City itself.”74
St. Augustine also dismantles the Eusebian view of the Pax Romana by
reminding his readers of its transitory nature and high cost. He acknowledges that the Roman Empire established a modicum of order and stability
throughout much of the known world. But he feels that many of those who
assign the empire a prophetic destiny overlooked the manner in which this
peace was achieved. In The City of God, he argues, “[This peace] was to
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 171
be accomplished only at the expense of titanic hazards, hair-raising exertion, and much mutual devastation—for by this time the other peoples of
the earth had also become stout-hearted and strong, practiced in the use of
weapons, and unwilling to yield.”75
Nor did St. Augustine consider this peace to be the permanent achievement
that Eusebius suggested. In a sober assessment of the fragility of political
order on earth, he states, “There never has been, nor, is there today, any
absence of hostile foreign powers to provoke war. What is worse, the very
development of the empire accruing from their incorporation has begotten
still worse wars within. I refer to the civil wars and social uprisings that
involve even more wretched anxieties for human beings, either shaken by
their actual impact, or living in fear of their renewal.”76 For St. Augustine,
the ever-present threat of conflict without and within the empire was a permanent feature of life on earth. All his comments were directed at reminding
Roman Christians that earthly life is transitory, that their true home is not
of this world, and that even the best arrangements of politics can make only
the most modest progress toward a just and ordered society.
These comments about a connection between dissident forms of the Reformation and a dubious tendency in early Christianity should not be interpreted as definitive statements about any of the mentioned thinkers and
epochs. They have been offered to impart a sufficient awareness of how
deeply rooted in Christianity is the propensity to conflate earthly living and
eschatological expectation. This tendency is not incidental to Christianity. It
appears that it is a permanent problem of human existence that Christianity
may even exacerbate. In other words, Reagan’s tendency to combine God
and Caesar is at least as old as Christianity itself. Eric Voegelin explains this
seemingly inevitable tendency in Christianity in many of his political and
philosophical writings. His thoughts will shed more light upon Reagan’s
religious-political beliefs.
ERIC VOEGELIN ON CHRISTIANITY AND
THE PROBLEM OF HISTORICAL EXISTENCE
Voegelin devoted much of his scholarship to recovering and interpreting
experiences and symbols of religious, political, and philosophical order. He
dwelt a great deal upon the philosophy of Plato and the theology of St.
Augustine, and he drew much inspiration for his writings and philosophical
ideas from these two thinkers. He also spent time diagnosing the existential
causes of spiritual, intellectual, and political disorder in the modern era.
Voegelin used a number of highly specialized terms and concepts to express
his ideas, and dictionaries and glossaries of his terminology abound in his
collected works and in the secondary literature. Here, the usage of Voegelin’s
technical terminology will be reduced to a minimum. Definitions will be
provided when possible or appropriate.
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172 “An Empire of Ideals”
Voegelin argues that individuals and societies experience a reality beyond
the mundane or ephemeral modes of existence. He holds that words such
as love, good, evil, reason, beauty, God, soul, and death, when described in
a philosophically serious manner, do not refer to static objects completely
known to or under the total control of human beings or societies. On the
contrary, such words are symbols, providing societies and individuals with as
much clarity as possible about a realm of existence of which they have some
experience, but that ultimately transcends human consciousness. Symbols
of great power and clarity often become authoritative for individuals and
societies because they express deep understandings of order in the human
soul and politics. In many writings, Voegelin claims that Christianity either
refined or transcended a number of earlier insights into the human condition
and the structure of reality, such as those articulated by the ancient Israelites
and by cosmological societies such as ancient Egypt and prephilosophical
ancient Greece. He believes that Christianity brought the greatest clarity to
human consciousness.
At the same time, Voegelin claims that the Christian breakthrough into a
more complete, or “differentiated,” understanding of the structure of reality
does not imply a transformation of earthly existence. The mundane world
remained for Voegelin, as for St. Augustine, the place in which human beings
are born, feel joy and sorrow, experience order and chaos, and die. The tension between the new heightened awareness of transcendent reality and the
continuation of earthly life more or less as it was before produces anxiety in
a number of individual Christians. In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin
argues that this is not a surprising experience because “uncertainty is the
very essence of Christianity.”77 He claims that with Christianity the security
previously derived from a belief in a cosmos populated by immanent, or
intraworldly, gods is lost, and “communication with the world-transcendent
God is reduced to the tenuous bond of faith, in the sense of Heb. 11:1, as the
substance of things hoped for and the proof of things unseen.”78
As Christianity expanded, and as its insights into human nature, God,
and history gained authority, it began to reshape Western civilization. Many
Christians endured the heightened uncertainty about existence ushered in by
Christianity—especially if they realized that God, who was infinite, could
not be dominated by the human intellect or will, both of which were finite.
But a number of human beings, both Christian and non-Christian, were not
willing to accept this tenuous hold upon reality. Voegelin explains, “The very
lightness of this fabric [of Christian faith] may prove too heavy a burden
for men who lust for massively possessive experience.”79 Indeed, one consequence of Christianity’s formative influence upon Western civilization is that
an increasing number of people ill equipped to bear Christianity’s uncertainty are nevertheless brought under the dominion of Christian symbolism.
This led to a development within Christianity, which was discernible from
the beginning and was amplified during and after the Reformation, which
Voegelin calls “gnosticism.”
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 173
In Voegelin’s view, gnosticism is the essence of the disorder of modernity.
He uses this technical term to describe what he sees as a common response
to the pressure of living in the de-divinized, mundane world of Christianity.
In his view, gnosticism encompasses a wide range of religious and secular
political movements, ranging from Christian millennial movements, such
as those described earlier, to Marxism and various totalitarian political and
ideological movements. Gnosticism attracts and unites individuals who have
common experiences of the world as a defective and deeply disappointing
place, a state of affairs that they attribute to the world’s poor organization.
The typical gnostic believes that this dissatisfaction will dissolve as soon as
he conjures and implements a plan for politics or society that promises a
transformation of reality. In this view, there is no need to wait for a divine
event or force to bring about this type of change. The key to regenerating
the world and humanity lies in human action itself. Gnostics of all types,
religious and secular, are animated by desires to re-divinize the world and
immanentize, or bring into history, the Christian Eschaton, or its secular
equivalent. According to Voegelin, gnosticism, as a development in political
thought, has both a highly utopian and revolutionary cast.80
For Voegelin, the appeal of such a vision to spiritually immature individuals is not difficult to understand. Gnosticism requires little to no effort on
the part of the individual to adjust his soul to a transcendent realm of order
or to restrain his will’s lower impulses. As Voegelin argues, “The spiritual
strength of the soul which in Christianity was devoted to the sanctification of
life could now be diverted into the more appealing, more tangible, and, above
all, so much easier creation of the terrestrial paradise.”81 Such a vision also
satisfies, at least for a time, psychological and existential needs to feel secure,
certain, and in control of reality. For the typical gnostic, the moral purity of
his vision to transform reality demands universal assent; objections to his
vision are heresy. To Voegelin, gnostic visions, regardless of the fervency with
which they are promoted by individuals or societies, are pneumopathological
disorders, or spiritual diseases. When they serve as the organizing ideas for
political activity, they wreak horrendous havoc.
Voegelin’s efforts to understand the root causes of modern political and
spiritual disorder are not confined to his gnostic thesis. In Israel and Revelation, he explores and analyzes the desires of the Israelite prophets for a
change in the constitution of being, or the structure of reality. In so doing,
he develops a number of interpretive concepts, including “metastatic faith”
and “metastatic apocalypse,” which are derived from the word “metastasis”
(meaning “change” or “transformation”). He uses these terms to interpret
an episode he recounts from the Old Testament in which the Prophet Isaiah counseled the king of Judah that faith in Yahweh was sufficient protection against an imminent invasion. With a strong enough faith in God,
Isaiah claimed, the Lord would disperse the enemies. The king rejected this
advice and made the practical arrangements one would expect of a monarch
charged with defending the realm.
