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God and Man in the Oval Office

By Amanda Morad | February 11, 2013

Dr. Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, associate professor at Claremont McKenna College, takes the podium at the 2013 Ronald Reagan Symposium.
Photo courtesy of University Marketing

For the eighth consecutive year, Regent University's Ronald Reagan Symposium drew a diverse crowd of nearly 400 to discuss insights drawn from the 40th president's life and leadership on Friday, Feb. 8.

This year's theme, "God and Man in the Oval Office," brought together eight scholars to look at religious rhetoric in the American presidency, with a focus on Reagan's particular boldness in mixing faith and politics.

"Following the example of our founding presidents who held high the Bible, Ronald Reagan understood the intense competition between God and man for leadership of the Oval Office and what that meant for the direction of the nation," said Dr. Charles Dunn, distinguished professor of government in the Robertson School of Government (RSG) and the symposium's founder.

New to the symposium this year was a student essay contest based on the event's theme. The contest was sponsored by RSG dean, Dr. Eric Patterson, who announced winners on the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels.

Symposium speakers included Dr. Kiron Skinner, founding director of the Center for International Relations and Politics at Carnegie-Mellon University and the W. Glenn Campbell Research Fellow at The Hoover Institution, Stanford University; Dr. Paul G. Kengor, professor and executive director of the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College; Dr. Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, associate professor and director of the Washington Program at Claremont McKenna College; Dr. Richard M. Gamble, Anna Margaret Ross Chair of History and Political Science at Hillsdale College; Dr. Thomas S. Kidd, professor at Baylor University and senior fellow in Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion; Dr. Daniel L. Dreisbach, professor at American University; Dr. Martin J. Medhurst, distinguished professor of rhetoric at Baylor University; and Dr. Gary Scott Smith, professor and chair of the history department at Grove City College.

Skinner's presentation, "Grappling with the American Creed: Ronald Reagan and a Twentieth Century Ideological Struggle," kicked off the event. "The key to Ronald Reagan was his commitment to the American creed and his efforts to reconcile the gaps in the American creed," she explained. The creed cites "principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity," and was adopted in 1918. "On these grounds," Skinner suggested, "Reagan saw everything from economics to international relations in moral terms."

Kengor followed with a discussion of Reagan's most incendiary address, the "Evil Empire" speech given in 1983 to the National Association of Evangelicals. "It's not just a probing, incisive look into the Soviet empire, but into Ronald Reagan," Kengor said. The speech touched several hot-button social issues in addition to calling the Soviet Union the "focus of evil in the modern world," but also condemned racism and anti-Semitism.

Spalding's paper, "From World War to Cold War: How Faith and Freedom Shaped America's Role in the World," put Reagan's faith in context to those of Roosevelt and Truman. "His faith was a constant that supported his politics," Spalding said. "Nearly all of his main addresses mention God or the role of God in American life." Like Roosevelt and Truman before him who lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, Reagan found a way to talk about faith in a way that nearly all Americans could agree with and support.

Gamble rounded out the morning with "A Tale of Two Cities on a Hill: Exceptionalism and Biblical Rhetoric from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama." Pulling from John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, Gamble said Reagan and many other "American presidents have used the 'City on a Hill' terminology in order to describe the prosperity and wealth of the United States." Gamble claimed that in recent decades, however, the nation has become more a "tale of two cities": the "City of Man" and the "City of God." The afternoon session pulled back from Reagan's administration to address matters of religious rhetoric throughout the American presidency.

Dreisbach followed up with "The Sacred Sounds of Scripture in Presidential Discourse: How Presidents Have Used the Bible." "The student of religious use should not just be attentive to how religion is used, but why it is used in presidential discourse," Dreisbach said. He cited several reasons presidents engage the Bible in their discourse, including its familiarity and its standards of morality. Dreisbach gave an example by delineating the Gettysburg Address as almost fully derived from the King James Bible.

Echoing these ideas, Medhurst read excerpts from his paper, "Religious Rhetoric and the Presidency: Lessons from George Washington to Barack Obama." He reflected on lessons learned from Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt's speeches as particularly valuable. "Throughout American history, the use of religious rhetoric by our chief executives has risen dramatically during times of war or domestic crisis, only to recede during periods of peace and calm," he noted.

Smith too gave a sweeping overview of presidential rhetoric with his paper, "The Uses and Abuses of Religious Rhetoric from George Washington to Barack Obama." Listing several manipulations of Scripture through presidential speech, Smith also acknowledged its power to inspire. "Several presidents have used Biblical images and metaphors because they resonate with many citizens and have tremendous evocative power."

Kidd began with "Great Pillars of Human Happiness: How Religion Has Framed America's National Experience." He examined Patrick Henry and George Washington's rhetoric in the early days of revolution. "Henry turned to the language of Scripture to explain why the shedding of blood was warranted," he said. "If politicians quoted Scripture this way today, most people would miss the reference, but in the Bible-soaked culture of Virginia, everyone understood."

The Ronald Reagan Symposium is sponsored by RSG, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The latest book published from the symposium, "American Exceptionalism," releases in March.

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