Amid the rumbling drama of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders' antipathy over what he did or didn't say about a female president, Pete Buttigieg's low energy, Joe Biden watching the clock over his allotted time, Amy Klobuchar's laconic wit, and Tom Steyer's devotion to plaid, the CNN/Des Moines Register Democratic debate this week featured a striking scene-stealer in the commercial breaks.
There, a 2015 ad for the Freedom From Religion Foundation aired once again, featuring Ron Reagan, son of former President Ronald Reagan, declaring himself an "unabashed atheist," alarmed "at the intrusions of religion into secular government."
He said he supported the FFRF in its mission to keep "state and church separate, just like the founding fathers intended." He signed off the commercial with the mic drop-worthy "Ron Reagan. Lifelong atheist. Not afraid of burning in hell."
The contrast with Reagan's father could not be starker. As president, Ronald Reagan welcomed the "Moral Majority" evangelical vote. It flourished under his presidency-and President Trump benefits from and courts that same support today. Under President Reagan, church and state became inextricably intertwined and have remained so, with the Trump administration's backing of "religious freedom" and "religious liberty" as battering rams against LGBTQ rights and reproductive choice.
Let's Call 'Religious Freedom' by Its Real Name: Poisonous, Anti-LGBTQ Bigotry
Now Reagan's son-who traces the start of his atheism to his childhood-campaigns to separate church and state, two pillars his father helped meld.
Today Ron Reagan will talk candidly to The Daily Beast about his father and what he sees as the difference between Reagan Sr.'s open-minded private beliefs and that administration's homophobia and inaction over AIDS; his political legacy; their relationship; the rumors about his own sexuality, fighting to separate church and state; and why the now-deceased Reagan would not want Republicans today to vote for Trump in 2020.
Ronald Reagan, his son told The Daily Beast, would have thought Trump "a traitorous president who is betraying his country."
"The Republican party at this point, for a whole host of reasons to do with Donald Trump, is an entirely illegitimate political party just made up of a bunch of sycophantic traitors mouthing Kremlin propaganda to defend this squalid little man who is occupying the White House," Ron Reagan told The Daily Beast, speaking from Italy, where he spends half his year, split with his American home in Seattle, where he has lived for 25 years.
"This is shameful stuff in all sorts of ways," he said. "This is a dying party. They either have to remake themselves entirely or they will disappear eventually. Within a decade the Republican Party will be a minor fringe group if it continues going this way."
What would his father have made of Donald Trump?
Ron Reagan said, "My father would-although he might not use words like this because he was a fairly genteel person-my father would pinch Trump's empty head off and shit down his flabby neck."
Reagan, 61, continued: "My father would have been ashamed of this Republican Party. He would have been embarrassed and ashamed that a president of the United States was as incompetent and traitorous as the man occupying the White House now. He's a disgrace to the office of the presidency.
"It is perhaps the most dangerous time for our republic in my lifetime, perhaps since the Civil War. If there is a second Trump administration, he's going to feel liberated to do whatever he wants to do. He'll try and go for the third, fourth, however long he lasts. He wants to be president for life. It would keep him out of jail, for one thing."
Even for those who are not Reagan supporters, Ron Reagan said, "at least my father held the office with a degree of dignity and class. This man has none of that."
To Republican voters in 2020, Ron "suspects" Ronald Reagan would-if he were alive-address them thus: "Our nation is at a real turning point. Our republic is in danger. Democracy is in danger, and we need to put somebody else in the White House because this man is betraying the country every single day he occupies the Oval Office."
"You can find justification for almost anything in the Bible, and it's ugly, cruel, and stupid"
The FFRF ad has run on CNN, MSNBC, and Comedy Central, but not the major broadcast networks. "CBS said, 'Maybe we'll run it, but you've got to cut the ending,'" he said. Reagan thinks it's more that the major networks believe the ad in its entirety would offend their viewers, "who are mostly religious or Christian. They are afraid of losing or alienating their audience."
"I would remind Mr. Perkins that he is in no position to talk to anybody about anything that remotely touches on ethics and morality since he is the chief of a hate group," said Reagan. (The FRC has been designated as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)
The last words were impromptu and made up on the spot when the ad ran short, said Reagan. "It gave us the extra couple of seconds we needed. For most religionists, that cuts to the core. If you tell them you're not afraid of burning in their hell, they've got nothing on you," he said.
