On Ronald Reagan’s Catholic Father—and Your Thoughts

Last week I wrote a Father’s Day piece on the complicated case of Ronald Reagan’s father, Jack Reagan. The article was distributed to newspapers and websites around the country, and a bunch of them ran/posted it. I also did a shorter version for Catholic Exchange and EWTN/Ave Maria Radio, with the text and audio both available at Catholic Exchange.

The Reagans from L to R: Father Jack, Brother Neil, Ron, and Mother Nelle.

The article detailed Jack Reagan’s difficult life as a traveling shoe salesman who scraped and scrapped so his family could get by, and did not fare very well. He coped with his financial failures by drinking—a lot of drinking. He constantly moved the family, which was not good for the young Ronald Reagan.

I shared a story that Ronald Reagan himself later painfully recalled. It was a brisk February evening in Dixon, Illinois in 1922. The 11-year-old Reagan was coming home from a basketball game at the YMCA, expecting to arrive at an empty house. Instead, he was traumatized by the sight of his father passed out and sprawled out in the snow on the front porch. “He was drunk,” said Reagan later. “Dead to the world … crucified.”

The smell of whiskey emanated from Jack’s snores, his hair was soaked with melted snow. Young Reagan was paralyzed by the sight, unsure what to do. He wanted to go in the house and just go to bed, but there were neighbors, and it was freezing cold. So, he grabbed his father’s overcoat and heaved him inside and upstairs to the bedroom.

Reagan never forgot the episode. It shook him to the core.

On the other hand, Jack Reagan had many positives that he instilled in his son, which I list in the original article.

But here’s an interesting aspect of the article, which was caught by a Catholic reader who emailed me. And it’s the reason why I’m posting this here at CatholicVote right now:

Jack Reagan was an apathetic Catholic—or at least that has been the historical judgment. As a Reagan biographer, and as the guy who wrote the biography of Reagan’s faith, God and Ronald Reagan, my conclusion is that Jack wanted his son to believe in God. That, of course, was a good thing. And so, he delegated that task to someone who he figured would do the job better than him—namely, his wife, Nelle, a Protestant. Nelle, who was on fire for the Lord, took up the task with vigor and excelled at it. Really, it was Nelle Reagan who made young Reagan a Christian and, more so, in my opinion, made him a president. I dedicated God and Ronald Reagan to Nelle Reagan.

And yet, one emailer, the Catholic I mentioned, was uncomfortable with Jack’s delegation of this task, and let me know why. Wasn’t it Jack’s duty as a father to raise Reagan in his Catholic faith? Should Jack not have been modeling the faith for his boy, and at least taking him to Mass? Did Jack not fail here, too?

Maybe, I told the emailer. On the other hand, give Jack Reagan credit: he knew his limits. He wasn’t good at rearing his son in his Catholic faith, and seemed to lack the will. Moreover, he and his wife had learned to accept their differences on religion. Nelle, on the other hand, was eager to take her boy to church and Sunday school and Wednesday evening Bible study and every single church event and activity. So, why not leave this to Nelle?

My take as a Catholic—actually, as a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism in 2005—is that Jack Reagan did the right thing. In fact, I might go further than that. Was the hand of Providence at work here? Clearly, everything in the end worked out for the best, particularly when Ronald Reagan, this very ecumenical Protestant president, joined with Pope John Paul II in the 1980s to take down godless Soviet communism.

I’m interested in what readers at CatholicVote think about this. Thoughts?



  • Troy Jones

    Jack did fail as a Catholic father with regard to his son’s faith. But, as you said, he may have known his limits. and a greater sin would have been to fail his son’s introduction to a love of the Christ. I’m too a child of an alcoholic father and I’m grateful he deferred to my faithful mother.

  • Pingback: Part 2: On Reagan’s Catholic Father—My Response to Your Responses | CatholicVote.org

  • San Domenico

    I often felt that President and Mrs. Reagan were closet Catholics. Why? Because Mrs. Reagan’s mother lived here in Phoenix and was Catholic. I recall several occasions they would stop in Phoenix to visit her. They often attended Mass with her at St. Thomas the Apostle. This article gives me a little bit more insight into to the President’s other connections with Catholicism.



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