A Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Legacy

This article was originally posted just after the death of President Ronald W. Reagan. It is republished today in honor of the centennial of President Reagan’s birth, yesterday, February 6.

“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” Those words catapulted Ronald W. Reagan onto the stage of national politics. Though the “Great Communicator” has left the scene, his ideas continue to define the political landscape.

Reagan spoke of this “rendezvous with destiny” in a speech delivered to support the lagging campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Though Goldwater was to lose that election in a landslide, Reagan entered the political limelight, connecting with the American people in a way Goldwater and other conservatives had not.

By any measure, Ronald Reagan was an unusually complicated man, driven by unusually simple ideas. His roots in Dixon, Illinois gave him an immediate connection with the values of small-town America. Nevertheless, Reagan -– known then as “Dutch” to his friends –- had his sights set on a far larger world.

In reality, Ronald Reagan had several careers, all of them successful. His communication skills were first put to work as a radio announcer, but he soon came to the attention of Hollywood, where he developed a big screen career and seemed poised for greatness. All this was interrupted by World War II, when Reagan, ruled unfit for combat due to poor eyesight, was assigned to a film-making unit on behalf of the armed services. After making over 400 films for the national cause, Reagan emerged from the war with his movie career dimmed, but he soon turned to other opportunities.

Ronald Reagan then made his mark as president of the Screen Actors Guild, the leading labor union for actors and actresses. He was later to reflect that experience in the white-knuckled context of labor negotiations, which taught him both patience and determination. Both qualities were to be essential to Reagan’s later experience in political office.

Reagan was, up until the late 1950’s, an ardent Democrat. As a matter of fact, he would later acknowledge having been a member of several “bleeding heart” organizations for liberal causes. Reagan’s worldview began to change when he served as a spokesman for the General Electric Corporation, traveling around the nation speaking to both employees and public citizens. During this period, Reagan reconnected with grassroots America and sensed the need for political leadership that would recover American values, reassert American leadership, and reverse the welfare-state liberalism that then defined national policy.

For most Americans, Reagan’s political debut came in the speech made on behalf of Barry Goldwater. Reagan spoke of “a time for choosing” and told the nation of his political transition: “I have spent most of my life as a Democrat. I recently have seen fit to follow another course.”

In short order, that course would take him to the governorship of California. Elected against a cultural tide, Reagan took office and addressed some of the most critical issues of the 1960’s, including campus unrest at the University of California’s Berkeley campus and an out of control state budget. Reagan was overwhelmingly reelected to a second term, and his prospects for national office seemed to be bright. At the 1968 Republican National Convention, delegates held Reagan in reserve as a potential candidate if front-runner Richard M. Nixon failed in his effort to achieve the nomination.

Reagan’s entry into presidential politics came in 1976, when he ran against incumbent President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination, arguing that America needed a change, not only of leadership, but also of vision. Reagan came amazingly close to seizing the nomination, and he instantly became the front-runner for the 1980 Republican nomination when Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 race.

Reagan’s election as President in 1980 -– capped by a landslide decision of the electorate -– represented the transformation of America’s political terrain, not merely the election of a new chief executive. As a campaigner, Ronald Reagan broke all the rules of conventional politics. He spoke boldly of ideas and resisted his own campaign advisors who counseled him to tone down his campaign rhetoric in order to appeal to nonaligned voters. Reagan saw the equation very differently. He did not want to reach nonaligned voters –- he wanted to realign their political vision to match America’s present opportunities and challenges. His success in changing the terms of our national debate is often forgotten in the aftermath of his political successes.

As President, Ronald Reagan transformed the world by refusing to believe that freedom and liberty were too expensive to defend. He understood the difference between freedom and oppression and had nothing but disdain for America’s elites, who saw the world locked in a perpetual stalemate between freedom and totalitarianism. Reagan refused to accept the world on these terms and was determined to confront the Soviet Union and the threat of world communism. He was determined to force the end of what he courageously called the “Evil Empire,” and through a confrontational public policy and a massive buildup of America’s military might, he forced the Soviet Union into a public humiliation, as its economy could not sustain an equal military expansion. In the end, the Soviet Union lost political credibility because it could not deliver on its promises, nor make good on its threats. It took the courage of Ronald Reagan to walk away from the Reykjavik summit meeting in 1986, leaving Mikhail Gorbachev to face the fact that he could not deter the United States from its newly assertive military power and foreign policy.

