The Historical Reagan and the Reagan of Faith

Liberty Reagan

Historians who study Jesus of Nazareth have found it useful to make a distinction that I find to be more broadly applicable. They distinguish between the Historical Jesus (the picture of Jesus' life, acts, and teaching as it can be reconstructed using historical methods and historical sources) and the Jesus of Faith (Jesus as he is understood through the theological lens of believers). But Jesus is not the only person to whom religious significance is attributed in American society. I think it is also important to understand the distinction between the Historical Reagan (Ronald Reagan as he can be understood through historical sources) and the Divine Reagan of Faith (the highly theologized figure the sits at the center of modern Republican belief).

I believe that most contemporary Americans are, for better or worse, more familiar with the Reagan of Faith than with the Historical Reagan. Indeed, Republicans have gone to great lengths to propagandize the country with this picture of the 40th president. It is both simple and elegant: Reagan is the embodiment of whatever Republicans are currently advocating. On foreign policy, we are told, Reagan was an uncompromising hawk (a hypertrophied neoconservative) who would never negotiate with odious regimes. He was a friend of America's friends and a foe to America's foes. He drove the Soviet Union to its demise through mere force of character (as realized through increased defense spending). Everywhere, he promoted liberty. Domestically, he was a defender of Liberty and fiscal rectitude. He was a “constitutionalist” who stood for God, guns, and other conservative substantives beginning with “g”. He cut taxes and deficits. He was truly a god in human form.

Of course, Reagan did embody much of the conservative movement of his time, but that movement was considerably different from, and more temperate than, the conservative movement of today. If you actually remember the 1980s, and particularly Reagan's second term, you also remember that arms negotiations with the Soviet Union were a prominent aspect of his foreign policy. He latched onto the Russian proverb “trust, but verify” and used it to characterize his approach to negotiation with the Soviet Union (and also repeated it ad nauseam during the talks). He did this even though he had described the USSR as an “evil empire.” Additionally, he was more than happy to make agreements with various other regimes hostile to the US, not the least of which was a secret and illegal agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Interestingly, Reagan was also unafraid to throw Israel under the bus when he felt US interests were at stake.

Domestically, Reagan was an enthusiastic producer of executive orders (381 orders, the most since Dwight D. Eisenhower at 484). These included orders on immigration (of a somewhat punitive nature) among other things. Of course, he also signed bill containing an amnesty for illegal immigrants. On the subject of guns, he was actually quite ambivalent. From his days as the (reactionary!) governor of California to his final years he supported various pragmatic gun control measures (though he was always sure to talk a strong Second Amendment line). In other culture war battles, he clearly positioned himself on the right, but invested little social capital in bringing about policy changes. With regard to fiscal policies, his record was unimpressive. He pushed through massive tax cuts. These, combined with colossal increases in defense spending, caused budget deficits to spiral to dizzying heights. One might guess that tax cuts combined with increased government spending would have stimulated strong economic growth; in fact, the GDP did grow for some time, but never enough to keep up with spending (or even come close). It would be unfair to say that Reagan accomplished nothing during his presidency (like George W. Bush), but the Historical Reagan clearly did have many limitations. It would also be inaccurate to say that the Historical Reagan was not a conservative, but it would be entirely accurate to say that he did not adhere to the kind of dogmatic, apocalyptic conservatism embraced by the Tea Party. His conservatism was also not the innumerate interventionism of today's neoconservatives.

I am not saying that I would ever vote for a Ronald Reagan, even the somewhat coherant Historical Reagan. What I am saying is that I would choose the Historical Reagan over any of the itinerant crybabies that style themselves “leaders” of the conservative movement, especially those who are most immeshed in the cult of the Reagan of Faith.

David R. Mortensen

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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