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Column: How Ron Reagan, son of a true believer, became an atheist

Ron Reagan
Ron Reagan, the son of President Reagan, who helped inspire the religious right, stars in a 30-second TV spot for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers.
(Freedom From Religion Foundation)

I’ll miss the Democratic presidential debates — especially watching Ron Reagan tell us he’s a “lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

It may be my all-time favorite TV ad, delivered with a slight grin and perfect timing — very Reagan-like — by the son of the 40th U.S. president.

He’s touting the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a 32,000-member organization of nonbelievers that fights for the separation of church and state.

The 30-second spot was squirted into commercial breaks during three of the 11 Democratic debates. The major networks refused to run the ad, but CNN was fine with it — and the more than $200,000 the foundation said it paid for the TV time.

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I didn’t notice the ad until the final debate March 15 between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sanders dropped out of the race last week, leaving Biden as the last man standing with no more Democratic opponents to debate.

In the final exchange, Biden provided the big news by promising to select a woman as his running mate. But Reagan, wearing a dark T-shirt and slight smile, supplied the entertainment with this:

“Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusion of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended….

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“Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

I did a double take and laughed. I covered Ronald Reagan up close for 20 years — as president, as California governor and in five political campaigns. The conservative icon was a true believer.

Reagan’s old church
Congregants rise for a moment of silence during a church service at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, to honor former President Reagan after his death in 2004. He attended the church for many years.
(Associated Press)

How did a son of Republicans Ronald and Nancy Reagan become an “unabashed atheist”? And how did the parents take that?

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As Easter approached, I thought more about this and called Ron Reagan, 61, at his home in Seattle.

My first recollection of Ron was as an 8-year-old called “Skipper.” He seemed a reasonably obedient kid. But later he displayed a consistent independent streak — dropping out of Yale University after one semester, for example, to become a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. After watching a performance, President Reagan wrote in his diary that Ron reminded him of Fred Astaire.

Later, Ron Reagan became a liberal radio talk show host and TV commentator. He never joined a political party but votes Democrat.

“I was 10 years old or so when I concluded that the [Bible] story told to children had little more validity than stories about Santa Claus, another white guy who knows what you’re thinking and can punish you,” Ron Reagan told me.

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“If he’s sufficiently displeased with what you’re doing, he will send you to a dark corner for eternity while your family goes to a nice place. It doesn’t take a budding Einstein to realize there are some problems with this.”

Young Reagan was especially troubled by the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac.

“What kind of thing is that for a little kid to hear?” he asked. “God wants Abraham to prove his faith by slaughtering his son Isaac like a spring lamb? Are you kidding? Kill your child? Abraham went along with this. The proper reply would have been, ‘Go to hell.’”

“I know,” Reagan continued, “the angel intervened so it didn’t really happen. But think of the psychological damage” to a freethinking child.

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Ronald Reagan was governor then, but the family usually spent weekends at their home in Pacific Palisades. On Sunday mornings, a highway patrolman would drive them in a limousine to the Bel Air Presbyterian Church, where the pastor was Donn Moomaw, a former UCLA All-American football lineman and Reagan family friend.

The round-trip drive to church and back took an hour and the service lasted two hours.

“I was 12 when I told my father I wasn’t going anymore,” Reagan recalled. “I said I didn’t want to be hypocritical, disrespectful and fake it. It was a waste of a perfectly good Sunday morning.

“My father was smart enough to know he couldn’t strong-arm me. And he never marshaled a compelling argument. He got Donn Moomaw to come to the house to convince me. But after 10 minutes, we were talking about UCLA football.

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“Mom mostly stayed in the background on this. I don’t think she had any powerful religious feelings herself. She went along with the program.”

Later in life, his dad “occasionally would take a run at it and circle back,” Reagan said. “‘Are you still …?’

“‘Yes.’

“’I just think you’d be happier …’

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“’I’m just happy I don’t need to be a part of it.’”

Ron continued: “Dad was happy in life to believe in what he called ‘the man upstairs.’ He was unapologetic about his beliefs, but not showy about it like some politicians, constantly crowing about how faithful they are. He never wore his faith on his sleeve.”

Reagan blames Christian conservatives for slowing progress on stem cell research and holding back the fight against climate change.

“Stem cell research got me into being vocal,” Ron said. “My mom agreed. My father would have too.”

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation asked Reagan to cut a TV ad and he agreed. That was six years ago. But “networks wouldn’t touch it,” Reagan said. “It rarely ran before the debates. Then it had a great run.”

“Ron’s ad has had a huge impact. It really gets us new members,” said foundation co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor of Madison, Wis. “I never get tired of it. I just smile or laugh.”

The “burning in hell” grabber was Reagan’s spontaneous idea.

“We needed 30 seconds and were running short,” he recalled. “We kept getting 27. I was going slower, slower. It was beginning to sound weird. I said, ‘I’ll just add something at the end.’”

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It was the best line of the debates.


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