Friendly Persuasion: A Lesson from Ronald Reagan

Why have I spent the time to outline these facets of the Reagan approach? Because they are good guidelines not only for foreign policy but for daily life: for our views on how to deal with our fellows in the community, and even for our interactions with those closest to us.

Regarding the first proposition—that liberty is an absolute positive—we are not always willing to practice what we preach. We may give lip service to liberty, but then, at the drop of a hat, demand restrictive ordinances, convinced that in one matter after another, those around us need to be constrained, prohibited, and reined in. It is the most human of urges to want to regulate and control what others do. It takes wisdom and discipline (and, in my view, a certain amount of faith) to stay on the more difficult path of letting our fellow men make their own choices about what Paul called "disputable matters" (Rom. 14).

But it is important to at least consider Ronald Reagan's even more large-minded posture on this point. He proposed not merely to accept the variety that comes with liberty but to welcome and promote it, as an absolute good. Indeed, it is a sad limitation to only tolerate the liberty of others. The better way is to rejoice in the remarkable consequences of other people's intellectual and economic freedom, with an attitude of hope and assurance.

Of course, Reagan did not define liberty as license to harm others or misbehave. He assumed the best about the people in general, and he was pragmatic about crime and vice. What he spent most of his exhortation time on was persuasion regarding disputable matters. As with the leadership of the Soviet Union, he wanted to change people's minds.

The simplicity of that proposition may cause us to miss its importance, but I believe we can learn a great deal from it. If we spent more time speaking straightforwardly to the "problem people" in our lives, and less time trying to make elaborate arrangements that relieve us of that burden, there is no telling how the world might change for the better.

Whether in close relationships or less personal ones, we tend to default to "managing mutual hostility" with difficult others, rather than finding a basis for harmony. Very few of us have the personality of Ronald Reagan, who loved negotiating and persuading others, especially under hostile political circumstances. Most people, like me, don't relish a prospect of that kind.

But we can learn from Reagan's success with the method. It treats people as fellow moral beings, with conscience and a spirit, rather than as grab-bags of predictable rote reactions, to be maneuvered around or exploited. It is the approach Jesus invariably used; his appeal, during his years on earth, was always to the individual mind and heart, and it is still so today. Exhortation, moreover, is one of the gifts of the Spirit (Rom. 12:8): persuasion and inspiration are important forms of interaction among people, and God means them to be used for good.

The untoward developments in the Chen case in China seem to beg for a direct, human, hortatory American posture of the kind that was so important to Reagan, but which we don't seem, as a society, to envision or prize today.

This trend is less about the current U.S. administration, I think, than about Western society as a whole. We have spent the last two centuries perfecting mechanistic or tactical visions for dealing with our fellow men, emphasizing everything except the transcendent importance of each individual human spirit.

But I think we are due for a societal revulsion against this ideological dead-end. We have a unique alternative model offered by our 40th president, and no better place to start applying the principles than in our daily lives.

5/6/2012 4:00:00 AM