(RNS) -- Retrospectives on Ronald Reagan as the nation marks the centennial of his birth will touch upon every imaginable aspect of the man. I suspect, however, that the thing most integral to the man, and most consistent throughout his life -- his religious faith -- might get pushed aside.
That was something I learned quite unintentionally, in the summer of 2001, when I was at the Reagan library researching what I thought would be a fairly conventional biography. I scoured a fascinating cache of documents called the Handwriting File. There, I glimpsed Reagan's literal input -- in speeches, proclamations, you name it.
And it was there, in marked-up drafts of speeches such as the "Evil Empire" address, that I also encountered an intensely religious Reagan.
He was making constant, seamless references to God. I found eye-opening private letters, including one where Reagan employed C.S. Lewis' classic "liar, Lord, or lunatic" argument to, essentially, evangelize the Christian message.
As I dug deeper, I found a Christian faith inculcated carefully, winsomely, by figures from Reagan's youth, from his mother to his pastor. It impacted the entirety of his life and thinking, from his views on communism to the sanctity of human life.
But the ecumenical part of Reagan's faith also struck me. Baptized in the Disciples of Christ denomination, Reagan would attend mainly Disciples and Presbyterian churches. I define Reagan's faith as largely non-denominational, a Protestant with a healthy respect for non-Protestant faiths, especially Catholic and Jewish faiths. This was a religious tolerance nurtured at home, at the dinner table of a devout Protestant mother and not-so-devout but believing Catholic father.
It's significant how this religious inclusiveness related to the core struggle of Reagan's presidency: his desire to undermine a militantly, murderously atheistic Soviet regime, one he truly believed was "evil." Indeed, Mikhail Gorbachev himself later lamented that his predecessors had pursued a "savage" and "brutal" "war on religion."
Reagan counted many Catholics among his intimates, especially his chief foreign policy players. Most vital was National Security Adviser William Clark, a student of Aquinas, Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Thomas Merton. Clark was dubbed Reagan's "most impressive" and "most important and influential" adviser by official biographer Edmund Morris. Morris rightly discerned that no other person was as close to the president spiritually. Clark and Reagan prayed together, particularly the Prayer of St. Francis.
Also notable, given Reagan's moniker of "the Great Communicator," was the contribution of Catholic speechwriters, such as Peter Robinson, Peggy Noonan and Tony Dolan.
Then there were Reagan's poignant relationships with high-profile Catholics such as Cardinal Terence Cooke, Mother Teresa and, of course, Pope John Paul II. To all three, Reagan confided that he believed God had spared his life during the March 1981 assassination attempt for the purpose of taking down Soviet communism.
Reagan also had great respect for the Jewish faith. In his first presidential Easter proclamation, Reagan devoted equal time to Easter and to Passover, exactly four sentences on each. He carried in his jacket a list of Soviet Jews held in prison or denied the right to emigrate. Every time he or his staff met with a Soviet representative, the list was presented.
A dramatic example was Natan Sharansky. In 1977, Sharansky was abducted by the KGB outside his apartment and charged with treason. He spent nine years in Lefortovo Prison, where he symbolized Reagan's description of the "religious dissident trapped in that cold, cruel existence."
In prison, Sharansky befriended Volodia Poresh, a Christian. The two secretly started each day reading the Old and New Testaments. They called these Bible sessions "Reaganite readings" after Reagan had declared that year the "Year of the Bible." It was a designation dismissed by the Kremlin and by some Western elites, but which inspired Sharansky and Poresh.
They gained strength from that Bible, coping with the "evil" (Sharansky's word) they faced. When Sharansky was freed, he met Reagan in the White House. The president awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
In the 1980s, Reagan's faith ranged from non-issue to a negative, given his irregular church attendance (after and because of the assassination attempt) and his wife's consulting astrologers. In fact, it was a deep faith and commendably ecumenical one -- fundamental to a presidency that, in Reagan's mind, was undergirded by something far more profound than mere politics.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa. His books include God and Ronald Reagan and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.
c. 2011 USA Today. Used with permission.
Publication date: February 4, 2011