Ron was raised Presbyterian. He laughed. "I don't know if it really counts. I went to Sunday school for a few years. I accompanied my parents to church for a while. But around 10, I realized, 'There's no Santa Claus and no God either. This doesn't make any sense to me, this isn't real.' By the time I was 12, I had announced I would no longer accompany them to church, that I no longer believed in it, and it would be hypocritical and insulting to their religion to go through the motions pretending."
Reagan Sr. was "concerned but knew better than to strong-arm me into going to church. Occasionally he would circle back and take another run at me. I assured him I was perfectly happy without 'the man upstairs,' as my father put it." His father also asked his then-pastor to try to convince Ron to come back to Christianity when he was 16. But within 15 minutes he and the pastor were talking about the UCLA and USC football teams. "I've sort of been a lifelong atheist, more or less," Ron said.
He feels abashed talking to FFRF members, who have struggled to leave their faith behind. "For me, it was just saying, 'Nahhh.' I never looked back."
Reagan finds it "curious" that those who invoke "freedom of religion really mean freedom to be bigots. 'Who can we refuse service to?' It starts with LGBTQ people. What about unmarried couples? What about divorced people? What about black people? You can find justification for almost anything in the Bible, and it's ugly, cruel, and stupid. We're on to them. We'll keep speaking up. Does Tony Perkins have sincere religious beliefs? I couldn't answer this. These people make money off what they do."
"Freedom of religion" sounds gentler than overt and vicious anti-LGBTQ disgust, which might frighten voters and donors. "There has to be this veneer of niceness," he said.
The latest move by Trump to "protect" prayer in public schools has left Reagan incredulous. "Tell me anyone who can prevent anyone praying anytime, anywhere. There is no restriction on individuals praying. What this is intended to do is to force others to watch them while they pray-and so those who aren't praying feel marginalized and then through peer pressure feel they should pray. It's a cheap, cowardly game."
For Reagan, this latest policy shows the authoritarian bearing of religion, seeking to exert control over citizens' lives and bodies, exerting moral judgments all the time. "They're desperate because they're losing control. More people are becoming atheist or agnostic. The demographics are not moving in their direction."
Vice President Mike Pence may be a genuine evangelical emissary, Reagan said, but Trump's embrace of the evangelical community is "entirely transactional. They support him, he'll give them whatever they want. How funny he looks when he closes his eyes to pray, or just looks sullen when he doesn't want to sing hymns. It's entirely cynical. This is about his political future. LGBTQ people should be very concerned. We need to take this administration and what it is doing very seriously."
Church and state became fully interconnected under Reagan Sr.; what did Ron have to say about that at the time to his father?
"We didn't have a lot of conversations about his embrace of the evangelical community. I was aware of what was going on. My father himself-I'm not here to defend the policies of his administration overall-he himself was really not homophobic. My parents had gay friends, some couples. They came to our house. They were good friends. He did not loathe them because they were gay. He was a man of his era, born in 1911, a guy's guy. He would employ a phrase like 'light in his loafers.' We're talking half a century ago. I'm not defending it, but the context is worth noting. He has taken a lot of heat for the administration's foot-dragging response to the AIDS crisis."
It was more than foot-dragging. The Reagan administration did not engage with the crisis at all in its early years. It was a time of rampant homophobia too. Reagan himself didn't use the word AIDS out loud in public for years.
"For the first two years there was no word," Ron Reagan said. "Then, the perception was this was a disease afflicting IV drug users and gay men mostly-not traditional constituencies of the Republican Party."
Does one have to be a "constituency" of a political party for that party, especially if it is in power, to care about you and be actively watchful for your welfare, I wonder.
"My father was surrounded by people of a mind to ignore it," said Ron Reagan. "As president of the United States you rely on people to funnel information to you. And he would not have been someone on his own to read up on the disease."
None of this excuses Reagan's non-engagement with the AIDS epidemic, of course. Ron Reagan said he did his best to get his father to take notice.
