In noting today's 100th birthday of President Ronald Reagan, we marvel at the capacity he possessed to articulate clearly, directly and persuasively a powerful defense for the principles and institutions of liberty.
One of his most comprehensive accounts of freedom came in a speech at Moscow State University in 1988. Reagan couldn't contain his enthusiasm for liberty.
"Because (Americans) know that liberty, just as life itself, is not earned but a gift from God," he said, "they seek to share that gift with the world."
In taking his case for the free society directly to the Soviet Union in its waning days, Reagan was able to crystallize and sharpen his message of freedom's promise.
Reagan extolled the important democratic institutions of free societies. But he cautioned the reforming Soviets that democracy was a means, not an end in itself.
"Freedom doesn't begin or end with elections," said Reagan. "Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive; a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith."
In Reagan's philosophy, liberties like the freedom of religion, the freedom of thought, the freedom of expression, the freedom to peaceably assemble and the freedom to order one's own economic affairs were the fundamental principles to preserve and expand.
In the speech he presented a theory of society in which a multitude of voluntary institutions present themselves as better suited than government itself to address fundamental human needs for belief, belonging, nurture, growth and material progress.
Given the preeminence of family and faith in the vibrant free society envisioned by Reagan, he would undoubtedly be concerned by the efforts of government institutions within our own country today to override rights of conscience, to stifle expression of religious belief and to threaten the free exercise of religion.
These efforts seem to be intensifying. And it is somewhat ironic that it was a judicial opinion by one of Reagan's Supreme Court nominees, Antonin Scalia, that dismantled the primacy of religious liberty in our constitutional law.
In the case of Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court said that democracy trumped religious freedom, holding that if a law were neutral and generally applied, it could override religious practice.
Prior to this case, in order for the government to intrude on the free exercise of religion, the government had to prove that there was a compelling government interest in something like health or safety that couldn't be achieved in any other way. Otherwise, government had to accommodate religious practice because freedom of religion was a fundamental right. Or, in Reagan's parlance, government was secondary to one of our true sources of value, namely faith. Scalia's decision shifted the burdens in favor of government.47 comments on this story
This last week, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke at Chapman University. As both a prominent religious leader and jurist, he provided ample evidence of how religious freedom has come under systematic attack, both legally and culturally, in the wake of the Smith decision.
That religious leaders recognize and work together to redress this concern is vital for the preservation of our freedoms. But it will be equally important for the preservation of cherished freedoms that our citizenry, our elected officials and our judges possess the kind of cogent approach to freedom, democracy and civil society so humbly understood and sincerely expressed by Ronald Reagan.
"Freedom," said Reagan, "is the recognition that no single person, no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put there for a reason and has something to offer."
Twenty-two years after leaving office, and 100 years after his birth, Reagan's thoughts on freedom continue to influence us. That is as good a reason as any to have hope that the challenges to fundamental freedoms can be overcome.