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174 “An Empire of Ideals”
Voegelin argues that this encounter is important because “an aura of
magic undeniably surrounds the counsel: It is due to the fact that the divine
plan itself has been brought within the knowledge of man, in as much as
Isaiah knows that God wants the survival of Judah as an organized people
in pragmatic history.”82 The act of faith Isaiah demanded, based on his
unique knowledge of God’s plan for Israel, promised a fundamental change
in the entire structure of existence. It had the allure of a reprieve from the
perpetual, mundane responsibilities of political life. In this sense, it promised
a metastatic apocalypse produced by an act of metastatic faith.
About this episode Voegelin writes, “Isaiah, we may say, had tried the
impossible: to make the leap in being a leap out of existence into a divinely
transfigured world beyond the laws of mundane existence.”83 Voegelin
admits that there are important differences between the metastatic desires
of Isaiah and those of later gnostic figures. But these differences, however
large, are of degrees rather than kind. Voegelin explains, “The constitution
of being is what it is, and cannot be affected by human fancies.”84 The
structure of being is fixed, he says, and “the will to transform reality into
something which by essence it is not is the rebellion against the nature of
things as ordained by God.”85 Voegelin believes that Christianity is successful in the main in transforming the various metastatic symbols of the
Old and New Testaments into “eschatological events beyond history,” but
he also stresses that movements desiring transformations of reality never
entirely disappeared.86 In a manner similar to Tuveson, Voegelin holds that
new versions of these old symbols and of religious and political movements
devoted to their propagation reemerged during the Reformation.
In an essay titled “Man in Society and History,” Voegelin claims that metastatic political movements remained active in the twentieth century. He argues,
“The metastatic ideas that determine politics until our day, for example, in
the idea of a final Communist empire, move in the tradition of apocalyptic
thought.”87 He also believes that gnostic variants of symbols such as “chosen
nation” and “chosen people” still linger in the present. He writes that although
various ancient empires destroyed the political organization of the historical
chosen people of Israel, “that does not mean that the idea of a Chosen People is
dead. Still today it dominates the political scene in which more than one people
feels itself chosen to enter into leadership of world society.”88
Elsewhere, Voegelin draws attention to a problem in political thought that
is poorly understood by many Western theorists and political figures. In a
review of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Voegelin argues
that a tendency to juxtapose good liberal-democratic order with evil totalitarian order provides an inadequate explanation for the disorder and violence of
the twentieth century. He writes, “The true dividing line in the contemporary
crisis does not run between liberals and totalitarians, but between the religious and philosophical transcendentalists on the one side and the liberal and
totalitarian immanentist sectarians on the other side.”89 That many defenders
of liberalism, such as Arendt, were also committed to transforming the world
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 175
and human nature through political activity, he suggests, “reveals how much
ground liberals and totalitarians have in common; the essential immanentism
that unites them overrides the differences of ethos that separate them.”90
Voegelin considered Karl Marx to be one of the most influential modern
gnostic thinkers. A brief summary of Marx’s understanding of human
nature, the historical process, and the end of history will help draw out the
gnostic tendencies of Marx’s thought and communist ideology. For Marx,
human beings are unique because they possess the freedom to engage in
creative labor. Unfortunately, history is the story of the development and
evolution of social classes, property relationships, and the means of production—all of which increasingly alienate individuals from their natural selves.
This story moved through many stages and had arrived at the penultimate
epoch of capitalism, which happened to be the time in which Marx lived. In
capitalism, the working class, or proletariat, is completely alienated from its
labor. Thus, it is able to develop a revolutionary consciousness. With Marx’s
vision in mind, the proletariat can unite on a global scale, rise up, destroy the
bourgeoisie and their capitalist superstructure, and complete the final stage
of history, which produces communism.
In The German Ideology, Marx explains the following about human
existence before and after this revolution:
For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has
a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and
from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or
a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means
of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch
he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it
possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt
in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter,
fisherman, shepherd or critic.91
When history is complete, Marx claims, politics as it has theretofore been
known in human history will no longer be necessary. Through the revolutionary process itself, all human beings, or, more specifically, everyone who
survives the revolution, will be free and equal. They will have overcome
their historical alienation. The belief that this future paradise is on the brink
of being realized permits the proletariat to use any means necessary both to
ignite and complete the revolution.
As this brief account suggests, Marx’s revolutionary and apocalyptic
vision of communism is global in scope and has a highly utopian character.
It is possible, he thought, to transform completely both human nature and
the rest of reality. It is this part of the Marxist imagination that drove many
people, including Whittaker Chambers, to embrace communism.
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176 “An Empire of Ideals”
These ideas from Voegelin shed a different, perhaps unexpected light
upon the quality of Reagan’s religious vision as expressed in the image of
America as a shining city upon a hill. It is well known that Reagan was
no intellectual friend of Karl Marx. On virtually every conceivable topic,
they seem to be deeply at odds. Unlike Marx, Reagan believed in God as
the creator of the world and humanity. In Reagan’s mind, human life is
sacred. Reagan was an advocate of free markets, private property, liberty,
and democracy. For him, these are not only practical but also moral institutions. Notwithstanding these and other important specific differences, one
should not overlook the fact that Marx and Reagan seem to share certain
broader imaginative tendencies.
Like Reagan, Marx was enthralled by a vision in which political activity
fundamentally changed human nature and the world. They both imagined
a future in which politics would no longer be necessary. Reagan, it is true,
promoted a peaceful type of democratic apocalypse. In many ways, his selfappointed role in the drama of history was similar to the one played by
the Prophet Isaiah as described by Voegelin. Both Reagan and Isaiah relied
upon the nonviolent appeal of their words to act as a catalyst for the metastatic transformation of the world. Marx’s notion of how to bring change, in
contrast, involved destruction and violence. Nevertheless, both Reagan and
Marx saw the structure of reality as malleable. They saw the process of history as intelligible and as working toward a culmination in time. This part of
Reagan’s imagination used Christian symbols, whereas Marx categorically
rejected such images. This difference should not obscure what, to use Voegelin’s term, appears to be the underlying gnostic character of their ostensibly
different visions. In their efforts to obtain and communicate certainty about
the structure of reality, both figures seem to have lost sight of the distinctive
nature of the divine realm, collapsing God into Caesar.
Voegelin’s description of modernity as permeated by gnostic and
metastatic movements has provided philosophical support for Babbitt’s
claim that political and economic problems are ultimately expressions of
deeper spiritual disorders. Voegelin’s scholarship has also provided a more
rigorous philosophical context for interpreting the millenarian religious and
political movements described by Tuveson. In penetrating to the essence of
the gnostic and metastatic attitudes toward Being and history, Voegelin identifies similarities between liberalism and totalitarianism that have helped
uncover what some might consider to be startling similarities between
the ideological structure of Marxism and Reagan’s religious sensibilities.
Voegelin’s research has also shown how deeply gnostic and metastatic tendencies run in the Western mind and in Christianity; this might make the
predominant side of Reagan’s religious imagination more forgivable, if not
more philosophically acceptable.
Voegelin’s writings also shed light upon the types of intellectual and
political debates and movements that emerged in the aftermath of World
War II. It is worth noting that The New Science of Politics, Israel and
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 177
Revelation, his review of The Origins of Totalitarianism, and “Man in Society and History” were written during a period from the late 1940s until the
mid 1960s. At the same time that Voegelin was developing theoretical tools
with which to diagnose the spiritual and political disorder of the age, Reagan
was constructing and refining his vision of politics. Voegelin’s work during
this period is but one indication that alternatives to the vision Reagan ultimately adopted were available. Were Reagan to have encountered Voegelin’s
work—which is not an implausible idea since Voegelin became widely associated with the so-called American conservative intellectual movement—it is
unlikely, however, that he would have adopted Voegelin’s views. Such a step
would have required a fundamental reorientation of Reagan’s imagination.