The impact of this change in America’s international posture is almost impossible to overestimate. During Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, communism suffered its first massive and public defeat, as it was pressed back in much of the Third World even as the Soviet Union began to collapse from within. This was not a continuation of detente, but a foreign policy aimed at liberating millions from oppression. The stakes were high, but President Reagan was driven by an absolute confidence in the ultimate victory of hope over despair and freedom over oppression. In the end, the Soviet Union fell more quickly -– and more peacefully–than virtually anyone could have predicted.

Ronald Reagan is what specialists in political leadership identify as a “conviction politician.” As former White House counsel Peter J. Wallison commented, “Reagan had convictions –- not just ‘positions,’ but principles he believed in and was willing to act upon.” As Wallison argues, this separated Reagan from his recent predecessors in office, who had generally attempted to negotiate around many issues rather than to confront and solve them. “Reagan’s extraordinary acts of political courage demonstrated that politics had a moral core, and that government decisions could be based on something more solid and enduring than the shifting sands of political expediency.”

On the world’s stage, Reagan developed an historic partnership with his generation’s other great conviction politician -– Margaret Thatcher. In an unusual alignment, based on both personality and ideas, Reagan and Thatcher redefined the Atlantic alliance and established Anglo-American leadership in the world. Thatcher understood Reagan’s vision and admired his effectiveness as both communicator and statesman. “When we attempt an overall survey of President Reagan’s term of office,” she reflected, “covering events both foreign and domestic, one thing stands out. It is that he has achieved the most difficult of all political tasks: changing attitudes and perceptions about what is possible. From the strong fortress of his convictions, he set out to enlarge freedom the world over at a time when freedom was in retreat–and he succeeded. It is not merely that freedom now advances while collectivism is in retreat–important though that is. It is that freedom is the idea that everywhere captures men’s minds while collectivism can do no more than enslave their bodies. That is the measure of the change that President Reagan has wrought.”

Domestically, President Reagan used his incredible communication skills to lead the nation, and he combined respect for the American people with the expectation that Americans should solve their own problems. His most memorable anecdotes usually had to do with some story of government inefficiency or worse. In a line he often used, President Reagan offered that the most frightening words he had ever heard were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” Reagan’s “less is more” approach to government marked the end of an era of unbridled government expansion, with its accompanying financial constriction. President Reagan restructured the economy through massive tax cuts mixed with encouragement for entrepreneurship and economic expansion.

The transformations that mark Ronald Reagan’s life also touch the most basic moral issues of life and death. As the governor of California, Reagan signed one of the most liberal abortion laws of the 1970’s. By the time he ran for President in 1980, Reagan had come to see abortion as a moral blight on America’s conscience, and he almost single-handedly rebuilt a conservative movement driven by concern for individual liberty, economic freedom, and the sanctity of human life.

Ronald Reagan was a real human being, and it showed. Those who never heard him speak as President, who never observed his speeches and press conferences, are robbed of the opportunity to see this real leader grappling with the most crucial issues of his day. He did so with both humanity and courage, remembering that, in politics, he could afford many opponents but no enemies.

My introduction to Ronald Reagan came as I joined his 1976 campaign for the Republican nomination. I was a 16-year-old campaign volunteer working to distribute literature and serving time on the phone banks used to reach grassroots voters. I was captivated by the clarity of Ronald Reagan’s vision, and I resonated with his conservative political philosophy. Admittedly, I was also simply taken by the sheer charisma of Ronald Reagan as a leader.

I was able to see Ronald Reagan in action and in person at Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium during the 1976 nomination contest. Accompanied by his devoted wife Nancy, Reagan strode to the podium and delivered, apparently without notes, a political address that -– in terms of its ideas -– would later lead to his landslide election in 1980. I waited in the rope line for a chance to shake his hand, and then I saw for myself why biographer Edmund Morris would describe Ronald Reagan as “a force of nature.” His energy, optimism, and confidence swept through the room like a bracing storm.

