Reagan, Ronald (1911–)

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Born in Tampico, Illinois, brought up in Dixon, Illinois, a graduate of Eureka College, Illinois, Ronald Reagan came from the American Midwest, while his adult life was largely spent in California, leading to a classic California combination of midwestern seriousness of purpose and California casualness of style. Coming to maturity in 1932, he was first a convinced follower of franklin d. roosevelt, changing his political beliefs in response to his perceptions of communist infiltration in the late 1940s, and formally becoming a Republican only in 1962. A radio announcer as a young man, then an actor (playing in more than fifty motion pictures), then for three years an Army captain, then for five years president of the Screen Actors Guild, he became a spokesman for the General Electric Company, traveling nationally to speak to company employees and civic groups on domestic and patriotic themes. In 1966 he defeated five other candidates to win the Republican nomination for governor of California and was then elected over the incumbent Edmund Brown by a historic margin of nearly one million votes. He was easily reelected in 1970. His two terms as governor of the most populous state in the Union were marked by a dramatic reduction in the number of welfare recipients, a small increase in the number of state employees, and a large increase in the funding of higher education.

In 1976 he fell sixty votes short of defeating President gerald r. ford for the Republican nomination for the presidency. In 1980 he defeated five other candidates to capture the nomination, and he won the presidential election by a landslide of 489 electoral votes. In 1984 he was reelected, this time taking the votes of forty-nine of the fifty states and emerging in a position to put his stamp on the judiciary of the nation.

Three themes characterize President Reagan's approach to the Constitution. They are the necessity of moral virtue if American democracy is to work; the importance of federalism; and the guiding force of American practices approved by the Founding Fathers. These themes run through Reagan's public pronouncements on a variety of specific topics bearing on constitutional law. For example, he has seen the solution to the problem of curbing crime in America as first restoring a sense of moral seriousness to the criminal trial, so that it is not seen as a bureaucratized bargaining process. At the same time, he has criticized courts for taking on tasks for which they are unfitted and so slighting their essential role of determining guilt or innocence; and he has proposed legislation limiting the use of habeas corpus review of state courts by federal judges.

Traditional functions for the courts, less federal supervision, an infusion of moral purpose—these are remedies that Reagan sees as congruent with the Constitution even as interpreted by the Supreme Court. For another example, he has opposed the imposition of racial quotas in education, hiring, or housing, even when the quotas are disguised as affirmative action. Belief in equality under the law does not in his view require reverse discrimination. Nothing in a Constitution he sees as colorblind supports a contrary conclusion. In other areas his views require constitutional amendment.

Religion is the foundation of morality, and morality is inseparable from government—this note in American politics is as old as washington ' s farewell address, which Reagan has frequently invoked. In Reagan's own words, "We poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings," and again, "Without God there is no virtue because there is no prompting of conscience."

From this perspective, the Court-compelled exclusion of religious exercises from the public schools is disastrous and is unwarranted by the Constitution, which, Reagan has repeatedly remarked, says nothing about public education or prayer. In Reagan's words, the first amendment "was not meant to exclude religion from our schools." Reagan has affirmed his belief in a "wall of separation" between church and state. In an American tradition as old as roger williams, he sees the primary function of that wall as protecting religion from governmental intrusion. The Supreme Court, in his view, has been guilty of such intrusion.

Federalism influences this approach. The Supreme Court, interpreting the Constitution, often conceives of itself as though it were a superior, benign, and neutral agency that is not part of the national government. Reagan has cut through this position and identified the Court as the champion of a particular ideology, imposing uniform requirements in disregard of local custom. Justified where there was a national mandate to eliminate racial discrimination, the Court has acted in this way even, he believes, where it has discovered no national mandate. Reagan's criticism of the Court on religion in the public schools not only affirms earlier American traditions; it also reflects attachment to the local autonomy that federalism fosters.

The religion Reagan refers to is biblical religion, described by him as "our Judaeo-Christian heritage." He quotes both Old and New Testaments in his public addresses. The Ten Commandments, he has observed, have not been improved upon by the millions of laws enacted since their promulgation. He issued a proclamation of National Bible Week and rejoiced that twenty-five states followed suit. He sees no constitutional barrier to a believer, as President, acknowledging the God of the Bible, speaking of the moral values he derives from his belief in God, and taking seriously such slogans as "one nation under God" and "in God we trust."