His basic intuitive sensibilities were already deeply ingrained and would
have strongly predisposed him against a transformation of beliefs in the
direction of traditional Christianity and the distinction between the things
of God and the things of Caesar.
As helpful as Voegelin’s scholarship has been to analyzing Reagan’s
religious views, it should be noted that Voegelin’s thoughts on Christianity are not without ambiguities. Some of his critics suggest he has either
an incomplete or a flawed understanding of Christianity. David Walsh, a
scholar sympathetic to Voegelin, writes, “Voegelin left the Christian dimension of his thought in a relatively undeveloped stage.”92 In “Immortality:
Experience and Symbol,” for example, Voegelin declares, “History is Christ
written large.”93 Yet in his many writings Voegelin does not seem to realize
the full implications of his own statement. Voegelin’s “underdeveloped”
interpretation of Christianity actually exaggerates the distance between the
transcendent and the immanent. He does not sufficiently understand that
the Christian God, who was incarnated in history, has an intimate connection with creation. To that limited extent, Christianity can be said to
have “divinized” the “mundane” world. Contrary to Voegelin’s suggestions, mainstream Christianity does not understand itself as having drained
earthly existence of mystery or the divine presence. God is thought to work
through history.
The idea that universality is present in history has serious implications
for politics that can only be briefly touched upon here. Edmund Burke, an
Anglican Christian, sees society at its best as an attempt to articulate and
maintain a connection with the divine mystery. In the Reflections he argues,
“They conceive that He who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue
willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the
state—He willed its connection with the source and original archetype of
all perfection.”94 That Burke observes this relationship between politics and
the divine does not mean that he believes England is sacred in the way that
Reagan thinks America is holy. Burke’s defense of tradition and his belief in
Providence are indistinguishable from his view that human nature is chronically fallen and that even the most admirable society is deeply flawed. Like
Voegelin, Burke is a sharp critic of movements that promise a transformation
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178 “An Empire of Ideals”
of the human condition and that advocate abstract principles like “freedom”
and “democracy” as the salvation of mankind. At the same time, Burke has
a clearer sense than does Voegelin of the degree to which the universal dwells
in the particular. Burke understands more fully than Voegelin the ways in
which the divine can raise the moral standards of politics.95
CONCLUSION
Although Reagan sometimes expressed a fairly traditional understanding of
the Christian distinction between God and Caesar, the primary side of his
religious sensibilities is permeated by millennial expectations and gnostic
elements. In “Ronald Reagan and the American Public Philosophy,” Hugh
Heclo seems to have the main part of Reagan’s religious beliefs in mind
when he claims, “Finally, I think it is fair to say that Reagan was unable to
recognize that his faith and redemptive vision of America sailed dangerously
close to idolatry, if not quite landing there.”96 Reagan’s inclination to confuse or synthesize God and Caesar strongly affects both religion and politics.
Claes G. Ryn argues that those who seek to turn the highest moral standards
of Christianity into programs for political action have an understanding of
politics that “is symptomatic of not having discovered the spiritual life in
its highest manifestation. An exaggerated notion of the moral potential of
politics reveals a contracted and distorted awareness of the holy.”97 According to Ryn, those who hold these ideas fail to realize that “the deification of
politics requires the politization, and hence devaluation, of the divine.”
98 If
Ryn is right, then Reagan’s strong propensity to blur the things of God and
Caesar and even to let the religious realm collapse into the political may
actually degrade the very religious ideas that Reagan claimed to represent
and defend.
Irving Babbitt develops a number of dichotomies to explain what he sees
as the growing political and spiritual disorder of the West. One of his dichotomies is between the “missionary spirit” and “the crusading spirit.” About
the difference between the two he writes, “The missionary spirit, the purely
spiritual appeal from man to man, is unquestionably Christian. By the crusading spirit I mean, on the other hand, the attempt to achieve spiritual ends
collectively through the machinery of the secular order.”99 Babbitt believed
the crusading spirit is not only a profound distortion of Christianity but
also highly dangerous when put into political practice. About the Christian
crusader of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, he states, “By his confusion
of the things of God with the things of Caesar the crusader was in danger of
substituting a will to power for the will to peace that is at the heart of genuine
Christianity.”100 The danger of confusing the will to power with the will of
God did not disappear with the end of the Western European crusades. Babbitt believed that this spirit increasingly came to define the America of his
time. He writes, “It is becoming the dangerous privilege of the United States
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“A Shining City upon a Hill” 179
to display more of the crusading temper than any other country in both its
domestic and its foreign policies.”101 The apocalyptic structure of the millennial dimension of Reagan’s imagination, captured most powerfully in his
symbol of America as a shining city on a hill, appears to be imbued with the
type of crusading spirit condemned by Babbitt. When the ideas of Voegelin,
Heclo, Babbitt, and Ryn are all taken into account, it seems that Reagan’s
predominant religious imagination contains many highly problematic components that often spell great trouble for practical politics.
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They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me
it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our
values and our common sense.1
—Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan has cast a long shadow over the United States. In one sense,
Reagan’s enduring relevance to understanding American political thought
and practice is so ubiquitous that commentary upon the topic feels like stating the obvious. As Will Bunch documents in Tear Down This Myth, in the
United States there are airports, highways, and schools named after Reagan.
Some U.S. states have declared the former president’s birthday, February
6, Ronald Reagan Day. Groups have sought to replace the image of Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill, or Franklin Roosevelt on the dime,
with one of Reagan. Even more ambitiously, Bunch writes, “Since 1999,
some Republican members of Congress have pushed to add Reagan’s face to
Mount Rushmore—appropriately to the far right side of the South Dakota
monument.”2
Other evidence of Reagan’s legacy comes easily to mind. The Republican
Party’s Contract with America and Democratic president Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big Government is over” are two representative
examples of Reagan’s imprint upon American politics in the 1990s.3
Reagan’s reach extended into the early twenty-first century with the election
of Republican president George W. Bush. Bush actively sought to associate
himself with the Reagan legacy during his presidential campaigns and presidency. A number of Bush supporters as well as journalists drew conclusions
early in Bush’s first term that he was Reagan’s heir. As president Bush’s popularity plummeted in his second term, some criticized him on the grounds
that he was not following Reagan closely enough. More recently, one has
only to think of the many Republican presidential primary candidates who
tried to appropriate the mantle of Reagan during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. In Republican presidential primary debates, invocations
of Reagan’s name have become increasingly contrived, even absurd. But
Republicans are not the only politicians talking about Reagan. On important
Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions?
The Chimeric Imagination of Ronald Reagan
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Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? 181
occasions, Barack Obama has used Reaganesque language. Comparisons
between Reagan and Obama have been made as the Obama presidency has
developed. Obama and members of his administration have even sought
some guidance and perhaps inspiration from the Reagan presidency.
The most recent writings on Reagan’s legacy have focused upon a wide
range of issues and have drawn various, often incompatible, conclusions
about Reagan’s accomplishments and ideas. It seems as if the only thing
various scholars and journalists agree upon is the importance of Reagan’s
legacy for understanding the American present. In Tear Down This Myth,
Will Bunch argues that while Reagan remains highly popular in America, the
Reagan Americans remember is mostly an illusion concocted by nefarious
forces dedicated to using the former president’s image and popularity for
clandestine purposes.4
In The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and
the Betrayal of Main Street America, William Kleinknecht paints a picture
of Reagan as equal parts imbecile and demon; he sees Reagan as Chance the
Gardener one moment and Mephistopheles the next.5
Both authors express
a profound disappointment and exasperation with Reagan’s enduring popularity in the United States. They do not understand how Reagan and his
legacy minders have hoodwinked so many Americans.
