It was the question that preoccupied President Ronald Reagan: Was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a religious believer? Reagan held a series of summits with Gorbachev from 1985 to 1988, and as their meetings proceeded, Reagan sometimes speculated to his aides that Gorbachev's use of phrases such as "God bless" might be an expression of religious faith. Many of the summit sessions involved large groups of U.S. and Soviet officials, discussing issues like arms control and regional conflicts. But in one-on-one talks with Gorbachev outside the presence of other senior officials like Secretary of State George Shultz, Reagan sometimes ventured off in directions of his own. The eternal optimist, Reagan was convinced that Gorbachev was capable of changing the Soviet system, and he thought the key to such a turnaround might be religion. Finally, during their fourth summit meeting in 1988, Reagan launched into a private conversation with Gorbachev, one that he promised the Soviet leader he would deny had ever taken place.
It was during the first one-on-one session in Moscow that Reagan engaged in a bold but questionable endeavor well beyond his mandate as president of the United States. According to the memo of their conversation, which was based on notes taken by two Reagan aides and has now been declassified and made available at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Reagan secretly attempted to persuade Gorbachev of the existence of God.
The meeting opened with pleasantries. Both men agreed that they and their countries had come a long way since their first summit in Geneva three years earlier. Gorbachev then immediately turned to a surprise for which Reagan was not prepared: He read aloud and handed the president a written statement he wanted the two governments to sign during the summit that would commit the United States and the Soviet Union to "peaceful coexistence." Reagan said vaguely that he liked the idea and would talk it over with his advisers; he handed the piece of paper over to one of his note takers, Thomas Simons. Gorbachev's proposal would become the subject of considerable acrimony over the following days.
The two men next revived their running debate about human rights. Reagan handed Gorbachev a list of names of Soviet citizens he believed were victims of repression in one fashion or another. As in the past, Gorbachev countered by arguing that America could be criticized for its own human-rights abuses as well.
Suddenly, Reagan switched the subject to religion. He told Gorbachev that what he was about to say would be considered entirely secret. According to the notetakers, Reagan told Gorbachev that "if word got out that this was even being discussed, the President would deny he had said anything about it." To emphasize this point, Reagan said again a few minutes later that "if there was anyone in the room who said he had given such advice [to Gorbachev about religion], he would say that person was lying, that he had never said it."
In planning for the Moscow summit, Reagan had discussed with his aides the idea of focusing on freedom of religion. He had worked with aides on some talking points to use with the Soviet leader; he had honed these ideas during a stay in Helsinki. Once he was alone with Gorbachev, the president began with a plea on behalf of religious tolerance in the Soviet Union. He praised Gorbachev for easing slightly the rules for the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the notes of the meeting: "The President asked Gorbachev what if he ruled that religious freedom was part of the people's rights, that people of any religion -- whether Islam with its mosque, the Jewish faith, Protestants or the Ukrainian Church -- could go to the church of their choice."