Public testimony to moral values based on religion has been conjoined with insistent rejection of religious intolerance. Reagan has consistently denounced bigotry, but he contends that those who have excluded biblical religion from the schools are themselves "intolerant of religion." They have denied a freedom to exercise religion as old as the practice of prayers in legislatures, the employment of chaplains by the military, and the invocation of God before opening any court. Such American traditions are his guide to the meaning of the Constitution in an area crucial for him in the formation of morality.

Critical of the Supreme Court's individual decisions in a manner sanctioned by the example of thomas jefferson, abraham lincoln, and franklin d. roosevelt, Reagan has not denied the Court's authority. He has favored correction of the prayer decision by the adoption of a constitutional amendment permitting voluntary group prayer in the schools. The government in his view should tolerate and accommodate the religious beliefs, speech, and conduct of the people; it should not direct their religious beliefs, speech, or conduct. For that reason, Reagan's school prayer amendment expressly prohibits any governmental role in composing the words of prayers to be said in the public schools.

The constitutional right to abortion, announced by the Supreme Court in roe v. wade (1973), has been the object of repeated criticism by Reagan. He has taken the extraordinary step, for a sitting President, of publishing a book, Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation (1984), in which he declares that "there is no cause more important than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning." On January 22, 1985, the twelfth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, he addressed the prolife march in Washington as the marchers prepared once again to ask the Supreme Court to change its position, and told them that he was "proud to stand with you in the long march to protect life." No other constitutional decision of the Supreme Court has been so vigorously, persistently, and personally condemned by an American President.

Reagan has consciously used the presidency as "a bully pulpit" to proclaim that there is no proof that the child in the womb is not human; that the child in midterm and later abortion feels pain; and that over 4,000 such children are killed every day in America, 15,000,000 in the first decade since roe v. wade. Such facts alone, he believes, will make most people reconsider and seek reversal of Roe.

How the reversal is accomplished has not been a matter of great concern to Reagan. He endorsed reversal by amendment of the Constitution. He attempted to persuade the Senate to end a filibuster that killed the Helms Bill that would have used Congress's power under section 5 of the fourteenth amendment to define life as including the unborn. Passage of the bill (itself without sanctions) would undoubtedly have led to state legislation on abortion that would have given the Supreme Court the opportunity of looking at abortion in the light of the congressional definition. It has been speculated that Reagan believes the most practical way of effecting the result he desires is by his appointments to the Supreme Court.

In the cases of abortion and of prayer, Reagan has sought amendments reversing Supreme Court decisions that upset traditional balances. In the case of the balanced budget, he has asked for something new, a constitutional restraint that would prevent federal expenditures exceeding federal revenues. The desirability of such an amendment had, however, been voiced as early as 1798 by Thomas Jefferson. In Reagan's view, a balanced budget amendment could be a powerful tool for reducing the federal establishment and restoring economic power to the states. Federalism would be enhanced by its enactment. The traditional role of the states would very likely be increased. Reagan also perceives a moral element: habitual deficit spending by the federal government is an easy evasion of responsibility. In his second Inaugural Address, on January 21, 1985, Reagan called for passage of the Balanced Budget Amendment.

Citizens and Presidents must interpret the Constitution as well as lawyers and judges. President Reagan's approach to the Constitution is not dependent on the reasoning advanced by recent Justices of the Supreme Court to justify or rationalize their decisions. He has employed older and broader criteria. For him the Constitution does not mean the gloss put upon it by opinions of the Court but the original document illumined by tangible traditions and by reflection on its foundation in moral realities. He has evidenced a strong commitment to the essentials that the Constitution presupposes and at the same time preserves.

John T. Noonan, Jr.


Reagan, Ronald 1984 Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation. New York: Thomas Nelson.

Reagan, Ronald 1981–1985 Presidential Papers. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Smith, Hedrick et al. 1980 Reagan the Man, the President. New York: Macmillan.

White, F. Clifton 1980 Why Reagan Won: A Narrative History of the Conservative Movement. Chicago: Regnery Gateway.