Something tugged at Ronald Reagan on that otherwise slow August weekend in 1982.
“Again at the W.H.,” the president noted in his diary. “More of Saturdays work plus a long letter I have to write to Loyal. I’m afraid for him. His health is failing badly.”
Loyal Davis, Reagan’s father-in-law and a pioneering neurosurgeon, was just days away from death.
Something else worried Reagan: The dying man was, by most definitions of the word, an atheist.
“I have never been able to subscribe to the divinity of Jesus Christ nor his virgin birth. I don’t believe in his resurrection, or a heaven or hell as places,” Davis once wrote. “If we are remembered and discussed with pleasure and happiness after death, this is our heavenly reward.”
Reagan, on the other hand, believed everyone would face a day of judgment, and that Davis’s was near. So the most powerful man in the world put everything else aside, took pen in hand and set out on an urgent mission — to rescue one soul.
“Dear Loyal,” Reagan began. “I hope you’ll forgive me for this, but I’ve been wanting to write you ever since we talked on the phone. I’m aware of the strain you are under and believe with all my heart there is help for that. . . . ”
The letter dated Aug. 7 is not part of the presidential records publicly available at the Reagan Library. I came across it earlier this year, in a cardboard box of Nancy Reagan’s personal effects. The library gave me access to them as part of my research on a biography of the late first lady.
I quote the letter here with permission of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which has also allowed The Washington Post to reproduce it.
The discovery of this intimate missive, four pages of White House stationery randomly tucked in a file, stopped me. You do not have to be a believer yourself — or believe that Reagan’s policies were perfectly aligned with Christian teachings — to appreciate what this private letter said about him.
I could sense Reagan’s earnest intensity, how carefully he had collected his thoughts. Not a word of his small, round script was crossed out. Had he written and revised several versions, sending the one that said just what he wanted it to? Near the end were three watery smudges. Spilled coffee? Someone’s later tears?
His language did not have the speechwriter-polished sheen we associate with the president who came to be known as the Great Communicator. It was an intimate, humble profession of faith. He was “Ronnie,” assuring his father-in-law: “We’ve been promised this is only a part of life and that a greater glory awaits us.”
It was “a miracle,” Reagan wrote, that “a young man of 30 yrs. without credentials as a scholar or priest” had “more impact on the world than all the teachers, scientists, emperors, generals and admirals who ever lived, all put together.”
“Either he was who he said he was or he was the greatest faker & charlatan who ever lived. But would a liar & faker suffer the death he did?”
Religious faith, for better or worse, is a proxy in our politics, offered as proof that those who lead us start from a foundation of values. Americans seem to expect piety from their presidents. Polls over the years suggest at least 4 out of 10 would not support an otherwise-qualified candidate who does not believe in God.
Reagan represented a conundrum for social conservatives: He had arisen from the Gomorrah of Hollywood, divorced, signed the most liberal abortion law in the country when he was California governor and rarely set foot inside a church while president.
But he managed to marshal an army of fundamentalists in 1980 to defeat a born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter, who taught Sunday school and who was married to his hometown sweetheart.
That election marked the emergence of the religious right as a force in politics. These days, Reagan’s name is regularly invoked by evangelical leaders as they are pressed to explain the suspect bargain they have made with a hedonistic, narcissistic president who seems to be driven by no moral code.
All of this has engendered a certain cynicism about what Reagan actually believed: Does it really matter what a president carries in his heart and how he lives his personal life? Or are the only things to consider the size of his tax cuts and the tilt of his judicial nominees?
Some supporters of President Trump have even gone so far as to slander the 40th president in service of the 45th. In July, amid a new round of furor over Trump’s alleged extramarital affairs with an adult-film star and a Playboy model, Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, chuckled and told Fox News that “we’ve been here before.”
Reagan, Jeffress declared, had been “a known womanizer” in his acting days.
The truth is, Reagan was devastated when his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, left him. In a few intervening years before he married Nancy Davis, he had an active social life, chronicled by the gossip columns. (“A newly created bachelor is watched like a hawk, and a simple dinner date becomes a new romance,” he once lamented.)
But there is no evidence that he was anything but devoted to Nancy after they wed. The couple was routinely mocked for their starry-eyed affection.
The letter to his father-in-law — the only man who would ever come close to Ronnie in Nancy’s estimation — revealed how marital fidelity intertwined with Reagan’s religious beliefs. He saw it not only as a source of happiness in this life, but a reward in the next.
Loyal Davis and Nancy’s mother, Edith, who themselves experienced early divorces, were in many ways a model for the Reagan marriage.
“Loyal, you and Edith have known a great love — more than many have been permitted to know. That love will not end with the end of this life,” Reagan wrote. “ . . . all that is required is that you believe and tell God you put yourself in his hands.”
Did the letter have any impact? Nancy Reagan, who was with Loyal Davis when he died, and who saved the letter he received from his son-in-law, would later claim that her father did turn to God at the end of his life.
Two days before his death on Aug. 19, 1982, Davis sought out a hospital chaplain, and prayed with him, Nancy said. “I noticed he was calmer and not as frightened.”
A deathbed conversion? That may have been a daughter’s wishful thinking.
One thing, however, is certain — something that should not be lost as religious people rationalize their political allegiances today: Faith was not an electoral stratagem for Ronald Reagan; his private words show it was his starting point, and the core of who he was.