In 1980, former movie and television personality and California governor Ronald Wilson Reagan defeated incumbent Democrat James Earl "Jimmy" Carter in the U.S. presidential election, becoming the second Catholic, after John F. Kennedy, to win the White House..
Catholic ReaganReagan was the product of a mixed household in which his father Jack Reagan was a mostly nonobservant Catholic and his mother Nelle a fervent Protestant evangelical of the Disciples of Christ denomination. According to Reagan, his father left to his mother his religious upbringing and that of his elder brother Neil. Nelle Reagan chose to honor both of the family's religious faiths by raising Neil as a Protestant and Ronald as a Catholic. As President Reagan would say in is autobiography, Where's The Rest of Me?, it could easily have gone the other way around; Mrs. Reagan's choice for her son Neil was as much a matter of chance as of any conscious desire to have the elder of her two sons join her own church.
A new story by Eric LippsMr. Reagan's religion would be counted by political analysts as a factor in his loss to President Gerald R. Ford in the 1976 GOP primaries. By 1980, however, increasing ties between such right-wing evangelical leaders as the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Roman Catholic Church on social issues, particularly abortion, would more than overcome anti-Catholic prejudice. Mr. Reagan would be further aided by the fury of Protestant fundamentalists at President Carter, whom many of them had supported in '76 on the strength of his own evangelicalism only to find that in office he pursed policies they found offensive, such as his failure to wholeheartedly support Israel and his alleged "weakness" in dealing with the Soviet Union and, after the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Islamic militants on Nov. 4, 1979, the government of Iran.
Many liberals feared that as president Reagan would force through legislation enforcing Catholic positions on abortion and other issues. Reagan easily deflected such warnings by pointing to, and quoting from, President Kennedy's assurances to Protestants in 1960 that he would not let his church dictate his actions in office. On Election Day, Reagan carried 49 states, defeating Carter 55 percent to 45 in the popular vote.
In office, Reagan would at times seem to bear out his critics' warnings, forging a political alliance with the equally conservative Pope John Paul II, a native of Communist-ruled Poland, and refusing to act decisively against a wave of bombings and shootings targeting abortion providers or to commit significant federal resources to research against the new disease known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, until the ailment had spread well beyond its initial loci among homosexuals and intravenous-drug abusers. Eventually he found himself at odds on the latter issue with his own surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, whom Reagan had appointed precisely because of Dr. Koop's deeply conservative religious background. His early bellicose rhetoric toward the Soviet Union likewise echoed that of the Vatican. But by 1984 President Reagan would have changed his mind about AIDS, authorizing billions of dollars in NIH research funding to combat it, and in his second term, following the rise to power in Moscow of the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, he would moderate his stand on U.S.-Soviet relations as well. By the time he left office in January 1989, he had largely assuaged the fears of those who had seen him as serving Rome, though at the cost of angering some former supporters who had hoped he would stick to the hard-line positions he and the Holy See had seemed to have in common.