Of Presidents and Public Faith

The recent death of Ronald Reagan and the publication of Bill Clinton's memoirs provide occasion to consider the relationship between faith and public life. Both of these men, though vastly different, had notable similarities. Perhaps the most interesting similarity with contrast is the fact that both men had a very private, interior faith.
August 1 st 2004

The recent death of Ronald Reagan and the publication of Bill Clinton's memoirs provide occasion to consider the relationship between faith and public life. Both of these men, though vastly different, had notable similarities.

Both Reagan and Clinton were born into situations with less than ideal fathers (or father figures—Clinton's father died and he was raised by his mother and stepfather, who were alcoholics.) In spite of the challenges that both faced, neither suffered from unduly tempered ambition: Reagan became a successful, if not Oscar-winning actor, and Clinton steadily pursued a path toward politics in Arkansas. Both made their way to the White House.

As president of the United States, Reagan was considered to have a veneer of Teflon. Clinton became Slick Willie because of his ability to manoeuver out of numerous challenges and potential scandals (Monica Lewinsky being only a partial exception). Both were effective communicators, though Reagan had the unmatched ability to cast a vision for the nation that was simple yet profound. Clinton was one of the most intelligent occupants of the White House and a voracious reader, yet sometimes the complexity of his thoughts made his public speaking a tier below the Great Communicator.

Perhaps the most interesting similarity with contrast is the fact that both men had a very private, interior faith. Reagan was beloved by many evangelical Christians because of the values he championed, yet he did not come across as one whose faith was readily apparent in every political situation. There were certainly speeches that made reference to Jesus and used language peppered here and there that carried American evangelical resonance, yet Reagan was not known as a stalwart in church attendance and did not publicly discuss his faith. At his death, the many private conversations where his faith surfaced became known for the first time. He clearly understood and believed the gospel, but he didn't widely advertise this when he was president.

Clinton was more confusing because he attended church every Sunday with a bible in hand, a book with which he may have had greater familiarity than most Oval Office occupants. In spite of his public church attendance, the substance of his faith seemed to be a matter of considerable privacy, especially because he was dogged by the character question throughout his tenure in Washington. As his memoirs suggest, Clinton understands himself as a Christian who wants to be ready on the last day when God calls him home, yet he also acknowledges that he has a dark side. He seems to be as aware of his sin as Martin Luther, but the sin is to be dealt with as a personal matter between Clinton and God. This is where his faith is most private.

Clinton did not hesitate to use religious language when casting a vision of civil society, but when it came to the effect of his faith on his life as a person and politician, the matter seemed quite mysterious, though we can assume that he perceived himself as a forgiven sinner. In the case of both Reagan and Clinton, the direct link between faith and the public realm starkly contrasts with the current president, who is as visible as Clinton in attending church but perhaps much more willing to reveal the impact of a Christian vision on his life as a person and politician.

At Reagan's internment service, Ronald Reagan Jr. said:

Dad was also a deeply, unabashedly religious man. But he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage. True, after he was shot and nearly killed early in his presidency, he came to believe that God had spared him in order that he might do good. But he accepted that as a responsibility, not a mandate. And there is a profound difference.

While this statement was a thinly disguised slap at president Bush, it raises the interesting question of the manner and extent to which faith should be made public. Reagan Jr.'s statement seems to suggest that the problem with the current administration is the use of religion to one's advantage and a mistaken notion that there is some divine political mandate for the pursuit of various policies. Irrespective of the particulars of policy, Reagan Jr. prompts us to ask whether it is best to keep faith private, like Reagan or Clinton did, or whether there is a way to bring faith to bear on extrapersonal matters that extend beyond mere rhetoric.

One reason I gladly claim the label Kuyperian and engage in my neo-Kuyperian project is that I think there is a way to be a person of deep piety and also have faith that goes public. In fact, faith of some sort is always on display in the public square.

When I think about Reagan Jr's comments in honour of his father, I wonder if he has revealed himself as a person profoundly uncomfortable with an explicit intersection of faith and politics. While acknowledging that his father believed he had a God-given public purpose, apparently the greater part of valour was keeping faith subterranean in the midst of doing good.

Without question, there are many people in the post-Enlightenment Western world who think that it is fine to be a person of faith as long as you promise to keep it out of the public sphere. The problem, of course, is that such a view often assumes a neutral public square, which can only be a place of "objective" political debate when religion is banished to the private domain of the heart. Objectivity and neutrality of this sort only exists in some kind of mythological world, because there is always some faith that informs the stances taken in the public square, even if that faith is atheistic or merely anti-Christian.

Kuyperians and others like them examine this situation and suggest that at the very least, people should be honest about the fact that everyone represents some worldview, some faith perspective, and that it is a capitulation to faith of the Enlightenment (the reign of the autonomous individual, who privileges their "objective" rational thought) to abandon the public, to put religion safely in the closet.

Misuses of faith can be monstrous, it is true, but we should never let what we might consider the worst examples serve as reason to impoverish ourselves from the best. The world that needs a saviour for the salvation of individuals also needs the resources of a public Christian faith that goes beyond personal lives into the very structure of society and culture. The private faith of Reagan and Clinton is not without merit, but we must go beyond them to a faith that can give order to public as well as private worlds.


Vincent Bacote is Associate Professor of Theology, and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (2005). He is also co-editor with Dennis Okholm and Laura Miguelez of Scripture in the Evangelical Tradition (InterVarsity Press, 2004). He is also the editor of the Precepts for Living Annual Commentary (UMI).