Brief Note: David Barton and Ronald Reagan’s Pretty Shallow Faith

Photo: David Barton (Left); Eric Metaxas (Right)

In a Wednesday Onenewsnow article about Ronald Reagan’s Christianity, David Barton is quoted as saying:

Reagan’s faith matured over the years from a “pretty shallow” faith early on to more mature understanding of scripture.

While many people did doubt Reagan’s sincerity, Reagan biographer and Grove City College colleague Paul Kengor told me that Reagan never had a shallow faith. While Barton can be credited with acknowledging that Reagan had a faith, Kengor has shown via his many articles and books that Reagan’s faith was important in his life from his childhood.

Barton was asked to comment on a newly discovered letter written by Reagan to his atheist father-in-law. The letter was in essence an evangelistic appeal for his father-in-law to convert to Christianity. Kengor has a commentary on the letter here.

My concern in this post is not about Reagan’s faith. It seems clear to me that he was an imperfect believer as is the case with any believer. In my view, any comparisons to Donald Trump as court evangelical Robert Jeffress attempted earlier this year are faulty because Reagan actually believed in Christianity. In my opinion, Trump is acting the part and giving evangelicals just enough to keep them as a voting bloc.

Rather, this comment from Barton is another illustration of why he can’t be trusted as a historian. There has been a resurgence of interest in Reagan’s faith over the last decade or so. A historian familiar with the literature should be aware that there are good reasons to believe Reagan’s personal faith was meaningful to him throughout his life. One might contest various applications of his faith or how consistent his actions were with the faith but to call his beliefs or faith shallow isn’t accurate.

By the way, if you want to get an icy silence from Wallbuilders, ask Mr. Barton about his earned doctorate.

33 thoughts on “Brief Note: David Barton and Ronald Reagan’s Pretty Shallow Faith”

  1. WhatUp said:

    Take a Xanax, Your colleague documents his statements. Why not try that approach rather then your ***In my opinion, Trump is acting the part and giving evangelicals just enough to keep them as a voting bloc.*** speculation. You are a professor. You can do it.

    I’ll respond before you think better of this comment and delete it, as you are wont to do. Considering the dearth of historical evidence of any sincerity or moral compass in Trump’s actions or comments to date, the onus would be on those wishing to illustrate the validity of his faith (or even the claim that he has any), not someone making an obvious deduction.

    Now go clean your *** mouth out with soap.

    (as I suspected, the comment was deleted while I was typing the reply. Not this time, WU. Leave the comments up and take responsibility by apologizing.)

    1. Would Ronald Reagan have thanked a brutal North Korean dictator in a speech at the UN? I very much doubt it! (If indeed it is the case that Kim Jong-un has decided to be less aggressive and stop subjective many of his people to near starvation, then he is doing merely what he should be doing. Noone should be thanked simply for that.)

      1. So you never say thanks to the mailman? A waitress who brings some water? They are ***doing merely what he should be doing.***

        I’m giving you a mercy “^”. No thanks required.

        1. If a person who should have been delivering milk had failed to bring to bring milk for weeks, then suddenly turned up, I would almost certainly not thank them; I might say something along the lines of “about time!”

          1. Just on Reagan: it was during his presidency that I became ‘politically conscious’ and, while there was plenty about the Administration’s policy that I didn’t like, I was impressed by his preparedness to work on his relationship with Gorbachev, despite the misgivings of some of his advisers. Perhaps this was a practical expression of his faith? And what was achieved was very far from “shallow”.

          2. Reagan came into office with his historically one-dimensional view of the USSR and the Cold War, but I think he was jolted into reality by the results of Able Archer 83 and surrounding events. We nearly caused WW3 because the USSR had a hard time figuring out if we were going for a First Strike. I think history shows that Reagan was shocked that they genuinely believed we would, and that we almost caused what we feared most – with our actions as the trigger.

            His rhetoric started to soften a bit and when he found a willing partner in Gorbachev, he started down the alternate road. I remember at the time that I didn’t trust the sincerity of Gorbachev on this. I had learned to see what they were doing in public as a deception, with something more sinister going on behind. It is a hard habit to break, and I do admire Reagan for doing so.

