The Week America Mourned
President Ronald Reagan turned the city of Washington, D.C., once again into his stage and took the lead role for the last time.
The June 11 funeral at the magnificent National Cathedral — a quintessentially American cathedral, with its ornate high altar and soaring nave complemented by an Apollo XI stained-glass window and a Darth Vader gargoyle — capped a week in which the civic liturgy of America was marvelous to behold. Public ceremony, both secular and religious, demonstrated its power as it bid farewell to a president.
Civic ceremony needs a stage, and Washington was designed for that purpose, with its broad avenues and imposing monuments. Like altar boys, the players play their roles without it being necessary to know their names — the row upon row of poster-perfect servicemen, the towering general on hand to escort the widow, the gleaming horses, the little boys standing street-side learning how to salute.
The rituals of a state funeral were a reminder of how important liturgical actions, broadly understood, are. The hoofbeats of the riderless horse and the solemn drumbeat, easily heard with the vast crowd hushed, spoke of the solemnity of the moment.
The traditional rituals were touched by 21st-century realities. Security was omnipresent, the Capitol itself having been evacuated shortly before Reagan's body arrived due to a false alarm. It was not a pretty sight, as the aging grandees of the Reagan era were hustled outside, breathless and sweaty in the sweltering heat. There is no total silence anymore, only the approximate silence that makes the ring of mobile phones all the more piercing. Fighter jets screamed by overhead, perhaps themselves part of the Reagan military buildup.
Finally, at the National Cathedral, it was clear they had come to bury not only a great president but also a sincere Christian. The hymns were all classics, from the Catholic (“Ave Maria”) to the Anglican (“Jerusalem”) to the Reformed (“Amazing Grace”) to the American (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”).
The Rev. John Danforth called Reagan a “child of the light,” remembering him as one who prayed for his would-be assassin from his hospital bed. And President George W. Bush spoke of how Reagan, who in this world had seen through a glass darkly, would now, as St. Paul promised, be “face to face with his Savior.”
After three decades since the last state funeral, it would have been easy to ask whether it was all too much. But it was striking that nobody did. For Ronald Reagan, it seemed everyone agreed, it was just about right.
The purpose of public liturgy is to permit the people to participate in events on a grand scale. The hundreds of thousands who stood through the steamy summer nights to salute Reagan in the Capitol rotunda and in California did just that. And the week in Washington took on something of the character of an Irish wake, with former Reagan administration officials gathering in conservative think tanks and on television to tell the same old stories and same old jokes over again, reminding themselves of what an extraordinary life his had been.
The timing of the former president's death underscored precisely the magnitude of his achievement. When the news of Reagan's death was announced, Europe's leaders were on their way to Normandy to celebrate the liberation of the western half of the continent. Reagan was a key player in the liberation of the eastern half.
At the remove of only 16 years, it seemed this week in Washington that the historical judgment was set: America's 40th president was the one who defeated communism and won the Cold War. Reagan died only a few days after the opening of the World War II Memorial on the Mall, the latest addition to the many wars commemorated there, from the Revolutionary War (Washington) and the Civil War (Lincoln), to the wars in Asia (Korea and Vietnam). At midnight on the Mall, looking up to the illuminated Capitol where he lay in state, it seemed as though the Cold War's triumphant general was now taking his turn in the place of honor.
There was talk, too, about Reagan's tax cuts and the economic expansion, the deficits and the Iran-contra scandal, but the emphasis was on the Cold War. Even among Catholic bishops, who as a body so strongly opposed Reagan's military spending, his Central American policy and his aggressive anti-communism, there were tributes to his role in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., at a Mass offered in St. Matthew's Cathedral for the repose of Reagan's soul, spoke of Reagan's policies as laying the foundation for the liberation of the peoples of Eastern Europe.
There was surprisingly little mention of Reagan's pro-life stand by figures on either side of the abortion debate. Perhaps pro-lifers were disappointed that more was not achieved given Reagan's strong rhetorical support. More likely, it was another sign of how what was controversial in Reagan's day is now accepted as normal — that Republicans are, with exceptions, the pro-life party.
Reagan's moral clarity and willingness to speak in terms of good and evil was highlighted throughout. Baroness Margaret Thatcher said he freed the “slaves of communism.” Vice President Dick Cheney spoke of him in the Capitol as a “providential man.” The Senate chaplain, Rev. Rear Admiral Barry Black, gave alliterative expression to the same, saying that Reagan “lifted liberty's lamp until totalitarian towers tumbled.”
Reagan's death the day before D-Day brought to mind his landmark speech there 20 years ago on its 40th anniversary. He said of the Allied soldiers that they had “the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and use of force for conquest.”
Reagan knew the difference and saw the exercise of American power in moral terms. For this he was ridiculed as a simpleton and a dangerous cowboy. But the moral framework for the fight against communism was the right one, and in time his view would be vindicated so completely that the vast communist empire would be dismantled without a shot being fired. Of course Reagan was not solely responsible, but he was a sine qua non in what must be considered the greatest foreign-policy triumph in recent history — the bloodless defeat and total destruction of the Soviet Empire.
When Reagan took office in 1981, the worldwide diplomatic consensus was that peaceful coexistence and containment were the best that the West could hope for vis-à-vis the communists. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter gave the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, announcing his commitment to détente, arms control, and containment, even as the decade saw one communist expansion after another. Reagan begged to differ.
“The West will not contain communism, it will transcend communism,” he said exactly four years later — also at Notre Dame, for maximum effect. “We'll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
His confidence that the diplomatic consensus was wrong was rooted in his clear moral vision, namely, that communism was evil because it denied the liberty God gives to every man. Because it was evil, it had to be fought, and because it was evil it would not finally prevail.
He said as much in 1983 in the famous “Evil Empire” speech. It was great stuff, then as now: “Let us pray for the salvation of all those who live in that totalitarian darkness — pray that they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual men and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.”
A bracing tonic it was. It evoked embarrassment and patronizing twitters from the diplomats in the major capitals but, as President George W. Bush said at the National Cathedral, in the Soviet gulag and the Gdansk shipyards the word was passed around that the leader of the free world understood that they were entitled to freedom, too.
It was a truly bipartisan week in Washington, everyone united in saying good things, as the dictum has it, about the dead. There was a difference though — conservatives lauded his philosophy and policies while liberals emphasized his good humor and comforting presence. Lady Thatcher eulogized Reagan by drawing a connection between the two, saying that his “gracefulness spoke of a deeper grace” — his religious faith.
When it came time for the Gospel, read by Cardinal McCarrick, it was from the Sermon on the Mount, with Jesus telling his followers to be the light of the world and that a city upon a hill cannot be hid. In the agreeable mix of civil religion and Christian faith the Episcopal Church carries off with such great élan, that light and that shining city were applied to Ronald Reagan and his political vision.
Catholics would blanch from quite so strong an identification of the two, but it was a cause of thanksgiving that President Reagan was buried as the Christian he was. The light shone brighter for his passing our way.
Father Raymond J. de Souza filed this story from Washington, D.C.
- June 20-26, 2004