Other authors have offered more sympathetic treatments of Reagan. In
“The Mixed Legacies of Ronald Reagan,” in The Enduring Reagan, Hugh
Heclo provides a fair and concise assessment of Reagan’s foreign and domestic policy successes and failures.6
In Upstream: The Ascendance of American
Conservatism, Alfred Regnery celebrates a number of Reagan’s presidential
achievements. He wants Reagan to be a source of inspiration for the American conservative movement in the future. Even as he praises Reagan as a
conservative who successfully combined important ideas and the demands
of practical politics, Regnery is relatively silent on why Reagan’s vision
is sound or worth remembering. To him, the importance of free markets,
democracy, liberty, and moral values is self-evident. Overall, Regnery’s book
reflects an increasing lack of intellectual curiosity in the broader American
conservative movement.7
In Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential
Legacy, Lou Cannon and Carl Cannon see Reagan’s legacy as one of practical foreign and domestic policy successes in which ideology was an important, but ultimately secondary concern. Especially when he is compared to
Bush, Cannon and Cannon praise Reagan for his willingness to adjust ideology to practical concerns and limitations on action. On the one hand, the
authors offer interesting if ultimately cursory insights into the practical side
of Reagan’s presidency. On the other hand, in their efforts to distance Reagan from Bush, they downplay too much the deep ideological similarities
between the two presidents.8
Whereas Regnery and Cannon and Cannon side with Reagan over Bush,
Michael Gerson sides with Bush over Reagan. In Heroic Conservatism: Why
Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve to
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182 “An Empire of Ideals”
Fail If They Don’t), Gerson acknowledges Reagan’s influence upon Bush,
especially in foreign policy. Gerson justifies the War on Terror and the Iraq
War as manifestations of the American spirit and as parts of the historical U.S. obligation to bring justice, freedom, and democracy to the world.
Reagan expressed similar ideas when he spoke about the Cold War. Despite
these similarities, Gerson celebrates Bush as superior to Reagan because he
believes Bush developed a vision of America and of the world that was more
compassionate, moral, and Christian than the one held by Reagan.9
All these authors offer different perspectives on the Reagan legacy.
Although some of these treatments have genuine strengths, they all tend
to avoid a serious and sustained discussion of what Reagan himself saw as
his most important legacy: his success in getting Americans to embrace his
vision of America, its people, and the world.
On January 11, 1989, Ronald Reagan addressed the American people
for the last time as president of the United States. He began his remarks by
expressing his deep and sincere gratitude to the American people for allowing him to serve as their president. He then drew his audience’s attention
to an incident he first described to the nation on Christmas Day, 1982, in
which the USS Midway rescued a sinking boat of refugees shouting “Hello,
American sailor. Hello, freedom man.” About this event Reagan explained,
“A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it
in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I.
Because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980’s. We stood, again,
for freedom. I know we always have, but in the past few years the world
again—and in a way, we ourselves—rediscovered it.”10 The theme of rediscovering the American spirit permeated his address as his remarks alternated
among the past, the present, and the future, and between celebrating his
foreign policy successes and his domestic policy achievements.
Reagan stated, “The way I see it, there were two great triumphs, two
things that I’m proudest of. One is the economic recovery, in which the
people of America created—and filled—19 million new jobs. The other is
the recovery of our morale. America is respected again in the world and
looked to for leadership.”11 He argued that during his 1980 campaign, some
people claimed that his vision for America and the world “would result in
catastrophe.”12 Some predicted that his foreign policy vision would lead to
war, others that his approach to fixing the economy would lead to economic
dislocation and collapse. In Reagan’s mind, critics had been proved wrong
on both fronts. In terms of his success in reviving the American economy, he
related an anecdote about attending an international economic summit early
in his presidency. He said that when the opening meeting convened, everyone
stared at him without saying a word. As Reagan explained, “And then one
of them broke the silence. ‘Tell us about the American miracle,’ he said.”13
To Reagan, however, America’s economic recovery was not miraculous.
It was simply the result of applying American common sense to politics. He
argued, “Common sense told us that when you put a big tax on something,
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Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? 183
the people will produce less of it. So, we cut the people’s tax rates, and the
people produced more than ever before. The economy bloomed like a plant
that had been cut back and could now grow quicker and stronger.”14 He
explained that as a result of his prudent economic and tax-cutting policies,
the United States was in the midst of the largest period of peacetime economic expansion in American history. He claimed that income levels were
up, poverty was down, entrepreneurship was thriving, and technology was
developing at unprecedented levels. All this allowed the United States to be
more competitive, to export more goods abroad, and to break down international barriers to free trade among nations.15 The economic growth of the
1980s provided stability and prosperity at home and respect and admiration
abroad. It also provided the United States with the opportunity to rebuild its
national defenses and reassert its role as a defender of freedom in the world.
Transitioning to an assessment of his foreign policy achievements, Reagan
picked up his theme of common sense and said, “Common sense also told
us that to preserve the peace, we’d have to become strong again after years
of weakness and confusion. So, we rebuilt our defenses, and this New Year
we toasted the new peacefulness around the globe.”16 As evidence of this
new peacefulness, Reagan cited the beginnings of nuclear weapons reductions by the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet withdrawal from
Afghanistan, the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, and the departure
of Cuban troops from Angola. Even more importantly, Reagan remarked,
“Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and
turning away from the ideologies of the past. For them, the great discovery
of the 1980’s has been that, lo and behold, the moral way of government
is the practical way of government: Democracy, the profoundly good, is
also the profoundly productive.”17 These sentiments did not obscure Reagan’s understanding of the delicate nature of these accomplishments. About
future relations with the Soviet Union, which was still in existence when
Reagan left the White House, he argued, “We must keep up our guard, but
we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and
mistrust.”18
The main focus of Reagan’s Farewell Address was explaining the
significance of the rejuvenation of the American spirit that had occurred
during his presidency. He reminded Americans of their history, spirit, and
future. He said that during his time in office he had earned the nickname
“The Great Communicator.” He disagreed with the criticism of him implicit
in this epithet. About this label Reagan said:
But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made
a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I
communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my
brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience,
our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two
centuries.19
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184 “An Empire of Ideals”
Immediately after these remarks, he acknowledged that many had described
his presidency as “the Reagan Revolution.” To Reagan, the rekindling of
the American spirit was not a revolution so much as it was a rediscovery.
What had the United States rediscovered? For the last time as president,
Reagan explained to Americans that the United States was a unique nation.
He stated:
Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly
reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We
the people.” “We the people” tell the government what to do, it doesn’t
tell us. “We the people” are the driver, the government is the car. And
we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost
all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell
the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in
which “We the people” tell the government what it is allowed to do.
“We the people” are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for
everything I’ve tried to do these past 8 years.20
A central element of Reagan’s lifelong political crusade was reminding
Americans about the unlimited beauty and power of liberty and democratic
government. In his Farewell Address, he stated that his mission began in the
1960s when he, like so many other Americans, began to feel that government was growing too large and eroding too much of America’s prosperity
and liberty. He argued that someone had to tell the government to stop
traveling down the road of higher taxes and more interference in American
life. In his mind, “I was a citizen politician, and it seemed the right thing for
a citizen to do.”21 Reagan the citizen politician viewed his presidency as one
that “stopped a lot of what needed stopping.”22 He felt that his presidency
had been fairly successful.
Reagan’s estimation of his success in reinvigorating Americans with
patriotism and pride was qualified. He was particularly concerned that there
were not enough younger Americans who believed in the America Reagan
had talked about for the last eight years. He said, “Our spirit is back, but we
haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across
that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom
of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs production [protection].”23 A few moments later, Reagan’s warning about the future
became more dire. He explained, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know
who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that
could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”24 He counseled Americans to pay more attention to American history and civic ritual.
