NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–While much is being said of how former President Ronald Reagan was an eternal optimist who believed America’s best days were ahead, several Southern Baptist leaders have noted his outlook was closely linked to his stated faith in God.
James T. Draper Jr., president of LifeWay Christian Resources, was among six religious leaders to meet with Reagan while he was governor of California. During the meeting, D. James Kennedy asked Reagan two pointed questions about his faith.
The first question was, “If you died today, do you have the assurance you would go to heaven?” Reagan answered, “Yes.”
“Kennedy then asked him, ‘If you should stand before God today and He asked you, ‘Why should I let you in my heaven?’ what would you say?'” Draper recounted in a statement to Baptist Press. “At that point, Gov. Reagan stroked his chin and had that faraway look. After a moment he said, ‘Well, I guess it would be because I pray to His Son Jesus Christ every day.’
“He won my heart that day because that was obviously not a question he had thought about or had planned to answer, and his response was very honest and open,” Draper said. “He was one of the most gracious men I have ever met, and always gave you the sense of honesty and integrity that inspires confidence.”
Reagan died June 5 at his home in Bel Air, Calif., after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The 40th president of the United States was 93.
Former SBC President Adrian Rogers, pastor of the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church, recounted that he first met Reagan in 1980 when he was a candidate for president. Rogers and four others visited with Reagan in a hotel room.
“Someone asked him this question at the end of the meeting, ‘Governor, I want to ask you a very personal question. Do you know Jesus Christ? Not do you know about Him, but do you know Him?’
“He said, ‘Oh, yes. He is very real to me. I have trusted Him as my personal Lord and Savior, and I pray every day. But I don’t wear my religion on my sleeves.’
“I felt impressed to pray for him, and I put my arm around him and prayed,” Rogers recounted. “I got a letter from him, and I really appreciated it. … He said, ‘Thank you for remembering me in prayer before our Lord.’”
Rogers was in about a half-dozen meetings with Reagan. Once, in the Oval Office early in his administration, “I told him, ‘Mr. President, Southern Baptists love you and will stand behind you if you will stand for the things that mean so much to them. Stand for the home, for the family, for purity. Those are the things that mean so much to them, and I would hope that you would stand for them.’ And he said he would.”
Rogers described Reagan as “a man of principle. He was not driven by polls or political correctness. In that sense, I think he was comparable to our current president. I think the same mosquito may have bit them both.
“The other major thing I would mention about him was his genteel kindness and his ability to make you feel important and feel at home,” Rogers said. “I do believe he was one of the most affable persons I have met.”
Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, described Reagan as “an extraordinarily gifted and patriotic American and a great president. He had a profound understanding of the difference in right and wrong, justice and injustice, strength and weakness, and civility and incivility. His moral compass kept him on course in leading his beloved country. … His faith sustained him in tough times.”
Chapman recalled the closing words of Reagan’s speech in the wake of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986. Reagan said America would never forget the astronauts as they waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
“In times like these he demonstrated the resolve of a president, the caring nature of a pastor and the love of a father,” Chapman said.
Robert E. Reccord, president of the North American Mission Board, noted that Reagan was teaching Sunday School at his home church in Dixon, Ill., by the age of 15, and the principles laid down then led to his realization that faith in God was essential to America’s survival.
Reccord mentioned Reagan’s 1984 address at an ecumenical prayer breakfast in Dallas in which he said, “America needs God more than God needs America. If we ever forget that we are one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
“I am so thankful for how he courageously corrected those who for so long have misrepresented the principle of separation of church and state,” Reccord said in a statement to Baptist Press. “In 1982 he told the Alabama legislature, ‘To those who cite the First Amendment as a reason for excluding God from more and more of our institutions and everyday life, may I just say: The First Amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values; it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny.’
“That kind of clarity, born in a personal and vital faith, made me thankful Ronald Reagan was my president, but more importantly, a fellow Christ-follower,” Reccord said. “As he now enters the heavenly Shining City, I pray Christ’s comfort for Mrs. Reagan and the family.”
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., was a 16-year-old volunteer in Reagan’s 1976 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination when he stood in a rope line for the chance to shake Reagan’s hand in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“I had been inspired by Reagan’s clear and confident voice, articulating a bold vision for America when others preached disillusionment. He presented a conservative political philosophy that changed a generation — and made a great impact on my life,” Mohler said in a statement to Baptist Press.
“Ronald Reagan transformed the world by refusing to believe that freedom and liberty were too expensive to defend,” Mohler also said. “He transformed the presidency by demonstrating that conviction, rather than political calculation, would drive his policies and decisions…. He believed in the American dream and the American people, and he gave the nation a new confidence in its most cherished ideals.”
Christians should remember that Reagan spoke directly and simply about his personal faith in Christ, Mohler said, noting, “He spoke of his confidence in divine providence and his security in knowing that this life is not the end.”
Reagan also took a courageous stand for the sanctity of human life by telling the nation the truth about abortion and putting the defense of human life on the nation’s agenda, Mohler said.
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, called Reagan the greatest U.S. president since Teddy Roosevelt and ranked Reagan among the five most influential presidents in the history of the nation.
“President Reagan was a gracious friend who demonstrated his own reverence for the Word of God by designating 1983 as the Year of the Bible,” Patterson said.
Reagan chose Patterson’s wife, Dorothy, to serve as chair of the Presidential Bible Committee, which raised money for a special edition of the New King James Version of the Bible.
“President Reagan was a colorful, decisive, humble, principle-driven statesman who was as little affected by Beltway politics as any president we have ever had. We will miss him profoundly,” Patterson said.
Billy Graham expressed his wishes to be present with the Reagan family during their time of mourning but is recuperating in Asheville, N.C., from pelvic surgery.
“Ronald Reagan was one of my closest personal friends for many years,” Graham said in a statement. “Ruth and I spent a number of nights at the White House and had hundreds of hours of conversations with the president and first lady. Mr. Reagan had a religious faith deeper than most people knew.”
Graham said Reagan was a man of tremendous integrity based on his religious belief, and the evangelist had prayer with the ailing former president and his wife during the later years of his life.
“Though her husband was unable to communicate at times, Nancy would say, ‘When you prayed, I think he knew you were here,'” Graham said. “The love between Ronald and Nancy Reagan was an example to the nation.”
Reagan’s casket was transported from a Santa Monica funeral home to his presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., June 7 where it will lie in repose until the evening of June 8. The casket will then be moved to Washington to lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol until a state funeral at the National Cathedral June 11. The body will then be returned to California to be buried at the Reagan Presidential Library.
President Bush has ordered the American flag be lowered to half-staff on all buildings, grounds and naval vessels of the United States for 30 days in honor of Reagan. Bush also declared June 11 a National Day of Mourning and ordered all non-essential government buildings closed on that day.
With reporting by Chris Turner, Tom Strode, Martin King, Lawrence Smith & Brent Thompson. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: RONALD REAGAN and MEETING THE PRESIDENT.