"I spoke to him about it, my mother did. When Rock Hudson died of AIDS [in 1985], it suddenly woke him up," said Ron. "He knew Rock was gay, of course. It didn't diminish his affection for him. He and his administration were slow to get on board. I won't defend that, but it wasn't as if he came into office with a fully blown AIDS crisis on hand. At that point, nobody knew what it was."
Sure, this reporter said, but then people and scientists did know. The epidemic grew, and still his father and his administration did nothing. Many LGBTQ people of that era remember him and his administration as homophobic and profoundly negligent.
Ron must have seen its effects, being a ballet dancer at the time and seeing the impact of the disease among friends and colleagues. What did Ron say to his father?
"I told him, 'This is real, this is serious. It doesn't matter who it affects, or whether you're gay or not. You need to get ahead of this. You need to do something.'"
But his father didn't. Why?
"Politics," said Ron starkly. "The same reason Trump caters to evangelicals now. It's just politics. What can I say? That's what it was. I took some heat myself. [The famed activist and playwright] Larry Kramer began publicly excoriating me, claiming that I was gay and as a gay man I had a responsibility to be more active, pushing my father to do something about this.
"I wrote Larry a letter explaining that I didn't care what anybody thought my sexuality was but I would not have him insulting my wife that way. In a sense he was calling my wife a liar. I said she was the finest person I knew and that I would not tolerate his insults of her."
Ron said he understood why Kramer was so angry. He had lost friends to AIDS, "but he was accusing me of not doing anything when I was pressing my father. I didn't give a rat's ass what people thought. I was amused people thought I was gay because I was a ballet dancer. Actually, it's kind of homophobic to assume that a male dancer has to be gay."
Is Ron gay? this reporter asked. Has he had sexual experiences with men?
"No, I'm not gay, and no, I've never had sex with a man," Ron replied. "I was married to a woman [Doria Palmieri] for 35 years until she died [in 2014], and now I'm fortunate enough to be married to another woman who happens to be one of her dearest friends [Federica Basagni, whom Ron married in 2018]. I have never been insecure about my sexuality. When people would bring it up, I'd play with them. I would refuse to give them a straight answer. To me it was an irrelevant question. I enjoyed watching them squirm."
But he still saw church and state entwine themselves under his father's watch.
"It did not feel good," said Ron. "I also didn't feel particularly good about the administration's stance towards the environment either. We disagreed about a lot of stuff. I was up front in telling my father what I thought, and he was good enough to listen to me. We remained friends, but he knew how I felt about all sorts of things. I pushed him as often and as hard as I could. But he was his own man. I couldn't control him."
So the homophobia and AIDS prejudice we associate with the Reagan administration was all for votes?
"No," said Ron. "It was more ignorance. In his first term he focused on the economy and lowering taxes. Then in his second term he was focused on getting rid of nuclear weapons and reaching an agreement with Gorbachev. That occupied most of his brain space."
If privately he didn't like the hate rhetoric against gay people and the prejudice toward people with AIDS, why didn't Ronald Reagan speak out against it in public?
"That's a very good question," said Ron. "I never put it to him that way. I never heard any of that rhetoric in private, any more than I heard anything anti-abortion in tone from him. Personally he found abortion uncomfortable, but he would have been very reluctant to say women shouldn't have them." Ron laughed. "He had a wife who was not anti-choice, and her mother, who was a pistol, would have torn him a new one if he'd come out with something like that."
Growing up, Ron recalled two "aunts," not aunts but a lesbian couple, who were close with the family. "There was not hate taught in our household."
"To single out my father as a bête noire, an avatar of homophobia, is really stretching it a bit"
The insoluble truth remains: Reagan's was an administration with a strong anti-gay animus. If Reagan really was pro-gay and pro-compassion and decent treatment for people with HIV in private, why didn't he express any of this publicly?
"I don't know," said Ron. "It was not front and center for him, until Rock Hudson's death. I appreciate you asking about my father's administration, but that was more than 30 years ago."
Did his father ever call out Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, or Jesse Helms, or any of the other violent homophobes of that era, whose supporters backed Reagan Sr.?
"I have no idea, probably not," said Ron. "I don't know if he paid any attention to what Jesse Helms said one way or another, to be honest."