He also encouraged American children to hold their parents accountable
for teaching them about the United States and its ideals. He stated, “If your
parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em
know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.”25
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Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? 185
As he concluded his address, Reagan reflected upon one of the most
important images in his imagination, the shining city upon a hill symbol.
He said:
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I
ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind 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 there.
That’s how I saw it, and see it still.26
He said that the city had become happier, more prosperous, and more secure
during his time in office. This did not surprise him because, as he explained,
the shining city had triumphed over every challenge it had encountered for
more than two centuries. In his mind, the shining city remained a proud
and strong achievement of the American people; the United States was still
a beacon of hope calling the world to liberty and democracy. Then he asked
that God bless his audience and the United States. President Ronald Reagan
said goodbye to the American people.
In these remarks, Reagan extolled the virtues of democracy and liberty
in America and around the world. He expressed his sense of the United
States and its people as free and unique in history. He celebrated the American Revolution for its world-historic achievement of reversing the relationship between government and the governed. In his mind, Americans were
the first people on earth to establish limited democratic government built
on a foundation of liberty. By mentioning these views about the American
Revolution and American history, Reagan drew attention to what he considered the conservative nature of his imagination. He celebrated the economic
prosperity, political progress, and resurgent morale that had occurred in the
United States during his presidency. Reagan warned Americans that it would
take their conscious efforts to retain their hold upon this new sense of pride
and national strength. By recalling the image of America as a shining city,
Reagan reminded Americans of their religious heritage and of their special
relationship with Providence.
These are the most important images and ideas that constitute Reagan’s
chimeric vision of America as an empire of ideals. This is the side of his
mind that has been explained and analyzed in depth throughout this study.
A clearer understanding of Reagan’s vision has been obtained by comparing
and contrasting its central elements with relevant ideas in the broader traditions of American political thought, Western political theory, and aesthetic
theory. It has been shown that Reagan was not an “amiable dunce.” The
exigencies of the Cold War notwithstanding, the possibility that Reagan
spoke frequently to Americans in highly sentimental and ahistorical terms
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186 “An Empire of Ideals”
merely for rhetorical convenience or out of conventional necessity cannot
be maintained. He believed deeply in the vision he expressed as president.
It is now both possible and appropriate to draw final conclusions about the
quality of Reagan’s imaginative vision, and about what the enduring appeal
of his imagination tells Americans about themselves.
The idea of progress was just beneath the surface during parts of Reagan’s
Farewell Address. In countless speeches, Reagan provided vivid images of
progress. He explained that progress could be made at any moment, and he
argued that freedom, democracy, and free markets were its best facilitators.
With these political and economic institutions in place, human creativity
would be unleashed and civilization would be improved. The United States
proved his point and confirmed his faith in progress. It was the exemplar of
the free market. The United States was the birthplace of liberty, and Americans were constantly progressing toward ever more individual freedom.
Political and economic progress in America created the environment for
technological developments such as the automobile, the radio, the television,
the space shuttle, and numerous pieces of life-saving medical technology.
Reagan knew the wonder of these developments because he had lived with
them all his life. Reagan seldom expressed a deep awareness of potential
dangers lurking beneath these types of progress. On occasion, he seemed
to intuit that his sanguine view of progress, particularly of its technological
varieties, might not convey a complete picture. His anxiety over experiencing a nuclear holocaust, and his disgust at the horrors of modern warfare,
represent the limited instances in which he grasped for a more sober and
complete understanding of progress.
Robert Nisbet, Wilhelm Röpke, and Irving Babbitt are only three of
many scholars who have articulated more nuanced, complex, and thoughtful views of modern notions of progress and the dangers to civilization presented by such ideas. In different ways, Nisbet and Röpke both argue that
fundamental aspects of modern political and economic life have exacted
a great price for all of the conveniences and progress they have provided.
Röpke expresses an important truth about modernity when he argues that
its fixation on technological progress has acted as a type of Novocain upon
the human spirit. He argues with vigor and persuasiveness that the tendency of the modern world toward an “enmassment” of social life is one
that is destructive of the “unpurchasable” world otherwise known as civilization. Nisbet also observes a number of harmful consequences resulting
from the types of progress Reagan frequently describes. In his view, progress
of the kind celebrated by Reagan actually weakens the organic bonds of
community that are of great importance to human happiness.
In various writings, Babbitt freely admits that by the standards of the “law
for thing,” the world, especially the United States, has made great progress
in the modern era. But for him, the typical modern individual’s unwavering focus upon the “law for thing” is ultimately a dangerous form of moral
escapism. In Babbitt’s view, the types of modern technological innovation
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Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? 187
and progress extolled by Reagan often become obsessions, intoxications,
and diversions for individuals seeking to avoid the demands of the ethical
life. However well organized human beings might become at this utilitarian level of existence, Babbitt refuses to downplay or dismiss the instability
produced in a world populated by a number of efficient egotists. According
to Babbitt, modern human beings might be deeply disciplined according
to the “law for thing,” but, when measured by the higher, more important
standard of the “law for man,” they can be seen as leading lives of great
disorder and hence miserable where it counts the most. Babbitt, Röpke,
and Nisbet are attuned to the dehumanizing tendencies of modern notions
of progress. They rightly observe the dangers immature visions of progress
can present to societies and individuals. Reagan’s overall lack of awareness
of these manifold problems reflects a serious deficiency in his imagination.
Reagan did not believe that his understanding of progress was in conflict
with or a threat to genuine religious faith and piety. Reagan’s views on
religion are extremely complex and difficult to discuss precisely because
they permeate many other aspects of his intuition. In countless presidential speeches, he referred to God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Bible, and the Ten
Commandments to explain his understanding of America, Americans, the
Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the world, history, democracy, and freedom. He often argued for the practical and moral superiority
of democracy over communism. The United States allowed its citizens to
practice a variety of religions, and the country drew strength from religious
diversity and toleration. The Soviet Union, in contrast, persecuted religious
believers of all faiths and was officially atheist.
Sometimes, Reagan articulated his notion of religion in such a way as to
suggest that human beings are morally flawed creatures. The other, more
prevalent side of Reagan’s view of religion expressed a rather different
vision of politics, America, human nature, and the world. The essence of
this side of his imagination was contained in his vision of the United States
as a shining city upon a hill. In this side of his mind, the United States is
a vehicle through which God works his will on earth. Reagan believed the
United States had been set aside by Providence to be discovered by a chosen
people called Americans. The United States was intended to be a model of
piety, democracy, and liberty. It was also obligated to share and extend these
blessings at home and abroad.
Reagan even seemed to suggest that by encouraging crusades for
democracy, faith, and freedom in America and around the world, the United
States had a millennial role to play in human history. He often borrowed
language from the Old Testament, especially the Prophet Isaiah, to convey
his vision of the world after the United States had succeeded in promoting
providentially approved political, economic, and religious ideals. This side
of Reagan’s imagination suggested that the United States was a temporal
manifestation of the City of God. It was an intuition filled with apocalyptic
expectation, making the things of God essentially indistinguishable from
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188 “An Empire of Ideals”
the things of Caesar. Such sentiments have roots in the broader traditions of
American and Christian political thought.
Ernest Lee Tuveson has examined a number of millenarian movements
that emerged in Europe during the Reformation. Some of these ideas were
brought to the New World by English and other European colonists in the
early seventeenth century, and millenarian religious and political speculation has been a part of the American tradition ever since. The ideas of John
Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards represent different ways in which colonial
Americans interpreted their new land as a New Israel or New Jerusalem.
When compared to Reagan, these figures each expressed rather modest
understandings of America as a chosen land and of Americans as a chosen
people. It has been shown that speculation about the roles nations or other
civilizational units might play in bringing about the millennium extends
even further into Western history than the Reformation. As the historical
contexts of the writings of St. Augustine reveal, such religious expectation
was already present a few centuries after Christianity first emerged. St.
