I write this with a certain element of shame as a Catholic/ Christian and as a person who now realizes how easy it is to fall into traps of prejudging and even hypocrisy.
The death of President Ronald Reagan has been an eye-opener for millions of Americans like me. First, let me state the necessary disclaimer. I am not a very objective observer here, having voted for President Reagan with gusto — twice. In fact, I have never voted with such enthusiasm before or since.
But after a week of emotionally and, yes, spiritually draining ceremony, I see I fell into the trap that viewed Reagan as a relatively nonreligious person who held some kind of nebulous version of nonspecific Christianity.
How wrong I was.
I fell into other traps as well: most seriously, the one in which I felt somehow better and more in tune with God because I was holding up my end of my Catholic faith and trying to deepen it with introspection, regular Mass attendance and a self-congratulatory sense that I was taking my faith seriously. You can insert the pride going before a fall line here.
It took this “simple” man, this non-Catholic man who never stepped foot inside either an Ivy League bastion of higher education or some similar Jesuit-run institution to show us the meaning of a deeply felt, honestly believed, reasoned faith. And even more importantly, Reagan showed us that stopping that faith from guiding our public acts is an exercise in pointlessness.
There was very little about Reagan's life that was pointless.
During that week of special remembrance after the death of President Reagan we began to hear the mantra of how he learned his optimistic outlook from his non-Catholic and very devout Christian mother. She apparently took every opportunity she could to inform her young son that nothing happens on this Earth without a God-guided purpose to it. She infused in her son the very core Christian staple that everything, both good and bad, happens for a reason.
Well, even in death, Reagan has been able to manufacture a victory of a deeper meaning.
We really do see him in a very different light now. The recurring theme of the spiritual during his lying in state, his funeral in D.C. and his funeral in Simi Valley, Calif., has made an indelible impression on us. Besides the political man, whose legacy will no doubt be debated in perpetuity, there is the legacy of his family, the love he in his own peculiar way imparted to them and of the spiritual imprint he made on them and, in the course of the public mourning process, on people like me.
This was a man of a spiritual nature who loved his children very much in his own imperfect style and a man who might not have worn his love of God on his sleeve in an obvious manner, but by the way he impacted his wife and children, that love cannot be so readily dismissed.
The last eulogy at the funeral in Simi Valley was delivered by the late president's son Ron. After President Reagan's other two surviving children had expressed their spiritual connection with their father, the youngest Reagan child told us how his father's faith, especially in the afterglow of surviving an assassin's bullet, was lifted up with a renewed sense of purpose. It might be interesting to note here that Pope John Paul II had a similar response after he survived an assassin.
Ron Reagan Jr. told the assembled mourners at Simi Valley and the assembled mourners who observed in silence on the other side of their television sets how his father's renewed self-evaluation of purpose as it related to doing God's will was not viewed as a “mandate” to be imposed on others but rather as a personal “obligation” to be lived out on the part of President Reagan.
In this not-so-brave new world we have been given by God, politicians and the people they seek to govern spend an awful lot of time debating what constitutes a moral mandate and what constitutes a moral obligation. Many Catholic politicians, hitching the stars of their political futures on the wagon John F. Kennedy first rode more than 40 years ago, wish to drive a wedge between these two propositions.
Reagan, the “simple” Protestant president whom I so wrongly undervalued as a man of God, understood how one could not, in truth, believe certain unalienable truths and not turn those beliefs into corresponding public and private acts.
The word great is overused in our culture and applies to everything from a steroid-saturated out-fielder who can hit home runs to breakfast cereals that taste like chocolate-chip cookies. In its frequency of use, the word great has lost most of its voltage.
The Reagan funeral week was not immune to the same amount of in-the-moment gushing.
But whatever President Reagan's status might be through the sands of time, I will always bear in mind his beautiful, meaningful and even lovely Christianity to being his greatest lasting treasure. And I think he would have made one great Catholic.
Robert Brennan writes from Los Angeles.
- June 27-July 3, 2004