Reagan on prayer: ‘I looked up instead of back’
As president, Ronald Reagan issued a National Day of Prayer Proclamation every year of his eight years in the Oval Office and in 1988, he signed into law the designation of the first Thursday in May as the annual observance of the National Day of Prayer. During this, Reagan’s centennial year, we should remember what this day meant to one of America’s greatest presidents and why he took such pride in officially recognizing its observance.
My first example: Ronald Reagan’s belief in the power of prayer.
I can well remember a day during my service as assistant to the president for public liaison when we were alone while waiting for the president to deliver a speech. I said, “Mr. President, I just have to ask, you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and yet you’re always so gracious, so kind, so thoughtful of others. You’re never flustered or frustrated. How in the world do you do it?”
He loved to reminisce and he leaned back in his chair and said, “Well, Elizabeth, when I was governor of California, it seemed as if every day yet another crisis would be placed on my desk. I had the urge to hand it to someone behind me to help me. One day I realized I was looking in the wrong direction. I looked up instead of back and I’m still looking up. I couldn’t go another day in this office if I didn’t know I could ask for God’s help and it would be given.”
That was Ronald Reagan. He was fond of a quote from President Lincoln, where our Civil War president said that oftentimes, he was “driven to his knees” by the “overwhelming conviction” that he had nowhere else to go.
One of Reagan’s favorite images was George Washington praying at Valley Forge, which Reagan called the “most sublime image in American history.” “Washington kneeling in the snow,” said Reagan, “personified a people who knew it was not enough to depend on their own courage and goodness; they must also seek help from God, their Father and their Preserver.”
My second example of what the National Day of Prayer meant to Ronald Reagan was his belief in religious tolerance and the ecumenical nature of religion in America.
This Protestant president included many devout Roman Catholics among his White House staff, chief foreign-policy advisers and intimates. In fact, Ronald Reagan appointed the first U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
Consider, too, Reagan’s respect for the Jewish faith. This was evident in his first presidential statement on Easter, in which he devoted equal time to Easter and Passover.
He was deeply troubled by the refusal of the Soviet Union to allow for Jewish emigration. The president carried in his jacket pocket a list of Jews held in Soviet prison camps. Every time he met with a Soviet representative or when an adviser planned to do so, the list was presented.
Speaking of that evil, the third example is Ronald Reagan’s timeless belief and optimism in how good can triumph over evil.
It was 30 years ago around this time, March 30, 1981, that Reagan, in office merely a few weeks, was shot.
In the days to come, he shared an intense personal spiritual conviction regarding his survival, but only with sources he knew to be devoutly religious: Among them was New York’s Cardinal Terence Cooke. It was Good Friday, April 1981, and Reagan sensed a feeling of rebirth. He was certain his life had been spared for a special purpose. An aide summoned the cardinal to the White House. “The hand of God was upon you,” Cooke told Reagan. “I know,” a solemn Reagan replied. “I have decided that whatever time I have left is for him.”
In that time left, Reagan discerned a special purpose that struck at the epicenter of the battle against atheistic Soviet communism. He committed himself wholeheartedly — body, mind and soul — to a peaceful end to the Cold War and to a Soviet empire he understood as evil.
He committed himself to the great moral good of taking down an empire infused by an ideology that killed tens of millions of people worldwide in Reagan’s century.
In Reagan’s very first proclamation for the National Day of Prayer, 30 years ago, he said: “Prayer is today as powerful a force in our nation as it has ever been. We as a nation should never forget this source of strength.” Indeed. And as Reagan always signed off, God bless the United States of America.
Elizabeth Dole was secretary of transportation and a member of the White House staff in the Reagan administration, secretary of labor in the George H.W. Bush administration, a U.S. senator from North Carolina and president of the American Red Cross.