History will remember Ronald Reagan as a great President. Americans will remember him as a great friend. In time, monuments will be built, and memorials will be formalized. Yet the greatest memorial to Ronald Reagan is the fact that his ideas still live –- and that a generation of younger Americans will not let them die.

The Osteen Moment — Your Own Moment Will Come Soon Enough

Joel Osteen found himself forced to answer a question that every Christian — and certainly every Christian leader — will be forced to answer. When that moment comes, and come it will, those who express confidence in the Bible’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin will find themselves facing the same shock and censure from the very same quarters.

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Chilling Almost Beyond Belief

Americans generally know that abortions happen, but the reality of abortion is kept out of sight and, for most, largely out of mind. To acknowledge that abortions do occur does not require any actual knowledge of the numbers of abortions performed and the scale of the catastrophe. News reports that emerged in recent days will make that evasion harder to justify.

The New York Times reported on January 6, 2011 that the abortion rate in New York City is about 40 percent of all pregnancies. That means that no less than four out of every ten pregnancies in that city are terminated by abortion. That statistic is horrific, leading a group of New York religious leaders to describe the abortion rate as “chilling.”

Of even greater magnitude is the abortion rate among African-Americans in New York City — a rate of almost 60 percent. This means, of course, that far more black babies are aborted than are born. How is it that black church leaders are so silent on this murderous assault on unborn African-American babies?

The Guttmacher Institute recently reported that the national abortion rate is 22 percent. Two out of every ten pregnancies in America end in abortion.

The enormity of the abortion rate in America underlines the fact that abortion is anything but rare. Over 1.2 million abortions were performed in the United States in 2008, the last year with full numbers reported.

This means that abortion is taking place in your neighborhood and in mine. The abortion rate in New York City staggers the moral imagination, but the abortion rate nationwide is itself “chilling.”

We are a murderous people, and the blood of the innocent cries out for justice.

Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Jeremiah 31:15

For the Sake of the Kingdom: Redefining Retirement

The concept of retirement is rather recent in origins. Most historians trace the concept back to Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, who pushed through a series of social changes in the late 19th century. Among those changes was a system something like Social Security, intended as a guaranteed pension for the elderly.

Bismarck’s idea was that workers in Germany would need to give way so that younger men would be able to enter the workforce and support their families. The concept of retirement from the workforce took root, and by the mid-point of the 20th century, most American workers expected to retire at something close to age 65.

The contemporary ideal of retirement was a life of travel, leisure, golf, and time with grandchildren. In states like Florida, California, and Arizona, entire communities of retirees emerged. “Leisurevilles” advertised a concept of the good life that was free from employment and largely, if not exclusively, devoted to withdrawal from the world of all work.

These communities are now in trouble. The concept of retirement is now changing, brought about by the economic recession that has propelled many older Americans back into the workforce. As Laura Vanderkam reports in USA Today:

After decades of decline, the labor force participation rate among people older than 65 rose from a low of 10.7% in 1987 to more than 17% now. Nearly a third of those ages 65-69 are working or looking for work, up from less than 20% in the 1980s, and surveys of Baby Boomers find that many don’t intend to retire immediately either.

We will likely look back on the period between 1950 and 2000 as the Era of Retirement. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Social Security into law, the expectation was that workers would probably live an average of 5-8 years after retirement. But the extension of the human lifespan during the last half of the 20th century meant that retirement could easily last for twenty years, and often even longer. Now, those who live to age 65, Vanderkam reports, “can quite reasonably expect to live to age 85 or more.”

Here is the key sentence in Vanderkam’s essay: “The notion that work is something you want to stop doing is getting a makeover as well.” It’s about time.

The Bible dignifies both labor and age, but the modern American ideal of retirement is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures. Instead, lives of useful service to the Kingdom of Christ are the expectation, all the way to the grave.

