I read an incredibly inspiring and powerful letter the other day, especially in light of Father’s Day at our back and Independence Day forthcoming. It is a letter that was unknown to the public prior to its discovery just a few years ago. A real national treasure.
It’s a private letter from Ronald Reagan to his dying father-in-law, and it reveals so much about America’s 40th president’s heart and soul. It also contains what I believe are ingredients to restore America’s exceptionalism and civility across our great land.
In 2018, Karen Tumulty, political columnist for the Washington Post, was writing a biography on Nancy Reagan and doing research for it at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. While doing so, she came across what she described as a “truly extraordinary letter.” (The letter was not part of the presidential records publicly available at the Reagan Library, but in a cardboard box of Nancy Reagan’s personal effects to which the Library gave Tumulty access.)
The letter was dated Aug. 7, 1982, and was handwritten by then-President Reagan on four pages of White House stationary to his father-in-law, Loyal Davis, who was a pioneering neurosurgeon. Davis was also on his death bed at the time.
“Ronnie,” as the president called himself in the letter, had a very heartfelt and caring relationship with his father-in-law. He loved Loyal and wanted the best for him. In Nancy’s estimation, Loyal was the only man who would ever come close to Ronnie.
What distinguished this particular presidential letter was the passion Reagan showed in trying to get his father-in-law to have faith in God and specifically Jesus Christ before he died. Davis was an atheist, or at very least an agnostic.
He once wrote his son-in-law, “I have never been able to subscribe to the divinity of Jesus Christ nor his virgin birth. I don’t believe in his resurrection, or a heaven or hell as places. If we are remembered and discussed with pleasure and happiness after death, this is our heavenly reward.”
Karen Tumulty explained in her excellent Washington Post column, “Reagan, on the other hand, believed everyone would face a day of judgment, and that Davis’ was near. So the most powerful man in the world put everything else aside, took pen in hand and set out on an urgent mission – to rescue one soul.”
As a way to explain the power of faith and presence of God, Reagan reminisced in the letter about a time when he was governor of California and suffered from an excruciating ulcer. Ronnie conveyed to his father-in-law that one day back then he awoke and his stomach pain simply vanished. On that same morning, he opened up two letters from two different prayer groups in California, perfect strangers who knew nothing of what he was suffering, who shared with the governor that that they were praying for him. The ulcer pain not only never returned, but a couple weeks later Reagan went to for his annual medical checkup and the doctor told him there was “no indication he ever had one.”
Ronnie also explained in the letter that his father-in-law’s marital love and fidelity didn’t have to end with this life. Reagan saw relational love as not only a source of happiness in this life, but a reward in the next. (Loyal Davis and Nancy’s mother, Edith, both experienced early divorces. But theirs became a model of marriage for the Reagans.)
“Loyal, you and Edith have known a great love – more than many have been permitted to know. That love will not end with the end of this life,” Reagan wrote. “… all that is required is that you believe and tell God you put yourself in his hands.”
Greatest of all, the president appealed to his father-in-law’s rejection of Jesus Christ. It was “a miracle,” Reagan wrote, that “a young man of 30 yrs. without credentials as a scholar or priest” had “more impact on the world than all the teachers, scientists, emperors, generals and admirals who ever lived, all put together. Either he was who he said he was or he was the greatest faker & charlatan who ever lived. But would a liar & faker suffer the death he did?”
And then Reagan gave the apex of his entreaty by cutting to the crossroads of faith. He wrote, “The apostle John [quoting Jesus] said, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believed in him would not perish but have everlasting life.'”
Mrs. Tumulty, whose very insightful biography on Mrs. Reagan was published just a few months ago (April 2021), “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan,” answered the big question, “Did the letter have any impact? Nancy Reagan, who was with Loyal Davis when he died, and who saved the letter he received from his son-in-law, would later claim that her father did turn to God at the end of his life.”
“Two days before his death on Aug. 19, 1982, Davis sought out a hospital chaplain, and prayed with him, Nancy said. ‘I noticed he was calmer and not as frightened.'”
Perhaps a sign of acceptance is also found on the actual letter: “Near the end were three watery smudges. Spilled coffee? [Or] Someone’s later tears?”
Tumulty concluded, “One thing, however, is certain – something that should not be lost as religious people rationalize their political allegiances today: Faith was not an electoral stratagem for Ronald Reagan; his private words show it was his starting point, and the core of who he was. … [The letter] was an intimate, humble profession of faith. He was ‘Ronnie,’ assuring his father-in-law: ‘We’ve been promised this is only a part of life and that a greater glory awaits us.'”
(You’ll be blessed to read the entire transcript of Reagan’s letter to his dying father-in-law here.)
Such intimate and intense passion reminded me of one more gigantic patriot and his final letter: George Washington and his 1796 Farewell Address as president. He was concerned about the future of the republic. He was concerned about societal welfare and decency. He was concerned that division, factionalism and external invasion would destroy the young nation. He was concerned that the American public would soon forget the absolute pivotal role of the pillar of faith and religion to provide and preserve civility, fidelity and a future hope.
Washington wrote: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Have we as a country not walked the exact road he told us to avoid? Are we not reaping what we’ve sown in the exclusion of God and religion? Washington’s Farewell Address needs to be read, reread and reflected upon in every household and corridor of government across our union. For not until we re-adopt those tenets will we be truly prosperous and successful. It is true for us as individuals and as a nation.
Reagan and Washington both remind us of critical elements America has left behind and needs to rediscover if we are ever to truly make America great again. Politics is not the answer. A new president and more legislation can’t restore civility and decency. All the money in the world can’t buy our happiness. And not even marital love can truly fill the longings of the soul. It is only our faith in God that can do that. And only God who can provide us with a future and a hope. When we have God, we have the gold; that was America’s founders’ real national treasure. We all are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The Creator is the key to obtaining and experiencing the American dream. If we are ever to find a way forward and our way home, in God we still must trust.
That is why, in 1984, Reagan declared for the whole world to hear, “If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
(If you struggle, doubt or want to explore faith and spiritual issues more, I encourage you to download this FREE E-copy of the book, “God Questions: Exploring Life’s Greatest Questions About God,” which tackles tough questions about God and gives evidence to support them. Please click HERE.)
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