Augustine’s preoccupation with explaining the differences between the City
of God and the city of man arose in part because he too was confronted
with arguments that a world transformed into heaven on earth was not only
possible, but probable.
In many writings, Eric Voegelin provides penetrating insights into the
spiritual and psychological factors that have allowed individuals and mass
movements to create order and disorder throughout human history. Voegelin argues that Christianity brings to humanity the utmost clarity about the
relationship between the transcendent and mundane levels of existence. In
his view, this clarification effectively drains the world of its divine presence.
Hence, the Christian differentiation of human consciousness produces an
anxiety and uncertainty about earthly existence that is too much for some
people to bear. Since Christianity emerged in history, some Christians, and
even some non-Christians, have attempted to re-divinize the world, reinvigorating it with possibilities for transformative political action, thereby giving themselves the illusion of mastery over their lives and Being. Voegelin’s
gnostic thesis is one way in which he attempts to understand the structure
of this type of derailment in human consciousness. He also draws attention
to other elements of this type of derailment when he discusses ideas such as
“metastatic faith” and “metastatic apocalypse” in his treatments of the Old
Testament and the Prophet Isaiah.
For Voegelin, gnosticism, immanentism, and metastatic faith are all
symptoms of a pneumopathological disorder, a spiritual disease, afflicting
a number of individuals and ideological movements in the modern era. He
sees such a spiritual disorder at the heart of Marxism. Applying Voegelin’s analysis, one discovers a similar problem in the more expansive side
of Reagan’s religious vision. The details of the stories of history, politics,
and the future told by Reagan and Marx are very different. The hard edge
of Marxism is absent from the seemingly humble and optimistic vision
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Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? 189
promoted by Reagan. Marx sought to establish a substitute for religion.
Reagan used Christian and other traditional religious imagery to articulate
his sense of the world. In spite of these obvious and important differences
between Marx and Reagan, the structures of their competing ideological
narratives are essentially the same. Each thinker presents himself as one
who has profound, even secret knowledge about the historical process, its
culminating events, and the actions that human beings can take to bring
about a political apocalypse within time. Voegelin’s insights into the deeper
structural similarities between totalitarianism and certain varieties of liberalism have provided additional analytical tools for examining Reagan’s
religious imagination.
Claes Ryn and Irving Babbitt have drawn important conclusions about
the consequences for politics when guided by the type of religious vision
expressed by Reagan in his shining city image. Ryn argues that those who
blur the lines between religion and politics have inadequate conceptions of
the divine. In Ryn’s view, politicizing religion degrades that which is genuinely holy and diminishes the true contributions religion can and should
make to political life. Babbitt draws attention to the ways in which confusing authentic religious sentiments with their political counterfeit makes the
practice of politics even more uncompromising and violent than it would
otherwise be. He suggests that the presence of a crusading spirit in politics
often masks a dark, lurking ambition for domination in the people at large
and in statesmen.
It is clear that these arguments from Voegelin, Ryn, and Babbitt do not
apply to Reagan unqualifiedly. What has become clear about Reagan’s religious imagination in this study is that its predominant mode of expression
consists of images and ideas that are antithetical to genuine religion and,
specifically, to Christianity, as defined by scholars such as Ryn, Babbitt,
and Voegelin, and by Christian theologians and political theorists such as
St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. The more expansive elements in Reagan’s religious vision also appear to create profound problems insofar as
they make the limits of politics more difficult to know and respect. Blending God and Caesar to the extent that Reagan often did serves neither God
nor Caesar well. Politics and religion both suffer because the relationship
between them is unbalanced and poorly conceived.
In numerous presidential speeches, Reagan expressed his vision of the
role of the United States in the world. Reagan’s view of American foreign
policy and the conditions for peace among nations was not all of one part.
Sometimes he articulated a rather modest vision of foreign policy and peace
based on a sober understanding of human nature and a realistic sense of the
possibilities of politics. Far more often, Reagan’s way of thinking about the
role of the United States in the world was sentimental and even simplistic.
This side of his imagination saw human beings as naturally good and more
or less “American.” In this side of his mind, he heard the world crying out
to America to provide democracy and liberty. He believed the United States
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190 “An Empire of Ideals”
was obligated by its sense of morality and by its history to contribute to
the establishment of these and other political institutions around the world,
thereby helping humanity realize its dreams. Reagan held that the degree to
which liberty and democracy took root around the world was the degree to
which true, lasting peace among nations could be realized.
The chimeric side of Reagan’s foreign policy vision has much in common
with the political theories of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Woodrow Wilson. A number of scholars, including Dinesh D’Souza, Paul Kengor,
and Robert Kagan, agree with Reagan when he claims that the expansive
elements in his foreign policy imagination are in tune with the dominant
aspects of the American foreign policy tradition. It has been shown, however, that the most prominent parts of Reagan’s view of America’s role in the
world are mostly at odds with the foreign policy ideas that prevailed in the
early American republic. John Quincy Adams represents a widespread older
view when he argues the United States would be forced to embrace empire
if it embarked upon a mission of promoting democracy and liberty abroad.
According to him, America would lose its republican soul in the process.
Orestes Brownson’s descriptions of written and unwritten constitutions
are vital to understanding the theoretical inadequacies of key elements of
Reagan’s desire to promote freedom and democracy throughout the world.
When the scholarship of Walter McDougall and Richard Gamble is taken
into account, it becomes clear that many of Reagan’s most deeply cherished foreign policy ideas originate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rather than in the early decades of the American republic.
Reagan’s ideas are more correctly associated with the American progressive
movement than with the Founding era.
Reagan imagined that America’s role in the world would ultimately
create the conditions for a lasting peace among nations. The scholarship
of Claes Ryn, Eric Voegelin, and Irving Babbitt has shown that views
about peace like Reagan’s convey serious misunderstandings of politics
and human nature. Voegelin draws important attention in several places
to the differences between a good society and democratic society. He also
identifies the dangerous consequences for politics when the two terms are
viewed as inherently synonymous. Ryn argues that simply establishing
more democracy, developing more technology, or proclaiming more freedom cannot create peace among nations. True peace, Ryn maintains, is possible only when ahistorical and romantic visions of peace are abandoned
and the actual limits of politics, as well as the ignoble aspects of human
nature, are fully understood and taken into account in the practice of international affairs. Babbitt provides convincing arguments that a vision of
peace among nations similar to the one expressed by Reagan is often but a
pretense for the will to power. Despite his affable personality, Reagan was
inclined to talk about American political ideas, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution as the guarantors of peace and as having universal authority, which exemplifies the sentimental imperialism of
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Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? 191
Reagan’s chimeric imagination. It has been shown that Reagan occasionally
conceded this point in public speeches.
That this part of Reagan’s imagination is particularly popular in the
United States is well known. Subsequent presidents from both political parties have adopted many of the most salient themes in this part of his vision.
Ryn argues that ideas similar to those expressed by Reagan have had a
profound influence upon what he calls neo-Jacobin political thinking in the
United States.27 The appeal of ideas like Reagan’s is understandable. A world
in which peace could be achieved on the terms Reagan suggests would be a
place in which most Americans would like to live. Nevertheless, Reagan’s
more prominent ideas about foreign policy and peace have been shown to
suffer from serious weaknesses. Further, these ideas often have disappointing and even disastrous consequences when put into practice. Recent events
in American foreign policy practice appear to confirm this conclusion. If
Americans truly desire a more humble foreign policy, one in which they are
not engaged in seemingly perpetual warfare around the world, then, among
other things, they would need to abandon their admiration for ideas that
draw strength from this part of Reagan’s vision.
Reagan’s intuitions of progress, peace, religion, and America’s role in the
world are intimately connected to his visions of human nature and politics.
