The passing of President Ronald Reagan into eternity is evoking an array of
emotions and thoughts. People recall his winsome and shining character, his
classic American optimism. That is in sharp contrast to what his critics always
assailed as his intellectual shallowness.
Yet, how does one account for the monumental legacy President Reagan’s time with
us has left, not merely the United States, but the whole world?
the end of the 1970s, a period when the turmoil and disruption of the 1960s
might have begun to take institutional root (indeed, the cultural toll that
sorry decade took is something with which we are still living), there
providentially arose on the world scene three leaders whose common moral
perspective would change the course of human history.
In 1978, Karol Wojtyla, Krakow’s philosopher-archbishop was elected pope, taking
the name John Paul II.
In 1979, a shopkeeper’s daughter by the name of Margaret Thatcher became prime
minister of England.
And in 1981 a former actor became President of the United States.
These three towering figures, each with modest beginnings, ascended the world
stage at a critical moment. Their common link was neither their respective
nationalities, nor their faith tradition, nor even their politics. It was a
common moral understanding that bound these three, uniting them in what seemed
to some at the time a rather fantastical, even dangerous vision. Specifically,
the pope, the prime minister and the president were clear about two things: the
moral reprehensibility of communism and the moral necessity of replacing it with
institutions of liberty.
We must remember that those considered at the time to be the smartest political
analysts — whether in Rome, London or Washington — all accepted the notion that
communism was a fixed feature of geo-politics that simply had to be
realistically dealt with and contained to the extent possible.
Not so with Reagan, Thatcher and Wojtyla. Their shared moral idea was
sufficiently grand to enable them to envision a world without a Europe divided
by a wall. Not a utopian vision, but an understanding of the dignity of the
human person, made in the image of God, and entrusted with a destiny beyond this
It may have appeared to many that President Reagan was too simple an intellect
to be entrusted with such military might. That is not what those who knew him
well tell me. It seems, rather, that the sunny warrior for freedom simply
understood how to “major on majors and minor on minors,” as the saying goes. In
other words, he had an uncanny ability to prioritize, focus, delegate tasks and
inspire a world to choose a path away from the road to serfdom.
I suggest that President Reagan possessed what many of the more "sophisticated"
members of the "white wine and brie set" so clearly lack: a clear sense of moral
priority. He would not be distracted from pursuing that moral priority despite
the snickering and nay-saying, the disparagement and vile ridicule heaped upon
him by the cultural elite.
That President Reagan won over the hearts of a world is seen by the profusion of
gratitude pouring forth, especially from those who lived so long under the stern
boot of collectivist taskmasters.
There was one other cultural note that might have been missed. After listening
to the news reports Saturday evening of the president’s passing, I tuned my
radio to the left-leaning National Public Radio, when Garrison Keillor’s A
Prairie Home Companion was broadcasting live. Keillor, who consistently
identifies himself as a "liberal" and has a large left-leaning following,
announced the passing of the president to the audience. The reaction was audible
sighs, gaps and sadness. Then one could hear a single voice in the audience
beginning to hoot and cheer, as though attempting to rouse the audience.
Keillor, to his credit, with great finesse and timing worthy of President Reagan
himself, simply continued his tribute, marginalizing the hooting bore by going
into a touching gospel song in tribute to the president.
Just that — simple respect from a self-professed liberal. And on NPR!
In case we have forgotten that President Reagan played a critical role in the
collapse of communism, perhaps this episode of A Prairie Home Companion
will remind us that he really did change the world — and for the better.
I had the great honor of personally meeting each of the towering personalities
noted at the outset of this meditation. But my visit more than a decade ago with
President Reagan in his Los Angeles office was memorable for the legendary
kindness he showed Acton Executive Director Kris Mauren and myself. The great
man expressed to us his gratitude for the work of the Acton Institute, which in
many ways was made possible by the legacy he left to the world.
President Reagan now stands before the great and holy Judge whom each of us will
confront one day. He does so having left the world a better and more prosperous
place for having passed through it. May the same be said for each of us one day.
Rest well, Mr. President, from all your labors. May you be embraced by mercy.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico. "The Reagan Moral Vision." The Acton Institute
(June 8, 2004).
Reprinted with permission of the author Rev. Robert A. Sirico.
Father Sirico is president of the
Acton Institute for the
Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids,
Mich. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges,
universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His
writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in
a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street
Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington
Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Father Sirico is
often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding
economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided
commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others.
He is the author of
A Moral Basis for Liberty,
Catholicism’s Developing Social Teaching,
Environmentalism and its Spiritual Implicationsamong others.