Ronald Reagan

Ties that bind: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Russia and Fatima

Ties that bind: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Russia and Fatima

The world was buzzing with rumors about U.S.-Soviet talks as President Ronald Reagan flew to Italy for a global economic summit in the summer of 1987.

There were only two events on Reagan's schedule before the Group of Seven sessions -- a June 6 meeting with Pope John Paul II and a hush-hush briefing beforehand by U.S. Vatican Ambassador Frank Shakespeare.

The secret topic, at Reagan's request: The visions of Our Lady of Fatima to three children in Portugal in 1917, including prophecies linking St. Mary, Russia and, the world would later learn, the shooting of a "bishop in white." This was crucial information about John Paul II.

The pope believed Mary intervened to save his life on May 13, 1981, when an assassin tied to Bulgarian spies and Soviet military intelligence gunned him down in St. Peter's Square -- on the 64th anniversary of the first Fatima vision.

The pope needed six pints of blood to survive. Reagan required eight pints during surgery after he was shot six weeks earlier, on March 30th. He was convinced his survival was part of a divine plan, which Reagan called the "DP."

Reagan met John Paul II for the first time a year after the shootings. He told the pope: "Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened."

Clearly, the Soviet plans "backfired," said author Paul Kengor, in an Oct. 22 lecture at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio.

"The Soviets were worried about an alliance. Right? So they wanted to end this alliance -- especially by getting rid of the pope," he said, speaking on the feast day of St. John Paul II.

Instead, these men went on to hold five strategic meetings, backed by an unknown number of back-channel contacts. Kengor's book about their friendship, "A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the Extraordinary Story of the 20th Century," was published in 2017.

"Well, you really screwed this up," said Kengor, who teaches at Grove City College. "Now, these two -- they've got the world's most exclusive, mutual prayer society. They've got a bond that no pope and president may ever have."

There was no translator present in the 1987 Vatican meeting between Reagan and the multilingual John Paul II. The president told aides that they discussed U.S.-Soviet relations, nuclear arms control and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But in his public statement afterwards Reagan also included strong words about the future of Poland. John Paul II was days away from another trip to his homeland.

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, most Americans think their nation is becoming more tolerant, at least when it comes to warm feelings about most religious believers.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, in terms of "thermometer" ratings, Americans felt "warmer" about nearly all religious groups than they did in 2014. Even chilly ratings for atheists and Muslims are approaching a neutral 50 score.

But there was one glitch in this warming trend, with evangelical Protestants stuck on a plateau. Christianity Today magazine noted that, when the views of evangelicals were removed from the mix, only a third of non-evangelical Americans had warm feelings toward evangelicals. Flip that around and that means two-thirds of non-evangelicals have lukewarm or cold feelings about evangelical Christians.

"There's a sharp divide in this country and it's getting stronger. … This tension has been obvious for years, for anyone with the eyes to see," said political scientist Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. "It's all about moral and social issues. Some people don't like the judgmental streak that they see in traditional forms of Christianity, like in evangelicalism and among traditional Roman Catholics."

Bolce and colleague Gerald De Maio have, over two decades, mustered research demonstrating that journalists have shown little or no interest in the liberal side of this divide. While offering in-depth coverage of the Christian Right, journalists have all but ignored a corresponding rise in what the Baruch College duo have called "anti-fundamentalist" activists. Among Democrats, the term "evangelical" has become as negative as the old "fundamentalist" label.

When journalists deal with religion and politics, "prejudice is attributed to people on the Religious Right, but not to people on the secular and religious left. Everything flows from that," said De Maio.

Reagan: Messiah? Antichrist? Normal mainliner?

As a Baptist preacher's kid who grew up in Texas in the 1970s, I had plenty of reasons to reject Ronald Reagan.

That may sound strange, since the Southern Baptist Convention and the Republican Party that Reagan built now appear to be wedded at the hip. But people tend to forget that Jimmy Carter really is a Baptist. So are Al Gore, the Rev. Bill Moyers and Britney Spears, while we're at it.

People also forget that Reagan was not a Southern Baptist or even what most would call an evangelical. He grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in the Illinois heartland of mainline Protestantism.

Still, I believe it's safe to say that America's deep political divisions on moral issues are the result of three cultural earthquakes -- Woodstock, Roe vs. Wade and the Reagan revolution.

These events shaped modern Democrats as well as Republicans. They shaped religious conservatives and the growing bloc some researchers are calling the "anti-evangelical voters." And these events created or deepened cracks in most religious sanctuaries that remain today and have, if anything, only gotten worse.

Take the Southern Baptists. I believe the rise of Reagan split that massive flock of 16-million-plus believers just as much, if not more, than doctrinal debates about "biblical inerrancy."

Millions of Southern Baptists saw Reagan as a near messiah. For Southern Baptist conservatives, Reagan offered hope that the cultural revolution of the Woodstock-Roe era might in some way be overturned. They were wrong, of course.

Nevertheless, these conservative Baptists lost their historic fear of politics and jumped into the public square. But while the conservative grown-ups created the Religious Right, their children were in their multi-media bedrooms watching HBO and MTV.

The parents thought they could vote in the kingdom, but things didn't work out that way. What they got instead was "I Love the '80s."

There were some Southern Baptists who saw Reagan as the Antichrist.

I saw this close up. I had a friend in graduate school who literally lost his moderate Southern Baptist faith because of the election of Reagan. How could he believe in a just and loving God, if a Reagan could be elected president?

After all, the Reagan loyalists hated the really cool movies and they liked the really bad movies. They didn't read the proper books and magazines or laugh at the hip comics. And Reagan was embraced by all of those "fundamentalists" who wanted to ruin the Southern Baptist Convention, which they believed was poised to achieve mainline Protestant maturity.

Most of all, they believed that Reagan was dumb. And if Reagan was dumb, that meant that hating Reagan was smart. Everyone who was smart agreed. If you didn't agree, then you were dumb.

So defeating Reagan was part of voting in a smarter, more nuanced kingdom.

What these anti-Reagan Baptists and new evangelicals really needed was a progressive, smart, complex Southern Baptist in the White House -- someone like Bill Clinton. That would be perfect. But things didn't work out precisely as they imagined, either. They got "Sex & the City."

Many of them liked it. Many didn't, but the alternative was worse. The alternative was being labeled a religious conservative, the kind of person who liked Reagan.

There seemed to be no other option, no middle ground.

But perhaps Reagan wasn't a messiah or the Antichrist. What if he was just a normal mainline Protestant churchman from the 1950s?

Maybe he had good intentions and he did his best. Maybe he accomplished many things on the global level and didn't do so much on the cultural level. Maybe his beliefs were sincere, but not very specific. Maybe he made some people feel good and others feel bad. Maybe his greatest domestic political legacy is the Religious Right and the Religious Left.

But questions remain. Was Reagan truly a cultural and moral conservative? Did he cause the "pew gap" the researchers find in all the polls of modern voters? Could Reagan, if he had really tried, overturn the culture of Woodstock and Roe? Could he have helped Americans do a better job of focusing on their families? I have my doubts.

There are things that politicians cannot do.

It's a culture thing. It's a moral thing. It's a faith thing.