Every American high school student knows, or should know, that President Ronald Reagan went to the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on this date in 1987. The president said: “If you seek liberalization, open this gate … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” (Yes, kids, there was a West Berlin then.)
American journalists were enchanted by Mikhail Gorbachev in those days. The young and charismatic Kremlin boss was “the human face of Communism” that they’d been seeking. The leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, this dynamic man spoke of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (re-structuring). His words were all the rage.
But when the Brandenburg Gate did finally open, in 1989, and when the Berlin Wall was re-structured, as in, torn down, the people in the Communist East German puppet state ran only one way. They ran as far and as fast from Gorbachev and his “workers’ paradise” as they could. When Gorby ran for president of Russia in an open election, he won just 12% of the vote.
As important as Reagan’s dramatic call to “tear down this wall” was, we should not forget what else he said that memorable day 25 years ago. His speech contained the most eloquent paean to religious freedom we have heard.
Reagan was not afraid to point to what he called “the most fundamental distinction of all between East and West”:
The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship. The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship an affront. Years ago, before the East Germans began rebuilding their churches, they erected a secular structure: the television tower at Alexander Platz. Virtually ever since, the authorities have been working to correct what they view as the tower’s one major flaw, treating the glass sphere at the top with paints and chemicals of every kind. Yet even today when the sun strikes that sphere — that sphere that towers over all Berlin — the light makes the sign of the cross. There in Berlin, like the city itself, symbols of love, symbols of worship, cannot be suppressed.
Reagan’s speech that day is known — if it is taught at all — as his “Tear Down This Wall Speech.” But it could as well be known as his “Sign of the Cross Speech.” That’s because Reagan was the first president of the United States to invoke the Sign of the Cross in a public address.
Reagan knew how strong those words would echo in the captive nations, especially in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, with their large Catholic populations. That Reagan, an Evangelical Christian, would be so attuned to the religious vocabulary of millions of Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians is itself a tribute to his open mind.
Winston Churchill was certainly no churchgoer. But he, too, recognized evil when he saw it. He knew that Nazi Germany was evil because it sought to murder the Jews. Churchill had the courage to stand up against the Nazis and their Judenhass (Jew hatred.) “Fear God,” he said, “and dread nought.”
President Reagan carried to every summit meeting with Gorbachev a list of Jewish refuseniks unjustly imprisoned in the Evil Empire. He pressed Gorbachev to free those Jews from the Gulag and let them immigrate to Israel.
Today, the Obama administration works with regimes that threaten Jews with extinction and that persecute their Christian minorities. This administration makes little effort to protect religious freedom.
We have seen Coptic churches in Egypt torched and Christian cemeteries in Libya desecrated. Assyrian, Chaldean, and Maronite Christians are huddling in Syria, awaiting Assad’s fall.
We should remember this day. Twenty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan had the courage to overrule his own State Department, his own Pentagon, his own advisers. None of them wanted him to “provoke” the Soviets with blunt talk about good and evil. No one wanted him to threaten what they took to be stability. These advocates of realpolitik, however, were proven to be politically unrealistic.
Ronald Reagan had a strong grasp of history and power. What’s the good of having power if you don’t wield power for good? Like Churchill, he would fear God and dread nought. Under the Sign of the Cross that day a quarter century ago, Ronald Reagan took a bold stand for freedom.
Ken Blackwell is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Bob Morrison is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council.