How core are social issues to American conservatism? What Would Ronald Reagan Think?
At the Young America's Foundation's Reagan birthday celebration this week, Sarah Palin was asked to focus on Reagan's famous 1964 speech, "A Time for Choosing."
In 1964, social issues did not exist. Abortion was illegal, and even liberals did not yet embrace sexual liberalism or the disintegration of the nuclear family.
But even in 1964, Reagan's core values (which were America's founding principles) were clear: "If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin -- just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross?" he asked us -- a startling analogy.
He went on: "Winston Churchill said, 'The destiny of man is not measured by material computations. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we're spirits -- not animals.'"
That was the groundwork of Reagan's thought -- the soul of Reagan -- that leads to the stirring conclusion: "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness."
Abortion was not then an issue, but Ronald Reagan's strong stand for life came from this coherent core to his thought. As the family became a public issue, he again reached into that core to defend the idea of man as a spirit capable of rising to the occasion, not a mere consumer but a creator, made in the image of our Creator.
On Dec. 20, 1986, for example, he sent this Christmas message:
"The philosopher-historians Will and Ariel Durant called the family 'the nucleus of civilization.' They understood that all those aspects of civilized life that we most deeply cherish -- freedom, the rule of law, economic prosperity and opportunity -- that all these depend upon the strength and integrity of the family. ... Yet, for all that, in recent decades the American family has come under virtual attack. It has lost authority to government rule writers. It has seen its central role in the education of young people narrowed and distorted. And it's been forced to turn over to big government far too many of its own resources in the form of taxation."
Almost 25 years ago, a mother named Ruth Smith wrote to Reagan to thank him for standing strong for life and family. (I learned about Ruth Smith's letter thanks to Paul Kengor, a political science professor on National Review Online.)
Mrs. Smith told Reagan about her first child, conceived in 1963, when she was 19 and not yet married. The fact that abortion was illegal saved her daughter's life, she said. Mrs. Smith married and had six more children over the years.
I spoke to Mrs. Smith this week. "I just liked Ronald really well. He was put down for his stance for life, and since I had that experience -- I had gotten pregnant and had the child and she such a blessing! -- I wanted to make him feel good," she told me.
Her oldest daughter, Cari Lance, is now the married mother of two boys, and she is a big fan of Reagan too. "I definitely agree life is precious. I really appreciated his answer too," Cari told me. "We have adopted both of our boys and that gives me an even deeper appreciation of those women who chose to give life."
Mrs. Smith also wrote about her decision to not abort a second difficult pregnancy, her seventh child. The result was Sydney, who (also a big Reagan fan) is now a Princeton graduate and a press secretary for a U.S. senator.
I will be at the Conservative Action Political Conference this week as an opinion journalist, covering the speeches of major potential presidential candidates with an eye toward answering this question: What do they think of life and marriage? And how do they explain, in a principled way, why these are core conservative issues?
Will Mrs. Smith's values go to Washington in 2012?
(Maggie Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 15 years.)