            The narrative about Reagan ending the Cold War is severely distorted, but there is no doubt that he was a big part of the confluence of events that made it happen. It’s too bad the aftermath enabled the likes of Putin and his Oligarchs.

            I have no idea how deep Reagan’s faith actually was, but from the outside he is the Pope compared to Trump in that respect.


          3. I remember the Korean 747 tragedy and Able Archer ’83 well. Dangerous times indeed.

            Gorbachev always ‘struck a chord’ with me, I must admit. And I agree that it was courageous and far-sighted of Reagan to reach out.

            Yes, it’s a pity that (as of now) we’ve got to Putin.

          4. Truth be told, I was rather enjoying myself! And I reckon I won the bout … (we are all allowed a little harmless self delusion from time to time!)

            Just on Trump and Kim: I’m not convinced that this situation has anything truly in common with the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship (except perhaps the misgivings of advisers). I don’t see any real ‘meeting of minds’ here, just a shallow game. Maybe my assessment is wrong – I suppose time will tell …

          5. Just on Trump and Kim: I’m not convinced that this situation has anything truly in common with the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship…

            Oh god no – a thousand times no, nothing in common.

          6. One of Trump’s biggest weaknesses stems from his belief that he can form meaningful relationships with authoritarian leaders (leaders who, unlike Gorbachev, have no desire to develop democratic reforms in their countries). Such leaders are like (naughty) small children: they will simply do whatever they think they can get away with; to be nice to them is to encourage bad behaviour on their part. Dealings with them must be cool, structured, businesslike and, as far as possible, with very clear boundaries set down.

      2. Rather like thanking a murderer for being a little less sadistic for a while so he can avoid capture. In this case, we don’t even know if he really has done even that. I remember the Reagan years well. He was much better at portraying the image of a leader than being one (not entirely a bad thing during that time), but he gave every indication of being a generally decent person. I can’t imagine him having any use for president Trump.

    1. WhatUP said:

      I stand by my post.

      Yeah, so much so that you deleted it 30 minutes after posting.

      1. Here’s why I deleted it…
        ***do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you*** Matthew 7:6

          1. How uncertain must one be to not up-vote one’s comment?

            Does Tacitus need an “^” too ???? Here you go, little feller.

          2. The point is, beyond the obvious if somewhat childish self-importance it demonstrates, Disqus doesn’t count your own upvotes the way it does others. Upvoting one’s own comments is rarely done because it is purely an exercise in vanity. Posting a comment in the first place is one’s own “upvote.”

            Your response is ironic considering how many of your own comments you subsequently remove (and yes, after upvoting them as well). I suspect you do it all mainly because of these occasional bouts of attention it affords you. I’ve noticed that you seem to crave attention – positive or negative.

          3. So if we ignore WU’s comments & refuse to take the bait—I suspect he’ll find another playground in which to kick sand in other’s faces….

          4. Most of the time we do. He rarely says anything beyond one-liners or posting memes from 2005. Now and then it just happens that someone responds. I’ve done it, but not because I think he will actually listen, lol. Sometimes it’s just hard to ignore stupid. I shouldn’t “throw my pearls before swine” eh?

  2. Oh my What Up already deleted his comment?

    If others read it, here is what I was about to reply.

    We could start with this comparison to Reagan by Paul Kengor.

    Then, there’s Trump view of forgiveness — he doesn’t need or ask for it.

    We could then go into his lies about paying off a porn star and playboy model. And if bearing false witness on a daily basis isn’t a problem for you, then I don’t know what else to say.

  3. Critiquing others’ faith is always a very dodgy business given that we all in the same “imperfect” boat (as Warren rightly points out). As for Trump’s faith: the thing that strikes so many of us about him is that is it very hard to see any real guiding principles in his politics at all, notwithstanding his apparent ability to give evangelicals just enough for them to see past his peccadilloes …

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