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On Ronald Reagan’s Birthday, Let’s Appreciate His Debt — and Ours — to Intelligent Design

Photo: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, 1988 Moscow Summit, by Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989Collection: White House Photographic Collection, 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan’s Presidency fundamentally changed the course of history. Had Jimmy Carter been reelected in 1980, would the Soviet Union have fallen, peacefully, in 1991? Not likely. 

I did not realize, until I read John West’s outstanding essay here last week, the extent to which Reagan’s vision of reality was shaped by his faith. I also didn’t realize the extent to which his faith was shaped by the evidence of intelligent design in our world. Today, it is Reagan’s birthday — he would have been 113 years old. What can you do to observe the occasion?

Historian Paul Johnson wrote of him that his career in the nation’s highest office represented “a turning point both in the fortunes of his own country and in the history of the world — and the two were closely connected.” For that, in large part, you can thank one man’s recognition of intelligent design. So it’s a good time to re-read, or read for the first time, Dr. West on “Ronald Reagan’s Deeply Personal Argument for Intelligent Design.” He begins with a speech Reagan gave at the 1988 National Prayer Breakfast.

He told attendees that he had “long been unable to understand the atheist in this world of so much beauty.” With a touch of mischief in his voice, he added: “I’ve had an unholy desire to invite some atheists to a dinner and then serve the most fabulous gourmet dinner that has ever been concocted, and — after dinner — ask them if they believe there was a cook.” 

The audience responded with extended laughter and applause.

It was Reagan’s riff on the age-old argument for intelligent design, the idea that the order and purposefulness of nature point to a designer. Just as a sculpture implies a sculptor — or, in Reagan’s telling, a gourmet meal implies a master cook — the elegant and functional features of nature imply a creator. 

The basic argument goes back millennia and can be found among ancient GreeksRomansJews, and Christians. But the argument has gained new power in recent years because of contemporary discoveries in physics, cosmology, chemistry, and biology.

The interesting thing is that Reagan’s argument for design wasn’t part of the prepared text for his remarks that morning. Nor was it included in any of the earlier drafts of his speech, including ones he marked up. Former congressman Dana Rohrabacher, the designated writer for the speech, told me that “Reagan himself added it. He was indeed the great communicator.” 

It wasn’t the first time Reagan had offered an argument for intelligent design. 

“Those Intricate, Perfect Ears”

One of his favorite passages from Whittaker Chambers’s autobiographical book Witness offered a similar argument that he liked to cite. In the passage, Chambers dates his break with Communism to the morning he observed his young daughter eating porridge: “My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear — those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature… They could have been created only by immense design’” (“Foreword in the Form of a Letter to My Children,” Witness).

In his own autobiography, Reagan shared his early fascination with how nature points beyond itself. At age five, his family rented a house in Galesburg, Illinois, and the attic contained “a huge collection of birds’ eggs and butterflies enclosed in glass cases.” Reagan recalled how he “escaped for hours at a time into the attic, marveling at the rich colors of the eggs and the intricate and fragile wings of the butterflies.” He said “the experience left me with a reverence for the handiwork of God that never left me” (Reagan, An American Life, Chapter 1).

Of course, Reagan’s is not a full-dress scientific argument. (For that, see Return of the God Hypothesis.) It’s a common-sense one. And yet, like Whittaker Chamber’s observation of his daughter’s ear, it is plainly a recognition of intelligent design as an objective reality. Reagan’s belief in God followed from his observation of design, not the other way around. The distinction is important. The form of reasoning that goes in the opposite direction, faith → design, is a much weaker one.

Read the rest of John West’s essay here. It concludes with a fascinating story of the 1988 Moscow Summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, where Reagan wrung a startling spiritual concession from his Communist counterpart — with an argument for intelligent design. It was Gorbachev three years later who presided over the Communist empire’s dissolution.