Reagan Religion

Tenured Radical is spending time at the Reagan Library:

I say in all seriousness:  if you are too focused on your own authority as a historian you will learn nothing from the people who love history and are out there practicing it beyond our scrutiny.  For example, I learn a great deal when I ask total strangers why they are visiting the RRPL and how often they come.  Informal research suggests that a great many elderly California Republicans who are hoovering up social security (while voting down the taxes that might allow anyone else to retire)  are frequent repeat visitors to the RRPL.  I suspect one reason is the desserts at the cafe, which are outstanding.  Ronald Reagan loved dessert and so do I; therefore, I often assume that other people come to the RRPL for the dessert too.

But people tell me other things too, which indicate that the worship of Ronald Reagan is approaching a civil religion in this part of the world.  “I just come to be close to him,” one woman said to me in front of the grave.  Another commented, as we looked out over the replica of the South Lawn donated by Merv Griffin, TV talk show host and closet queen, “I find this to be a very spiritual place.” Many non-Californians may visit for spiritual reasons too, as the numerous mobile homes parked outside with plates from other states suggest.

The beauty of the building and grounds itself, which look out over vineyards, mountains, and neatly kept subdivisions, project the grace and reassuring, modest, upper-class folksiness that Reagan himself embodied.  Reagan, we need to remind ourselves, cultivated his image as a cultural bulwark between order and disorder for a great many working and middle class white people who were dismayed and frightened by the determination of gays, women, and people of color for full citizenship.   Because of this, the RRPL successfully evokes nostalgia for those prosperous Cold War years of white privilege and compulsory heterosexuality that the president and his conservative allies began to dismantle for good in the 1980s.

Two things.

First, I think it’s finally time for a real deep study of Ronald Reagan in American popular culture. I haven’t read Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah book yet (it’s sitting in a pile on my desk) but I think Reagan is a cultural icon ripe for just such a gender/culture/political/sacred analysis.

Second thing, every graduate student  should read the whole post because TR reminds us all that we are not in control of history. I think those of us who study religion may be a little more aware of this because we know we are not in “control” of religion, but rather, that people will practice and believe and live in ways that confound our theories and arguments. I think a lot of historians do believe that they are the keepers of historical orthodoxy and that it is there job to smack down those that might not use history correctly. I know I feel this way a lot. But I look at TR’s post and Jill Lepore’s Tea Party book and I realize that people deploy, mutilate, repurpose, and play with history in some amazing ways (in the same ways they do with religion). I think historians should offer strong critiques of “bad history” in the public sphere and should always be ready to interrogate the relationship between historical knowledge and power. However, we should also be aware of the ways people make use of history in creative and quotidian ways.

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