The economic crisis of recent years has forced many Americans to rethink and redefine retirement as a matter of necessity. For Christians, this represents an important opportunity. The ideal for Christians should be redeployment, even after employment. There is so much Kingdom work to be done, and older believers are desperately needed in this great task. There are missionaries to be assisted, ministries to be energized, young couples to be counseled, boys without fathers to be mentored, and wisdom and experience to be shared. The possibilities for Christian redeployment are endless.

There is room in the Christian life for leisure, but not for a life devoted to leisure. As long as we have the strength and ability to serve, we are workers needed in Christ’s Kingdom. Given the needs and priorities all around us, who would settle for life in Leisureville?

The Deadly Logic of Anti-Blasphemy Laws

Blasphemy is a serious matter. Jesus himself underlined the importance with the statement: “And anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” [Luke 12:10] In this case, the meaning is clear — those who resist the work of the Holy Spirit in calling sinners to faith in Christ will never be forgiven.

Christianity is not an honor religion. Christ did not call upon his disciples to defend his honor, but to believe in him and to follow him in obedience. In this verse, Jesus affirms that even slander against him can be forgiven, but the unforgivable sin is obstinate rejection of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.

In recent weeks, a coalition of Muslim nations has demanded (again) that the United Nations criminalize blasphemy. A considerable number of Christians might, at least at first hearing, think this as a reasonable demand. After all, we do not disagree that slander against the honor of God is a very, very dangerous sin. But anti-blasphemy laws place the power of theological coercion into the hands of the state, and this is deadly dangerous.

In Pakistan, for example, Section 295C of the criminal code states that “derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet … either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly … shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

On November 8, 2010, a woman named Asia Bibi, a Christian, was sentenced to death by hanging just because she had entered into what was claimed to be a religious argument with Muslims. She was arrested after an Islamic mob surrounded her house and demanded her death.

This past Monday the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by one of his own security guards after the Governor had stated words of support for Asia Bibi. The assassin said that he murdered Governor Taseer in an act of “protecting Allah’s religion.”

Saroop Ijaz, a human rights attorney in Lahore, Pakistan, explained in the Los Angeles Times that, though no one has yet been executed under the blasphemy laws, “at least 32 people have been killed while awaiting trial or after they have been acquitted of blasphemy charges.”

Anti-blasphemy laws serve the honor logic of Islam but not the evangelistic aims of Christianity. It is wrong to give governments the power of theological coercion. Seen in this light, blasphemy is no small matter, but anti-blasphemy laws are deadly barriers to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Martyrs in a Modern World

Christians — especially those enjoying the safety of the West — often think of martyrdom as a part of the distant Christian past. But a recent barrage of headlines dispels that notion in a hurry. Over the past several weeks, Christians in Iraq suffered a series of church bombings, and experts in the region predicted a virtual evacuation of that nation’s Christian population. Approximately half of all Iraqi Christians have already fled the country. That represents a failure of the American ambition to leave Iraq with a government that would protect basic human rights and liberties. The murderous terrorism against Christians in Iraq amounts to a form of religious cleansing.

Meanwhile, oppression of Christians in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, intensified with a January 1 bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria. Twenty-one worshipers were killed and another 100 were injured. Analysts predicted a rise in the scale of these attacks, since many Muslims seem intent on eliminating Egypt’s approximately 10 million Christians.

In Pakistan, rioters took to the streets to insist that the nation’s draconian blasphemy laws stay in place — effectively allowing only Muslim practice and preaching. As The New York Times reported, “A crippling strike by Islamist parties brought Pakistan to a standstill on Friday as thousands of people took to the streets, and forced businesses to close, to head off any change in the country’s blasphemy law, which rights groups say has been used to persecute minorities, especially Christians.”

There is no way we can determine the exact theological beliefs of these worshipers in Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan, but there can be no question that they are suffering and dying in the name of Jesus Christ. They deserve our earnest prayers and advocacy. They also remind us by their witness that Christ has enemies — and so do His followers. The blood of the martyrs does indeed cry out their witness for Christ.

We must pray for persecuted Christians everywhere around the world.

“Through prayer we can be saved because of our Lord Jesus Christ, even after we have been punished. This will become salvation and confidence to us at the much more fearful and universal judgment of our Lord and Savior.” Justin Martyr

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