Ron added that his father's public silence was not in isolation; that he could not recall President Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale, his father's 1984 presidential election rival (and Carter's vice president from 1977 to 1981), speaking up for gay people. "Think of those times. To single out my father as a bête noire, an avatar of homophobia, is really stretching it a bit," insisted Ron.
In fact, according to a Washington Post article by Rick Valelly, a professor of political science, Carter was the first president to have campaigned for gay rights. After being criticized for not being vocally supportive in the late 1970s, Mondale addressed gay rights supporters in 1982, calling out Reagan Sr.'s homophobia. In the 1984 campaign, the Democratic Party actively reached out to gay and lesbian voters, and Jesse Jackson named gays and lesbian Americans in his famed "rainbow coalition" speech at the party's convention that year (a convention first).
The roots of what flourished under President Reagan-who died, age 93, in 2004-is what Ron Reagan's FFRF commercial is all about countering, this reporter said. It was surely relevant to interrogate what the Reagan administration oversaw in its courting of the "moral majority"; LGBTQ people continue to live under its after-effects today, as successive Republican administrations have relied on the loyalty of that voting bloc.
If Reagan Jr. is keen to separate church and state, he will be dismantling one of his father's most significant political legacies.
"We are now in the present," insisted Ron. "You're not going to get anywhere by attacking Ronald Reagan. He's dead and gone. His administration is long gone. We have to focus on the present. What happens now? Who is responsible now going forward? What we have to focus on is getting this asshole out of the White House and his homophobic friends, and speaking forthrightly of the vitriol and venom embedded in this evangelism right now, today."
But Ronald Reagan's legacy is present and potent. The Republican Party has been reliant on those evangelical votes since his father's era. If the Republican Party wanted to, could it sever that alliance?
"Not in its current form," said Ron Reagan, pointing out that the "Southern strategy" had really been popularized under Richard Nixon, after Lyndon B. Johnson noted that the Democrats had "lost the South for a generation" by piloting the Civil Rights Act to fruition in 1964.
"This didn't just start when my father came to office," said Ron. "That was then. Now is now. We've got to fight hard against these sorts of people. They're dying out. This will go away. It does not mean it still doesn't pose a danger, and it needs to be confronted."
What President Reagan oversaw-the twinning of Republican and evangelical power-is still in place.
"It's in place right now, and thriving," said Ron passionately, "and Trump right now is taking advantage of that and that is danger right now. We shouldn't go back and re-litigate history 40 years ago. This is the problem right now. With this president. That's what we should focus on, not what happened with my dad."
To extricate church and state, Ron Reagan said, we should "observe" the Constitution, which warns against the combining of church and state. Laws "should be based on science, facts, reason, and common decency. We don't need religion to make laws. If you don't want an abortion, don't have one. Don't presume to tell others what they should do with their lives.
"I would say to people, 'Don't be afraid to speak up.' Be willing to say you're not afraid of burning in hell. Don't kowtow to these people. When the Tony Perkinses of this world raise their pointy little heads, be ready to slap them down. Point out they are the heads of hate groups, that they're bigots, that they're intolerant and ugly."
Why, asked Ron Reagan, should churches not pay taxes? Why did the session of Congress open with almost exclusively Christian prayers? Why is there a National Day of Prayer? "People can pray anytime, anywhere they want. It doesn't need to be publicly funded. What they are looking for is special rights to be bigoted and to hate, to separate one group from another."
Reagan said he wanted to make clear that he knew that not all Christians voted for Trump, not all were bigots, and many were disgusted by the president. "I have no problem with people having their own faith, I just don't want it in the public sphere."
Unlike his father, his mother Nancy Reagan, Ron said, "was never much of a believer." She went to church with her husband, and toward the end of her life asked her son whether he thought she would be reunited with her husband again after she died.
"I said to her, 'You know that I don't believe in the afterlife in the sense of the supernatural. But I guarantee you, whatever happened to him, wherever he went, you're going there too.' That seemed to satisfy her." (She died, age 94, in 2016.)
As for Ron himself, he is "comfortable" that nobody knows what happens after we die. He laughed softly. "I suppose I will quote the great philosopher Keanu Reeves, who told Stephen Colbert when he was asked the same question: 'I know the ones who love us will miss us.'"
It's less violent and vivid than a vision of burning in hell, but still quite the mic drop.
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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