Reagan imagined the American people as industrious, entrepreneurial, free,
optimistic, patriotic, pious, commonsensical, and morally good. Reagan’s
vision of the American people and human nature has much in common
with the ideas of American figures such as Thomas Jefferson and with modern political theorists such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The
predominant side of Reagan’s intuitive sense of the American people and
human nature contrasts sharply with the ideas of other leading early Americans such as John Adams, with the ideas of Publius in The Federalist, and
with other and kindred political thinkers such as Edmund Burke. In the
context of Reagan’s religious sensibilities, his notions of human nature are
also deeply at odds with the mainstream of Christian political thought, as
represented by St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
Reagan’s view of Americans and of human nature is ethically monistic
rather than dualistic. He often downplays or ignores the roles selfishness,
deceit, and cruelty play in the choices human beings make every day. Hence,
he locates the source of political and social disorder not in man but in an
abstraction he calls “government.” Reagan believed that the national government had grown well beyond the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution. He
felt that the federal bureaucracy had inserted itself into too many aspects of
American life. The results of these disconcerting developments in American
politics were high taxes, high inflation, high unemployment, and low national
morale. Reagan dedicated his presidency to reversing all these trends. As
president he sought to reinvigorate the American people with confidence and
to unleash them from the shackles of government that were holding them
back, thwarting their best intentions, and making America miserable.
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192 “An Empire of Ideals”
In Reagan’s imagination there is a dichotomy between good human
beings and incompetent or evil government. This view of the relationship
between Americans and government resonates with similar ideas held by
Jefferson and Paine. These historical figures celebrated democracy in the
abstract, but they deeply distrusted actual governments, seeing them more
often as threats to individual liberty than as protectors of freedom. In thinking about the relationship between politics and people in this manner, Reagan also reflects central elements of the political philosophy of Rousseau.
Reagan’s chimeric view of the relationship between people and government
was not widely embraced by the American Framers. Drawing upon the
broader tradition of Western political thought, the Framers generally considered government as an institution dedicated both to providing a secure
environment in which citizens could use their freedom responsibly and to
restraining individuals when they abused their liberty. In the minds of the
Framers, a failure to recognize this perhaps unpopular but necessary role
for government would be a sign of naiveté. Such dreaminess ultimately
spells disaster in practical politics.
Not only did Reagan’s chimeric imagination downplay the vital responsibility of government to protect citizens from their own worst inclinations,
but it also dodged an issue that was deeply important to the Framers, Burke,
Babbitt, and countless others in the Western tradition—the qualifications for
leadership. In his Farewell Address and elsewhere, Reagan described himself
as a citizen politician—i.e., as one of the countless Americans who simply
felt the way he did. Presumably any American holding such views would
have been as qualified to lead the United States as was Reagan. As president,
Reagan often conveyed the sense that anyone could do what he was doing
if they applied common sense and represented the American people rather
than government. His tendency to romanticize the wisdom and virtue of
the people had much in common with the political ideas of Rousseau. Like
Rousseau, Reagan rarely asked questions about qualifications for political
leaders. Burke, Babbitt, and many of the Framers, on the other hand, would
have seen Reagan’s frequent celebration of the divine average in America as
an irresponsible and dangerous form of demagogic pandering. In his efforts
to improve the morale of Americans, Reagan seems to have done them a
long-term disservice by failing to provide them with a more comprehensive
and accurate picture of the human condition and the nature of politics.
To some extent, Reagan’s intuitions about human nature and the limits
of politics were informed by his vision of the American past. He was deeply
fond of the era of the American Revolution and the Founding fathers. In
Reagan’s mind, the Founding initiated a profound break with the human
past. In documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S.
Constitution, Americans proclaimed new, revolutionary political ideas
about equality, democracy, and liberty. The ideas and events of the Revolution also forged the American people and the American spirit and had global
implications. Reagan’s interest in the Revolution was not nostalgic. In his
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Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? 193
imagination, the Founding symbolized a living American past, capturing the
essence of America’s identity and political ideas. As president he referred
to figures and events from this historical period to explain his own vision
of America and its people and to articulate his ideas about domestic and
foreign policy.
Reagan’s vision of the Founding has much in common with the ideas
of American historical figures such as Paine, Jefferson, and Lincoln. His
intuitive grasp of the American past is also similar in important respects to
the ideas of scholars such as Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom. In his presidential speeches, Reagan celebrated radical conceptualizations of the meaning
of the American Revolution put forth during the Founding era. He downplayed the mainstream, modest, historically rooted political expectations
of the Framers and portrayed them instead as revolutionary apostles of
universal democracy and freedom. He generally ignored the high degree of
historical continuity between the political, religious, and social ideas of the
Founding and the colonial period. Many components of his view of this era
are both ahistorical and highly romantic.
Reagan’s views about the American Revolution are very different from
those expressed by historical American figures such as John Adams and
scholars of the Founding era such as George Carey and Russell Kirk. Adams
was a leader in the cause of American independence, and he certainly hoped
for the success of the American Revolution. At the same time, he did not
see these events as a profound break from the American or Western past.
He observed a great deal of continuity between America’s colonial and
republican periods, and he saw a number of important similarities between
America and England in the areas of political thought and practice. His
understanding of politics and human nature also made him more aware than
Paine and Jefferson of the fragility of the American experiment with republican government. From the point of view of Adams, the ideas of Paine and
Jefferson about the events and meaning of the Founding were sentimental
and expressed an unseemly degree of pride.
Scholars such as Carey and Kirk have further clarified what Adams and
other figures from the Founding period actually believed. They have drawn
attention to the modest goals of the American Revolution, which were to
declare and establish a union of American States independent from England. As these scholars point out, the Revolution sought to reclaim what
the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut described as decent and orderly
government. With these objectives in mind, Kirk and Carey argue that most
Americans did not invest their separation from Great Britain with the universal political pretensions of the French Revolution. In their views, the
Americans did not see themselves as proclaiming an abstract blueprint
for government; they did not see themselves as announcing to the world
the only legitimate foundation for politics. In Kirk’s mind, the American
Revolution was primarily a conservative enterprise insofar as it pursued
prudent political change consistent with America’s historical traditions and
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194 “An Empire of Ideals”
experiences. He stressed the compatibility of American mores, history, and
politics during the Founding era. If Reagan is conserving anything from the
Founding period, it is its more questionable and less representative elements.
This study has also shed light upon two of the most important images in
Reagan’s mind—liberty and democracy. Reagan imagined liberty in terms
that were expansive, ahistorical, and sentimental. His view of human beings
as good by nature enabled him to avoid giving serious consideration to the
moral challenges of freedom and the ethical prerequisites for individual liberty. Thus, whether liberty was proclaimed in America or around the world,
Reagan believed that it was an unqualified good for human beings. His
understanding of liberty is similar to those of Rousseau, Locke, and Jefferson. John Adams, Publius, and Burke all had markedly different understandings of freedom. From their points of view, an intuition of liberty like
Reagan’s, one that fails to take into account the ethical duality of human
beings, would be grievously deficient and dangerous for practical politics.
Burke, Publius, and Adams would have drawn the same conclusions
about Reagan’s notion of democracy. Reagan considered democracy to be
an unqualified good for all human beings. In his view, regardless of differences in religion, culture, history, or social traditions, the people of the world
are entitled to live in a democracy, consisting of a host of specific political,
economic, and social institutions, in which all citizens are equal and free.
As with his vision of liberty, Reagan did not consider for any substantial
length of time the moral challenges and ethical preconditions for practicing
responsible democratic government. For him, democracy would function
well so long as it was arranged correctly, preferably in a written constitution similar to the U.S. Constitution. In holding such views, he reflects once
again ideas about democracy expressed by figures such as Paine, Jefferson,
Rousseau, and Locke.
Reagan’s sanguine view of democracy stands in particularly stark
contrast to the one held by Plato, but is also quite different from the notions
expressed by such thinkers as Babbitt and Ryn. Plato contemptuously
describes democracy as the worst form of government except for tyranny.
