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Isabelle Porter: Ron Reagan — A leading figure of nonbelievers

Ron Reagan poses for a portrait at his home on September 16, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Ron Reagan, the son of former president Ronald Reagan, is an atheist and is involved with the Freedom from Religion Association.

This article first appeared in Le Devoir (from Quebec, Canada) on Sept. 28 and is reprinted with permission. Special thanks to FFRF Board Member Steve Salemson and Joan Wallace for translating the text from French.

In the United States, religion occupies such an important place in society that atheism has now become a real political movement, with its own lobbying effort, demands, and, recently, representatives in Congress. This article features a portrait of Ronald Reagan Jr., son of the former president and a major figure in this growing movement, which is becoming more mainstream among Americans.

By Isabelle Porter

Ronald Reagan Jr. is one of the best-known faces in the atheist movement in the United States. In a TV spot, the son of the former president declares with a sly smile that he is “not afraid of burning in hell.”

“Hello, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusions of religion into our secular government,” he says in the understated ad. How could the son of one of the most conservative presidents in modern American history have ended up here? Partly by chance, he told Le Devoir.

“It started about 40 years ago, when my father was elected president. The New York Times asked me in an interview whether I was going to get into politics, too. You know, I had been asked this question all my life, and I used to answer that it wasn’t for me, that I didn’t like politics . . . But there, I had an even better answer. I told them that I wasn’t interested and that, in any case, I could never be elected because I’m not a believer.”

As he had hoped, this reply put an end to the conversation, but it also caused a scandal. “The response was incredible,” Reagan said. “It made many people angry. I received indignant letters from some friends who wanted to know why I had said that, what I was hoping to achieve . . . It was the first time I realized just how much people really care about what other people believe. I found that interesting.”

Born in 1958, Ron Reagan was the youngest child of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who also had a daughter together. The other two Reagan children are from a previous marriage.

Ron was 22 when his father was elected president, but only 8 when Ronald Reagan Sr. was first elected governor of California. In family photos from that time, the couple often posed only with their young son, as the other children were already grown.

It was at this time that he came to the conclusion that God did not exist. “By 10 years of age, I had already moved away from most Christian beliefs,” he says. “Then, when I was 12, I told my parents that I wouldn’t go to church with them anymore because it would be hypocritical. After all, if they were right about God, he himself would know that I was faking it!”

Where did these early convictions come from? Perhaps from his passion for prehistory. He remembers that his mother was not sure what to say to him when he wanted to know whether Adam and Eve were “cavemen.” Santa Claus didn’t help, either. “When you’re little, your parents tell you that there is a Santa Claus at the North Pole, that he has a big white beard, and that he knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice. That sounds a lot like God, but then you find out that Santa doesn’t exist.”

Ron can’t recall much about his father’s reaction to his rejection of the Church. But one thing is certain: Ronald Reagan Sr. was not the type to meddle in the faith of others. “He was a religious man, but he never made the mistake that many politicians do who use their faith for political gain,” Ron said at his father’s funeral in 2004. “It’s true that after being the target of an attempted assassination, he came to think that God had spared him to do good. But he accepted it as a responsibility, not a mandate.”

Despite being a well-known Democrat, Ron Reagan insists his father would have disapproved of what the Republican Party has become, even before Trump’s accession to power. “My father signed a law legalizing abortion, he raised taxes after having reduced them, and gave amnesty to 3 million immigrants,” he recounted on Bill Maher’s show in 2015. “And when a hole formed in the ozone layer over the South Pole [. . .] he didn’t decide it was a leftist plot to deprive us of cold beer, and he acted!” He concedes, however, that it was also during his father’s time that Republicans began approaching the Evangelical lobby. “The party wanted to woo the Evangelical vote, and it was pretty simple to do: My father was a Christian; he could claim he was on their side. “

Then it got out of hand. “Now we end up with a Donald Trump who is clearly not a believer, but who has sought the vote of the Evangelicals. Why? Because he hates or claims to hate the same people that they do: all those progressives who want to allow homosexuals to marry, have black friends, want to deprive them of their white privilege, threaten their way of life, and so forth,” he said.

Reagan is never at a loss for words and wields sarcasm with relish. He is also occasionally invited on television as a political commentator, especially on MSNBC. He even had his own show, “The Ron Reagan Show,” before Air America Media went bankrupt. He splits his life between Seattle and Italy with his second wife.

Despite his numerous public statements on atheism, he does not consider himself an activist. After his interview in The New York Times, he became “the atheist who had a famous father,” he recounts, amused. “After that, I could allude to it, they would ask me the question again and I would confirm it. Eventually, the Freedom From Religion Foundation heard about it and asked me to make the TV spot.”

That was in 2014, and the ad is still running and continues to generate strong reactions. During one of the televised Democratic debates, commentators even said that it stole the show from the debate itself by sparking a surge of positive comments on Twitter. Conversely, some major national TV networks still censor the message, because of the passage where Reagan says that he is “not afraid of burning in Hell.” 

From FFRF’s perspective, his contribution is invaluable, especially since celebrities who dare to publicly call themselves atheists are very rare in the United States. “Having the son of a very conservative president do a promotion for a controversial group like ours, by presenting himself openly as an atheist, has had a huge educational impact. It’s helped show the nation that people of this sort exist, and that they are normal,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

“This sort of publicity was a huge coup for us,” she added. “He took a short 30-second clip and made it much more effective by force of his personality. He was the one who added the expression, ‘lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in Hell.’”

Whom does he think he is addressing with this message? “I would like this to be heard by atheists who are still ‘in the closet.’ That would probably be the most useful thing, so that people are less afraid of coming out. I’m not trying to convert anyone to atheism or to lead believers away from their faith. That’s something they have to do on their own.”

But beyond that, it’s a way for him to defend science. “What bothers me the most is the negative effect religion has on stem cell research, for example. People can believe whatever they want, but when it gets into the public sphere and affects everyone’s life, then we have a problem.”