The Wisdom of Ronald Reagan

Yesterday was Ronald Reagan’s birthday. He would have been 102. Many of us long to have a president like him again. To commemorate his presidency and to remind you of his insights, I hereby present an excerpt from one of his most famous speeches. In 1983, he spoke to the National Association of Evangelicals, where he blatantly called the Soviet Union an evil empire. He was correct. Yet, beyond that, I hope you can see the heart of the man through these words:

We must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect man. We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin. There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.…

They [the Soviets] must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles and standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God.…

Let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.

It was C. S. Lewis who, in his unforgettable “Screwtape Letters,” wrote: “The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid ‘dens of  crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.” …

You know, I’ve always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.…

While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.

Whittaker Chambers, the man whose own religious conversion made him a witness to one of the terrible traumas of our time, the Hiss-Chambers case, wrote that the crisis of the Western World exists to the degree in which the West is indifferent to God, the degree to which it collaborates in communism’s attempt to make man stand alone without God. And then he said, for Marxism-Leninism is actually the second oldest faith, first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, “Ye shall be as gods.”

The Western World can answer this challenge, he wrote, “but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in Man.”

There is much wisdom in those words, and they still apply today.

C. S. Lewis: Truth, Not Comfort

Some people are good at speaking truth directly. Others have a more thoughtful way of communicating truth. I think that’s one reason why I’m enamored of C. S. Lewis’s manner of writing. He will lead you to truth, but do so while helping you see it in a different light. Take this comment, for instance:

The Christian religion . . . does not begin in comfort; it begins in . . . dismay. . . . In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: If you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.

Little Men Who Think They Are Big

I never refer to the American governmental experiment as a democracy; rather, it is a republic. A pure democracy is when whatever 51% want becomes the law, regardless of its wisdom or the rights of the other 49%. A republic, on the other hand, maintains respect for the rule of law and guarantees that certain rights are protected no matter what the majority may want.

The view that the people, as a collective, are always right is fallacious. The voters make huge mistakes all the time. Yet so do kings and totalitarian rulers. What, then, is the solution? Our Founders came up with an arrangement that sought to minimize the sinfulness and foolishness of man. The federal republic they created, while not perfect, since there is no perfect system in this world, nevertheless has the potential to diminish the bad effects of man’s selfish tendencies. At any rate, it seeks to divide the powers of government in such a way that no one man or select group can control everything at once. The goal was to avoid tyranny.

C. S. Lewis, although using the word “democracy” to describe representative government, also understood the basic problem. Here’s how he explains it:

I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy.

On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple, to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.

Always beware of men appearing in the guise of political saviors. They promise to right all wrongs, provide for all needs, and wipe every tear from your eyes. That “god” will always fail. Again, Lewis says it well:

Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.

I fear we have a plethora of little men in positions of authority who believe their own propaganda about how great they are. We the people must share the blame. The old cliché remains true: the government is merely a reflection of the character of those who elected it.

C. S. Lewis & the Joy of Books

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis tells of his childhood fascination with books, a fascination that never went away through a lifetime of reading and writing. See if you can relate to what he says here; I know I can.

I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.

Nothing was forbidden me.  In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.

C. S. Lewis: Evil in Our Day

Lewis, in the preface to his Screwtape Letters, provides a very interesting insight into where we are most likely to find evil in our day.

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even in concentration camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

C. S. Lewis: The Reality of a Belief

When C. S. Lewis’s wife Joy died, he went through a crisis of faith. He wrote a book at the time into which he poured out his questions to God. It was called A Grief Observed. This quote is taken from that book, and is part of what he had to learn through this experience.

You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? . . . Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.

Lewis: The Atheist Dilemma

C. S. Lewis had to make the journey from atheism to Christianity. In his book Mere Christianity, he explains how he came up against the lack of logic in his atheistic position:

[When I was an atheist] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? . . .

Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.