In his mind, democracy has little or no moral and political order; its citizens have little or no restraint. Whatever the inadequacies of Plato’s understanding of democracy, he provides timeless insight into the ways in which
democracy of a certain kind can degenerate into disorder and tyranny. His
political anthropology—i.e., his sense that the order of the state and the soul
reflect and reinforce one another—reveals important truths about politics
and democracy that are generally overlooked by Reagan.
Babbitt and Ryn stress the ethical preconditions for responsible democratic
government. They defend what they call constitutional democracy. For both
thinkers, this form of democracy provides an environment in which individuals and communities can pursue the moral life and experience meaningful freedom. In order for this possibility to be realized, first, citizens must
exhibit a great degree of moral responsibility and restraint. Second, in a
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Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? 195
constitutional democracy, government must place strong restraints upon the
spontaneous desires and actions of the people. In their views, only a constitutionally evolved majority that has withstood thoughtful scrutiny can be
described as the will of the people. Only the will of a constitutional majority
deserves to be translated into law.
Ryn and Babbitt both examine another form of democracy that is often
associated with the political philosophy of Rousseau and can be called plebiscitary or direct democracy. This type of popular government promises
the maximum in freedom and adherence to the unfiltered will of the people.
Whereas constitutional democracy at its best is compatible with the aims of
the ethical life because it takes the weakness of human nature into account,
direct democracy ignores those weaknesses. Overall, Reagan expresses a
vision of democracy much closer to the spirit of plebiscitary democracy than
that of constitutional democracy. His sense of the sources of democratic
political order is simplistic and utopian. His chimeric sensibilities militate
against the very political order he seeks to support.
Here another conclusion about the overarching quality of Reagan’s
imagination can be drawn. Reagan is often considered to be the perfect
embodiment of conservatism in America. The word “conservative” is rather
difficult to define and has become increasingly confusing in the United States
over the last few decades. Nevertheless, if one uses a loose, very general standard of measurement, this claim is at least plausible. In the United States,
the word “conservative” is often used as a synonym for a member of the
Republican Party. The word is often used to describe a person who claims
to revere the American past, especially the Founding era, and is committed
to specific axioms and abstract understandings of ideas and issues such as
liberty, democracy, limited government, free markets, a hawkish U.S. foreign
policy, low taxes, anticommunism, and moral values. Reagan was a member
of the Republican Party for most of his adult life, and he apparently had
much in common with other so-called conservatives on a number of political issues and ideas. Writers such as Dinesh D’Souza, Alfred Regnery, and
Russell Kirk have described Reagan as a conservative.
But the specific, concrete meanings of words like the ones just listed are
what decide the ideological affinities of a person, and Reagan’s meaning has
been carefully examined. The result is that the designation of Reagan as a
conservative is difficult to maintain. He hardly fits under any historically
and philosophically informed definition of conservatism. Here it is worthwhile to reiterate some words previously quoted from Peter Viereck that
attempt to summarize the elements of a genuine conservatism:
The conservative principles par excellence are proportion and measure;
self-expression through self-restraint; preservation through reform;
humanism and classical balance; a fruitful nostalgia for the permanent beneath the flux; and a fruitful obsession for unbroken historic
continuity. These principles together create freedom, a freedom built
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196 “An Empire of Ideals”
not on the quicksand of adolescent defiance but on the bedrock of ethics
and law.28
Viereck is here summarizing a long Western tradition, the conservation and
development of which has been the distinctive mark of modern conservatism,
starting with Burke.
This type of conservatism is present in varying degrees in the writings
and ideas from figures such as Adams, Burke, Publius, Brownson, Plato,
Aquinas, and St. Augustine and from scholars such as Babbitt, Ryn, Carey,
Voegelin, Kirk, Gamble, and McDougall. On almost every subject covered
in this work, these are figures and scholars with whom Reagan ultimately
has little in common, although they may happen to agree with him on particular practical issues. It is true that Reagan often refers to the American
and broader Western past, but especially when searching for past resonances
for his vision of democracy, liberty, and human nature, Reagan gravitates
toward the least conservative figures from the Founding era, particularly
Paine and Jefferson. His understanding of this era is very similar to those
expressed by two scholars who cannot reasonably be associated with conservatism as just defined—Jaffa and Bloom. Reagan shares much with some
of the least conservative thinkers in the modern era, such as Locke and
Rousseau. If figures and scholars like Adams, Burke, Ryn, Kirk, and Babbitt
are generally representative of conservatism, then, whatever else he might
be, Reagan is not a conservative.
At this point, some readers might be wondering if an important issue has
not been overlooked. Especially those who consider themselves Reagan’s
admirers might admit that his imagination had certain flaws, but that they
were not very serious. That Reagan quoted frequently from Paine and Jefferson, that he expressed ideas more in tune with Rousseau than Burke,
might not be an issue of great concern. Were those references not largely
window dressing? Could these flaws not be overlooked or excused insofar
as they worked, that is, were the basis for Reagan’s presidential accomplishments? Did they not reinvigorate Americans with optimism and confidence
at a time when both were desperately needed and in low supply? It is certainly true that Reagan’s intuitive leaning shaped his foreign and domestic
policy practices and achievements. Reagan often told Americans that he
was appealing to their hopes, rather than their fears, and it cannot be disputed that his vision increased American morale and raised the national
mood during the 1980s.
Yet the short-term practical successes of Reagan’s presidency and the
short-term effects of his vision upon the confidence and optimism of the
American people do not obviate the important theoretical and imaginative
dangers of his vision. Politics may be able to a considerable extent to sacrifice the true to the expedient, but philosophy seeks only that which is
true, whether or not it is convenient. This work has described Reagan’s
imagination as predominantly chimeric. As defined in the introduction to
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Conclusion: An Empire of Illusions? 197
this study, a chimeric imagination contains a mixture of hope, optimism,
naiveté, and illusion. This study has identified and analyzed the manifold
illusory elements of Reagan’s imagination. The characteristics of a chimeric
imagination have been shown to be strongly present in all the major aspects
of Reagan’s view of the world. It is true that Reagan expressed his vivid and
powerful intuitions about human life and the possibilities of politics with
confidence and that it helped marshal support for his policies. Countless
Americans have taken to heart his message, and they have grown to love
deeply the “American spirit” that Reagan seemed to embody. These facts do
not make his vision any more grounded in reality or make it any less dangerous. To repeat an earlier point, the imagination always gives a unity of
sorts, but it does not always give reality. After having taken the full measure
of Reagan’s chimeric imagination, there is little choice but to conclude that
his vision is too far removed from a tenable understanding of human nature
and politics to be accepted as a guide to and inspiration for practical action.
In the end, despite its enduring power and popularity, Americans would do
better relinquishing this kind of vision.
The purpose of this study has not been to provide an alternative to Reagan’s imaginative vision, although the ideas and broader theoretical visions
from figures and scholars such as Adams, Burke, Publius, St. Augustine,
Voegelin, Ryn, and Babbitt suggest what such a vision might include. This
work has sought to illuminate the nature and components of Reagan’s chimeric imagination and has revealed its dubious and even dangerous character. It seems clear that there is a palpable need for a reorientation of the
American imagination. This is a task for what Burke, Babbitt, and others
have described as the moral imagination, an imagination that is rooted in
a down-to-earth assessment of what life is really like. Realigning the intuitive sensibilities of Americans with the moral imagination could be neither
quick, nor easy. Parting with a cherished imaginative vision, no matter how
deeply flawed, is always difficult. This study is but a step in the large project
of weaning Americans off an addiction to chimeric imagination and reintroducing them to the best elements in the American and Western political
traditions. Equipped with a much improved understanding of the actual
content of the chimeric imagination, Americans will be better able to resist
its appeal as they search for imaginative vision consistent with the human
condition as well as the particular circumstances of the present.
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